Excerpt: The Rafale controversy brings a good news for PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah; Rahul Gandhi has a task cut out.
Bad news is just good news in disguise For long, Congress president Rahul Gandhi had been trying to build up a narrative to corner Bharatiya Janata Party ahead of the 2019 elections and deal a direct blow to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s image of an ‘imaandaar’ (honest) leader. Not that there were no issues where the Modi government was on the backfoot. Just that Gandhi couldn’t fully capitalise on them.
Sample these. There were the protests against the Supreme Court’s alleged subversion of the SC/ST Act and the government not doing anything about it but Rahul chose to attack the RSS more than PM Modi. Then there was the NPA crisis, even Vijay Mallya and Nirav Modi fled the country, but BJP was able to counter it with claims that it all started in the UPA era. Even charges against the government over demonetisation and the GST almost fell flat with Modi being able to convince stoic voters about his positive intent in both the cases.
With the issue of Rafale though, Gandhi has touched upon an issue which has the potential to damage two of BJP’s top planks on which it intends to contest upcoming Lok Sabha elections – the Prime Minister’s image of being a ‘kaamdaar and imaandaar’ neta (hard-working, non-corrupt leader) and his ultra-nationalistic stand placing national security paramount and overtones of support to the armed forces.
After struggling to build up a perception initially, Gandhi has lately managed to deliver jitters to the South Block after former France PM Francois Hollande’s interview with Mediapart. The government, on its part has countered all allegations, and consistently so, saying there has been no wrongdoing on its part. It has also cited the response of the ruling French government, maintaining that there is no strength in the Opposition’s allegations.
Nevertheless, the Congress party is crediting Rahul Gandhi for his singular efforts to bring the Rafale deal into national spotlight, and successfully doing so. Yet, the entire row has brought some cheer for PM Narendra Modi and Amit Shah with respect to their preparations for 2019 battle, though inadvertently. For, the curious silence of Opposition parties on the Rafale row should discomfort the Congress.
Almost all the dominant regional parties and their leaders – Mamata Banerjee (TMC), Akhilesh Yadav (SP), Chandrababu Naidu (TDP), Omar Abdullah (National Conference), Naveen Patnaik (BJD) and Mayawati (BSP) – have either maintained complete silence on the Congress’ barrage of allegations or remained very cautious to make sure they are not seen as rallying behind Rahul Gandhi.
Take NCP’s Sharad Pawar as an example. Just days after he said that he was willing to pilot an effort to bring together all political parties opposed to the BJP under one roof ahead of the crucial state and Lok Sabha elections, he dealt a major embarrassment to the idea of a Grand Alliance. In an interview to CNN News18, Pawar said that the nation does not doubt the PM’s intentions in the Rafale matter, effectively backing the BJP’s stand all along on the issue. “It’s not a question of credibility of Congress, but what is important is credibility of persons involved in the decision-making process. What do people feel? They don’t doubt Modi’s intentions,” Pawar had said to surprise many.
Even Tejashwi Yadav who has openly asserted that Congress will have a bigger role to play in case a grand alliance takes place has remained silent on the issue. Mamata Banerjee, one of Modi’s fiercest and most powerful critics, has refrained from opennly backing Rahul’s charges. So, while none of the opposition leaders have said that Rahul Gandhi’s allegations are wrong, they haven’t really jumped to back him whole-heartedly either.
While the inferences out of this situation can be numerous, these leaders seem to have taken a lesson from the history books, 1989 elections in particular. A dominant Rajiv Gandhi-led Congress was up against an anchorless Opposition. VP Singh, the sitting defence minister, had revolted against Rajiv on the issue of howitzer guns and was able to build a public perception that there was something wrong in the deal.
He also effectively brought together the entire Opposition post elections and while there was no consensus over who will be the prime minister, in what is remembered as one of the top thrillers of Indian politics, Singh was nominated by Devi Lal to the post.
Cut to the present and Rahul may just be trying to do that. With no public acceptance of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership by any opposition party — they have limited themselves to say that the election results will determine the Prime Minister — the Congress may just be be able to claim the prime ministerial post, if the BJP were to lose elections on the issue of Rafale today.
A victory for the Opposition on Rafale row could establish Gandhi as the prime opposition leader – virtually shattering the ambitions of a host of leaders probably eyeing the prime minister’s post. However, the silence of many in the Opposition may send out a signal of a lack of trust among Opposition parties. This, perhaps, is the greatest advantage Modi and Shah will have before the 2019 elections.