It is odd that a party with absolute majority in the Lok Sabha should be as much preoccupied with an adversary who was seen to be down in the dumps only four years ago as the BJP is with the Congress. Yet, on almost all of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s public outings, his sole target is the Congress, even when it does not seem to pose a major challenge to the ruling party at the Centre at present.
For one thing, its leader, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, still clearly has a long way to go before he can be seen as someone who is capable of taking on Modi in a “presidential” contest. For another, the Congress’s organisational prowess is nowhere near that of the BJP, or of the RSS, which motivates its ideological disciple’s cadres.
It is because of these deficiencies that the Congress has abandoned its earlier “go it alone” policy and has been keen on constituting an alliance of Opposition parties at the national level to fight the BJP in 2019. The reason is that it knows, as does the other non-BJP parties, that none of them can successfully confront the BJP on its own.
Even if the Congress has lately shown sparks of life that were missing in the immediate aftermath of the last General Elections through its recent electoral victories in several by-elections in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and by forming governments in Punjab and Karnataka, these cannot be perceived as marking a genuine revival on a wider scale. All that can be said is that the Congress is recovering, albeit slowly, from a serious bout of political ailment caused by policy paralysis and involvement in sleaze, but is still far from being fighting fit.
As a result, it is virtually non-existent in several Hindi heartland states and in West Bengal and Tamil Nadu and has lost ground in the North-East. As far as the BJP is concerned, therefore, the Congress’s weakness is palpable, with few signs of it becoming a force to reckon with.
However, such debility has not prevented Modi from pounding it at every conceivable opportunity to lambast it for its record of corruption and dynasticism. In addition, his party has been claiming that “nothing” was achieved during the decades when the Congress was in power, counting those decades as a part of the 1,200 years of “slavery” under the Muslim and British rule.
One might have thought that such criticism was intended to undercut any possibility of the Congress regaining its lost support base. However, it can also be interpreted as a backhanded compliment by Modi to an opponent that he does not seem to think is fading away despite all its real and imagined faults. Instead, Modi’s continuous focus on the Congress is a tacit recognition of its potential and the possibility of the party bouncing back in the not-too-distant future.
Arguably, such a turnaround may have gained greater traction in view of Modi’s failure to live up to the expectations which he aroused in 2014. The elusive nature of the promised “acchhey din” is one reason why the PM is going hammer and tongs at the Congress.
Since it is widely believed that the BJP’s prospects are not all that favourable in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, which will go to the polls this winter, the chances of Modi targeting the Congress even more vehemently in tandem with BJP president Amit Shah have become greater.
What this means is that, despite the Congress’s marginalisation in several regions, it remains the alternative pole of Indian politics vis-à-vis the BJP. There is no other party that can take this position since they are all essentially state-level outfits, with virtually no influence at the all-India level.
Instead, their clout is confined to specific states such as the BSP’s and SP’s in UP; RJD’s in Bihar; Trinamool Congress’s in West Bengal; DMK’s in Tamil Nadu; NCP’s in Maharashtra; and so on.
Although the Congress’s influence, too, is limited to a few states Punjab, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh the party’s worldview has a pan-Indian appeal since it represents the principles of pluralism and modernism, which are associated with Jawaharlal Nehru.
In a way, Modi’s tirades against the Congress are directed against these ideals rather than the party, for it is the latter’s vision of a liberal, forward-looking India guided by a scientific temper which runs counter to the BJP’s narrow outlook based on the mindset of conservative Hindus who regard minorities as aliens.
The diatribes of the Hindu Right, which are expressed by the saffron trolls, represent one side of a battle of two contrary ideas which is dominating Indian society and politics today. At one end are Modi and the Sangh Parivar with their belief in Hindu nationalism and, at the other, are the Congress, which is rooted in secularism and a composite culture, and its allies notwithstanding their caste-based and region-specific loyalties.
(The author is a senior journalist)