Last September, Rahul Gandhi addressed Indians in New York. Before he took the stage, Sam Pitroda, a longstanding Gandhi family adviser-friend-loyalist said, “We don’t need advice for Rahul Gandhi.”
There you go. The incoming Congress president doesn’t need advice. After all, he seems to be having a comeback moment. His recent tweets have trended and, unlike the past, not for the wrong reasons. Rahul has also managed some traction in Gujarat. While most believe a Congress win is unlikely, one major opinion poll predicted a neck-and-neck race. Fine, no advice wanted or needed here I guess.
But what about the BJP? Do they care about advice? Or they don’t need it either, as they have Narendra Modi, the vote magnet? Can they entertain the thought that they might be doing some things wrong?
I hope they do. Because while a major BJP defeat may be a while away, seeds of a political upset are being sown right now. The BJP has not been immune to hubris that often comes with power. Rahul’s perceived limited competence has added to this complacency. Who else would Indians vote for anyway?
However, some shifts are visible. Pappu jokes have reduced. The media is not as dismissive of Rahul either. What’s happening?
In UPA-II, the defining image of Sonia Gandhi and Suresh Kalmadi laughing hard at a private joke in the AICC convention, during the height of the CWG scam, sealed the fate of the Congress. It signalled that not only was the party mired in corruption, it just didn’t care. We all know what happened then.
For the BJP, the vice is not corruption, at least not at levels to get Indians agitated. The BJP’s vices are what they have always been — its love for fundamentalism and using authoritarianism against those who oppose this. For no matter how many Obamas its leaders meet or global investor conferences they host, the BJP can’t help but expose its two ugly traits. Despite quoting Moody’s and World Bank, the party’s support for regressive Hindu voices is unsettling for neo-BJP voters who came on board the Modi-BJP bandwagon in 2014 for the sake of development. While BJP’s support of fringe voices is not overt, the tacit silence on some recent events is unsettling. This, along with the tendency to browbeat opposing voices, creates unease in a number of Indians. While it may take a while for this unease to convert to a vote switch, the seeds seem to have been sown.
Here are two specific examples of government action (or lack of action) that have created an atmosphere of unease that can eventually hurt the BJP.
One, Padmavati. While it is just a song-and-dance movie, how the government handles this situation will determine how the Modi regime is judged. Legally, the filmmakers have done no wrong. Historically, there is no evidence of a clear, existing narrative on Padmavati, who might even be fictional. Which brings us to the only factor stalling the film: the sentiments of a section of the hardliner vote bank. Even those are questionable, because the film has not released yet. Sure, some might find the song-and-dance treatment of a story about a culturally respected character offensive. You have the right to condemn the film, but to prevent its release and threaten the filmmakers is plain wrong. It amounts to muzzling freedom. If the BJP supports a ban to pander to hardliners, it will not only be a black mark on Modi’s legacy but also add to voter unease.
The second example is the handling of a relatively weak story against Jay Shah gaining business advantage after the 2014 elections. Top BJP leaders defended Jay Shah. Gag orders were obtained against writing on the issue, whereas the actual defence against the story was quite simple. Amit Shah had a fair amount of power even before 2014 when the BJP ruled Gujarat. Could he not have helped his son’s commodities trading business benefit then? This easy rebuttal would have been sufficient.
We are already at a stage where major media houses have started applying self-censorship, particularly in reporting criticism at the top levels. Judicial overreach is at an all-time high as well. From forcing movie theatres to play and audiences to stand for the national anthem, to preventing media from reporting on an important case, it is all happening around us. The government isn’t directly responsible for all of this. However, people link this rising authoritarianism to the BJP. If Rahul is seen as more consensus-driven, less feared and more accommodating, he may attract not only media support but a section of voters too. These fencesitter voters, as 2014 showed us, are crucial.
While Rahul is not an immediate threat, the BJP might do well to introspect. It isn’t always the strong opponent who scores and defeats you. Sometimes, self-goals can make people lose a match too.