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Will Cong take Modi bait?

Will Cong take Modi bait?
Highlights

Democracy is a conflict of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. This truism was brutally laid bare as India celebrated its 67th...

The Modi persona is woven around dictatorial abrasiveness bordering on arrogance. He refuses to be interviewed, declines all talk of his role in 2002 and rebuffs suggestions for an apology, yet is extremely active on social media

Poonam Kaushish

Democracy is a conflict of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. This truism was brutally laid bare as India celebrated its 67th Independence Day Wednesday last. Instead of being a moment when lofty speeches loaded with promises are made and the country reverberates to soul-stirring desh bhakti, this 15th August was different. A clash of personalities camouflaged in a battle of speeches; Devil taking the hindmost!

The annual flag-hoisting turned into an audacious bare-all slugfest between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. Positioning himself as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate without waiting for a formal announcement, Modi stepped up his blistering attack on Manmohan Singh by drilling 49 holes in his “uninspiring” Independence Day speech, his 10th, as the UPA completes its second term.

Modi not only taunted the Prime Minister for “uninspiring leadership” and trumped him on national security, economy, inflation, jobs for youth, weak response to Pakistan’s provocations, corruption, communal harmony, etc, but also challenged him to an American-style, face-to-face, debate on good governance and development in his speech at a college in arid Kutch. “I want to ask you: Who is responsible for the way the rupee is getting devalued, it is heading towards a crisis.”

‘Lal Qila is not a place to challenge Pakistan but a place from where the morale of the Indian army can be raised. Pehle maama-bhaanje ke serial aate they, aab saas, bahu aur damaad ke serials bhi aane lage hain…Mr. PM you remembered only one family. Wouldn't it have been befitting to remember freedom fighters like Sardar Patel or Lal Bahadur Shastri? PM says he has miles to go. Which rocket does he intend to take to cover these miles?” thundered Modi. Ending cryptically, “The nation is restless for change”.

No politician before Modi had ever chosen such an occasion to launch a direct attack on any Prime Minister, preferring to leave the audience to read between lines, as did Manmohan Singh from the Red Fort. “There is no place for narrow and sectarian ideologies in a modern, progressive and secular country. Such ideologies divide our society and weaken democracy. We should prevent them from growing”, he said.

He then went on to list his achievements, NREGA, Food Security, foreign policy but his monologue did not project a sense of achievement but sounded like a busted record of broken promises and rueful platitudes shadowed by the troubled awareness of things going apart, trying to refine the bad news, sans a rainbow on the political-economic horizon. Isn’t Independence Day about saluting our freedom fighters interspersed with promises to take the country forward? Or is it an occasion for our leaders to score petty brownie points with their vote banks in mind?

Either which way, even as the Congress scoffs at Modi, the fact is both leaders were playing to the gallery, notwithstanding the Grand Dame’s chant that I-Day speeches should be apolitical. In fact, every Prime Minister and Chief Ministers since Independence have made political speeches with the eye on their respective electorate, especially when elections are round the corner.

For instance, Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar reiterated his demand for “special status”, thereby telling the Congress you-oblige-me-I-will-ally-with-you. His Madhya Pradesh counterpart Shivraj Chouhan read out a long list of welfare schemes and statistics of the State's progress. Kashmir’s Omar Abdullah locked horns with the BJP for fanning communal riots in Kishtwar.

Modi has enlivened political nautanki. Making full use of the ‘shock and awe’ approach, the Hindutva poster boy laid bare the stark extremes in political discourse. Manmohan Singh’s platitudes versus Modi’s purpose, soft vs. sanguine, insipid vs. inspiring, and boring vs. bracing to catch the people's attention and minds ahead of the elections 2014.

True, the Modi persona is woven around dictatorial abrasiveness bordering on arrogance. He refuses to be interviewed, declines all talk of his role in 2002 and rebuffs suggestions for an apology, yet is extremely active on social media. Love him or hate him, he is grabbing headlines and setting the agenda for political discourse with the status-quoist, risk-averse, Congress overtly trying hard to be offensive, accusing Modi of being divisive, but covertly defensive. At best it reacts with name-calling, “Modi is a national embarrassment…., a frog out of a well.” And, at worst, ignores him, refusing to take him head on. Unfortunately in today’s Twitter-Facebook urban India where medium is the massage, silence goes against the party.

Notably, the Gujarat Chief Minister has over the last 15 years of rule amply demonstrated that, in style and content, he is not the conventional political challenger, thereby successfully converting elections into a clash of personalities. He countered Sonia’s maut ke saudagar aggression with the counter: “You tell me what should have been done to Sohrabuddin? (An alleged Pakistani terrorist killed in a police encounter). Do I need to take Sonia’s permission for this? Gujarat ke dharti pe maut ke saudagar nahin rahne doonga!” in the 2007 election.

Last year, expecting defeat, the Congress virtually gave Modi a walk-over. Having burnt her fingers earlier, Sonia went through the routine poll motions while Rahul refused to campaign there. Moreover, the Hindutva icon intends capitalizing on the Grand Dame’s indecisiveness on who will be the party’s face in 2014, Modi vs. a question mark. Sonia-Rahul’s Congress knows only too well that Manmohan Singh has lost the plot. Neither is he primus inter pares nor has he delivered. What was needed was a fresh interjection of a bracing set of reformist promises that would enable one to look into the future with more confidence, not a tired assertion that things will improve.

Worse, for reasons best known to him, Manmohan Singh today has out-sourced governance to various GOMs (Group of Ministers) and Committees, refusing to stick his neck out. Is he the same man who staked UPA-I for the Indo-US nuclear deal? His re-election was due to the fact that he staked India’s Raj Gaddi for his inherent belief in the deal. That was the reason the aam aadmi voted him back notwithstanding his waffling, maunvrat on critical issues and drabness.

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