The Congress appears to be divided on how it should go about tackling Prime Minister Narendra Modi. On one hand leaders like Jairam Ramesh, Shashi Tharoor and Abhishek Manu Singhvi suggested that the party should recaliberate its criticism of PM Modi. On the other hand, these leaders, Tharoor in particular, have received angry responses from party colleagues accusing them of diluting the Congress’ ideology.
The debate began with Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh who said that the Opposition should stop “demonising PM Modi all the time”. Here are a few excerpts from what he told Press Trust of India:
- “If you are going to demonise him all the time, you are not going to be able to confront him.”
- “In 2019, all of us made fun of one or two of his programmes, but it has turned out in all electoral studies that the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (cooking gas cylinders) is one single programme which has been able to connect him with crores and crores of women and given him the political traction which he didn’t have in 2014.”
- “Now, if we are going to run this down and say this is all hocus-pocus and say these are wrong numbers, we are not going to confront this guy.”
Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor also tweeted a view similar to Ramesh’s, saying that the Opposition’s criticism will seem credible if it praises Modi whenever the government does something right.
Senior lawyer and Rajya Sabha MP Abhishek Manu Singhvi backed Ramesh and said that the attacks on the prime minister should be “issue-based” rather than “person-based”.
Earlier, Singhvi had praised the PM for revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status, a stand that was contrary to the Congress’ official position. Several other leaders such as Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Deepender Hooda, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora, and Kuldeep Bishnoi had also welcomed the Modi-led government’s move.
The question is: Does this represent a change of strategy on part of the Congress or is there genuinely an ideological split within the party?
Broadly, four reasons explain these statements.
Need to Win Back BJP Voters
Many Congress leaders say that the only way for party to revive itself is by winning back voters who have shifted from it to the BJP since the UPA’s tenure. According to Tharoor, the only way the Congress can come back to power is by winning over “fair-minded” BJP voters.
Tharoor and several other party leaders say that constant criticism of PM Modi and the government’s policies will alienate the Congress even more and prevent any chance of getting back the floating voters.
Many Congress leaders and functionaries privately acknowledge that Modi enjoys a high degree of popularity among Hindu voters, particularly in northern and western India. They say that any attack on Modi, particularly on his move on the likes of Triple Talaq and Article 370, is seen as an attack on Hindus, and the appeasement of Muslims. This, in particular, is the case in northern and western India.
It is not surprising that most of the leaders who praised Modi’s move on Article 370 happened to be from these regions.
“We managed to win Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh by focusing on local issues and not Modi. Even many pro-Hindutva voters voted for the Congress. This won’t happen if we constantly attack him,” a party leader from Rajasthan told The Quint.
In the upcoming state elections in Maharashtra, Haryana and Jharkhand, the Congress hopes to focus its campaign on local issues and not on national issues and on PM Modi’s policies.
It is not surprising that Jyotiraditya Scindia, who supported Modi’s move on Article 370, has been appointed the screening committee chairman for the Maharashtra elections.
A Departure from Rahul Gandhi’s Approach?
Many feel that the Congress going soft on Modi could be a departure from Rahul Gandhi’s approach during the 2019 Lok Sabha election campaign. During the campaign, Gandhi used the slogan “Chowkidar Chor Hai”, thereby directly attacking Modi.
Some Congress leaders said this wasn’t a wise call and that the focus should have been on issues like agrarian distress and unemployment.
The slogan did help Gandhi emerge as the main face of Opposition against Modi but it didn’t prove to be electorally successful.
Now, the Congress now seems to be trying to change its approach and take a more issue-based view, as Singhvi puts it.
It is also significant that the party has taken no action, not even a verbal censure, against leaders who praised the Modi-led government’s move to abrogate Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.
Scindia’s appointment in Maharashtra is a case in point. If the party had been upset with his statement in favour of the government, surely Congress President Sonia Gandhi wouldn’t have rewarded him with such a responsibility.
Survive Now, Fight Later
A section of the Congress has been saying that it is better for the party to lay low for the time being, and attack the government when its failures on the economic front become even more evident.
“Attacking the government on issues like Article 370 and Triple Talaq will backfire and alienate a big chunk of voters. It is better to wait for these issues to die down so that the focus can be brought back on the economy, which is Congress’ strong point,” said a party office bearer.
Backlash Against Tharoor and Others
However, the leaders calling for more nuanced criticism of Modi have received flak from some party colleagues. Tharoor in particular is facing attacks from his colleagues in the Congress’ Kerala unit.
Congress MP from Thrissur TN Prathapan has reportedly written a letter to the party’s interim president Sonia Gandhi saying that such comments will harm the Congress’ fight to ideologically “reclaim India”. He wrote:
- “I really don’t get what type of narrative these leaders want to put forward while the undemocratic and autocratic regime of Modi is strengthening.”
- "Narendra Modi is a complete dictator and his regime is suffocating to many Indians”
Congress’ Kerala unit chief Mulapally Ramachandran has said that Tharoor will be asked to explain his views. Tharoor had been sacked as Congress spokesperson in 2014 for allegedly praising Modi.
Tharoor denied praising Modi and responded in an opinion piece saying:
- “If we act as if Modi has done nothing, however flawed, and people still voted for him, then we are saying that people are stupid, which is not a position that wins you votes”.
- “We need to win back the trust – and the votes – of those who deserted us for the BJP in the last two Lok Sabha elections. That requires addressing what has attracted them to Modi. Then, our criticism has more credibility.”
The criticism from the Kerala unit is significant as it was one of the few states where the Congress managed a respectable performance in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. The state sent 15 Congress MPs to the Lok Sabha, including Tharoor, Prathapan and the then Congress president Rahul Gandhi. This gives the state a certain degree of clout in national affairs.
Many Kerala leaders say that the party’s success in the state has been due to the fact that its leaders and cadres are more ideologically committed to the Congress.
There is another aspect to their criticism: there is an apprehension that if the Congress is seen as being soft on the BJP, it could lose a chunk of anti-BJP votes, particularly Muslims and Christians, to the rival LDF.
Danger: What if Congress Loses Opposition Space?
By recalibrating its criticism of PM Modi, the Congress might be able to keep alive the possibility of winning over BJP voters in state elections at least, as it did in the Assembly polls last year.
However, at a national level, it will become vulnerable to conceding the Opposition space. Fortunately for the Congress, other Opposition parties are facing a similar dilemma. Take for instance AAP’s support of the Modi government on the Kashmir issue or the TMC’s relatively subdued criticism.
But, the Congress runs the risk of losing the support of minority-community voters. Many religious minorities, particularly Muslims, support the Congress not out of a love for the party but because it is the only option to defeat the BJP in many states. So, if the Congress is seen as going soft on the BJP, Muslims could choose other parties in the states where another option is available.
For instance, in Maharashtra, many Muslims who are upset with the Congress could consolidate behind the MIM-Bharipa Bahujan Mahasangh alliance. In Uttar Pradesh, they could continue supporting the Samajwadi Party over the Congress as the former took a much clearer stand than the Congress on issues such as Article 370 and the UAPA Amendment.