If the parliamentary performance is any indication, the combination of Rahul and Kharge is effective in making Mr Modi and the BJP uneasy
It was a perverse force of circumstances that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ruling BJP had to contend with when the Budget Session of Parliament began on January 31. What should have been a tocsin from the obvious winners in the forthcoming 2024 Lok Sabha elections, with a third-term mandate for Prime Minister Modi, has turned into a scramble to defend the Prime Minister and the party by throwing a presumably unbreakable cordon that was unexpectedly breached.
The shift in Mr Modi’s and the BJP’s position happened in the time it took for the discussion on the motion of thanks on the President’s address to move from the Lok Sabha, where Rahul Gandhi — back from his transforming Bharat Jodo Yatra — was the star speaker, to the point when the Congress’ first president from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family in 25 years, Mallikarjun Kharge, rose to speak in the Rajya Sabha.
And then, inexplicably, the tables turned: Mr Modi and the BJP were steered and boxed in and despite their best defensive efforts to break out. That is where they still remain. Mr Kharge’s speech disarmed the BJP and opened up Mr Modi for an attack for which he and his defenders were totally unprepared. It called Mr Modi to account.
It was a brilliant tactical manoeuvre that put Mr Modi at the centre of all that was wrong in the Congress’ perception; for not gagging his ministers who spewed hate speeches, because that implied the tacit consent of the government on the issue. Mr Kharge made a straightforward demand: that Mr Modi should rein in his ministers by the simple mechanism of indicating that those who spewed hate speeches or exploited dalit vulnerability would not get a ticket in the next election. His speech busted Mr Modi’s claims to be holier than thou.
Mr Kharge made a difference. In the Lok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi was direct and the star speaker. The BJP was prepared and the Speaker, Om Birla, played along, assiduously erecting a protective fence, through interventions and expunctions. Mr Gandhi’s speech drew attention to Mr Modi’s deafening silence. It also gave Mr Modi an opportunity to play victim and paradoxically, victor, with his chest-thumping performance of how it was one man against the unified Opposition.
In contrast, Mr Kharge, much more experienced in parliamentary politics and with a strategic understanding of how to outplay Mr Modi and the BJP, successfully mined the defences of the establishment. By focusing on hate speeches, photo ops with dalits and why public money was handed over to the Adani conglomerate to build public infrastructure like ports, airports, highways, roads, sustainable sources of energy and buy up cement giants when the public sector could have done the jobs and created employment opportunities for lakhs of young people, Mr Kharge turned the silence maintained by Mr Modi into an act of deliberate complicity. In doing so, he has put Mr Modi and the BJP in the dock, with very little wriggle room.
Any statement from Mr Modi now would be an admission that he has remained silent when he should have taken active measures to stop hate speeches, end photo ops and above all answer why public policy aided the Adani Group instead of the public sector, and magically propelled Gautam Adani into third place among the richest in the world in a dizzyingly short time. Mr Kharge’s attack, which began with disarming simplicity about Mr Modi being permanently in campaign mode, visiting Gulbarga constituency twice, drew laughs from the treasury benches. Mr Modi joined the amused. He rapidly turned to stone, as Mr Kharge went on the offensive.
As a crafted performance, Mr Kharge lulled ministers Piyush Goyal and Nirmala Sitharaman into incriminating the Prime Minister even as they set out to demolish the credibility of the Congress attack. While Ms Sitharaman raged about Mr Kharge “insinuating against the Prime Minister” as she said “subtly and overtly” in the opaque doings of the Adani Group, Mr Kharge mildly re-read the point that he had originally tried to make, what magic happened in two years that the Adani Group’s value shot up from Rs. 1 lakh crores to over Rs. 12 lakh crores? Mr Kharge led the BJP into linking the two names, while he played innocent and maintained that he had said nothing.
The insistence by the two presiding officers of the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha for “authentication” with documents about the allegations is a measure of how pressed the ruling establishment is over the Adani Group financial fiasco.
Expunging words and parts of speeches made by Mr Gandhi and Mr Kharge, on the plea that these are unparliamentary, is like putting Band-Aid on the problem.
The Congress, mainly Mr Kharge, has called out Mr Modi. Parliament, however, is not where the issue of Mr Modi’s accountability and the BJP’s complicity will be decided. The reframing of the discourse on the status of the legislative arm of the State by Jagdeep Dhankhar and his definition of the “national interest”, that the Opposition is as much bound to protect as are the treasury benches, indicates the executive, headed by the Prime Minister, is prepared to use every tool it can lay its hands on to shield Mr Modi and contain the damage to his image inflicted by Mr Kharge and the Opposition.
The Congress needs to push home the advantage that it has seized via the parliamentary route. The other advantage is Mr Kharge himself; a leader who worked his way to the top and won the Congress president’s job in an election where he got about 90 per cent of the votes is a new challenge for the BJP. He is also a dalit by origin, though he insists that his identity is as a Congressman. He is also from Karnataka, where Assembly polls are due later this year. As president and strategist, Mr Kharge has to show results in Karnataka to strengthen his position within the party and as a dark-horse option for a unified Opposition. The question is: Will the faction-ridden, feudal Congress give him the elbow room and support that he needs. If the parliamentary performance is any indication, the combination of Rahul Gandhi and Mallikarjun Kharge is effective in making Mr Modi and the BJP uneasy. Sustaining this, however, will require the Congress to pull together. Between Mr Gandhi and Mr Kharge they may be able to do so, but it is not a sure bet.