Parliament Session

Has Rahul Gandhi finally got under the skin of the BJP?

Modi’s prolonged rebuttal to the Congress leader’s speech in Parliament indicates that Gandhi’s criticism has touched a nerve.

If the reactions of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his senior ministers to the speech Congress leader Rahul Gandhi made in the Lok Sabha on Wednesday are any indication, it appears that the Bharatiya Janata Party is stung by Gandhi’s remarks.

Home Minister Rajnath Singh and External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj lashed out at the Congress leader on Wednesday itself while denying his observation that the prime minister did not consult them either on the Naga accord or regarding his stopover in Lahore last December for an impromptu meeting with Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif.

Hitting out at the Congress vice-president in a Facebook post, also on Wednesday, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that Gandhi had not matured. He added that unlike the Congress, the Bharatiya Janata Party did not bypass the prime minister, who was always available for consultation.

Prolonged speech

On Thursday, it was Modi’s turn to launch an all-out offensive in Parliament against Gandhi.

Though the prime minister did not name the Congress leader while replying to the debate on the motion of thanks to the President’s address to Parliament, a large part of his speech was devoted to attacking Gandhi. “Some people may age physically but do not mature,” he remarked.

Modi has, so far, maintained that he is unfazed by the criticism levelled against him, but his prolonged speech on Thursday suggested that the Congress vice-president’s remarks have unsettled the BJP leadership. His lengthy reply to Gandhi’s speech confirms that the BJP has recognised him as the face of the Congress party – inadvertently enhancing Gandhi's profile.

The prime minister quoted liberally from the speeches of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi to hit out at the Congress for disrupting Parliament. Referring to Rajiv Gandhi’s observation describing Parliament as a place where debates must take place “within certain boundaries”, Modi said: “When Parliament does not work, it is the Opposition which suffers the most since they are stopped from expressing their resentment against a government.”

Continuing in the same vein, Modi mocked Gandhi for showing disrespect to his party seniors by recalling how the Congress leader had publicly torn a copy of an ordinance which had been approved by the previous Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government.

Taking further potshots at the Congress leader, Modi remarked that the Opposition deliberately derailed parliamentary proceedings because of an “inferiority complex” as some people did not wish to be overshadowed by their more competent colleagues. He also accused the Opposition of being jealous of the BJP government’s achievements.

Silent on controversies

While the attack on Gandhi was the centrepiece of his speech, Modi was silent on a score of other issues which had come up in the course of the debate on the President's address.

He skipped any reference to the country’s economic condition, made no mention of foreign affairs – especially his government’s approach on Pakistan – and had nothing to say on terrorism in the light of the recent terror attack in Pathankot. Similarly, Modi did not get into the raging debate on nationalism, the Jawaharlal Nehru University row, the suicide of Hyderabad Central University scholar Rohith Vemula, and the charge that the BJP is anti-Dalit.

The prime minister did, however, respond at length to Gandhi’s charge that the BJP was claiming ownership of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, which Modi had previously dismissed as a “living monument to the failures of the Congress party.”

A defensive Modi underlined at length how successive governments had adopted similar programmes. He said his National Democratic Alliance government had actually improved the job scheme and increased the budgetary allocations for it. He justified the continuation of this programme by attempting to turn the tables on the Congress, saying that the employment guarantee programme would have been redundant if the Congress had fulfilled its promise to remove poverty.

His speech not only revealed that he was stung by Opposition criticism but reflected his frustration with the official machinery. Although he is known to have a firm grip on the bureaucracy, Modi spoke extensively about how executive accountability was being eroded and that politicians were not being taken seriously by bureaucrats who took full advantage as politicians were busy attacking each other. “The big challenge before us is… how to increase accountability of the executive,” Modi said.

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