Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s allegation that Prime Minister Narendra Modi received kickbacks when he was Gujarat chief minister may not stand legal scrutiny. But by making such personal allegations, the Nehru-Gandhi scion has certainly changed the rules of the game as far as his party’s strategy and tactics are concerned.
Instead of playing safe at a time when the Congress’s first family is under a cloud in the AugstaWestland helicopter deal investigation, Gandhi has decided to mount a personal attack against Modi in an obvious bid to destroy the prime minister’s image of being incorruptible.
Though the information Gandhi revealed at a rally in Gujarat on Wednesday – that Income-Tax records showed that the Sahara group had paid Modi Rs 40 crores between 2013 and 2014 – has been in the public domain for some time, he seems to have chosen to make these disclosures now as Gandhi believes that the poor implementation of Modi’s decision on demonetisation has put the prime minister on the back foot.
In the process, Gandhi has made a break with the past and put his party on a different trajectory.
An aggressive Congress?
After being in power for nearly six decades, the Congress was never known to be an aggressive Opposition, preferring instead to maintain status quo. When out of power, it took pride in the fact that as a constructive Opposition party it never hesitated to cooperate with the government as it believed that national interest was paramount. However, the truth was that Congress leaders invariably compromised with the government in power to protect their personal interests.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi, who has been leading the party for nearly two decades, chose to exercise extreme caution since 1998, when she failed to form a government after joining hands with other Opposition parties to bring down the Vajpayee government. She has also been conscious of the attacks mounted against her because of her foreign origins. It was for this reason that she decided not to take the prime minister’s post when the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance coalition won two successive Lok Sabha elections in 2004 and 2009, and instead handed over the mantle to Manmohan Singh.
In contrast to her excellent working relationship with former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Sonia Gandhi has never been comfortable with Modi and his brand of politics. She has attempted to take him on, but her efforts have invariably backfired.
Attack is the best form of defence
But Rahul Gandhi has decided not to follow in his mother’s footsteps. Shrugging off the Congress’s cautious line, the junior Gandhi seems to believe that attack is the best form of defence. In fact, he appears to be emulating Aam Aadmi Party chief and Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal’s hit-and-run style of politics. The objective here is to up the ante and fling personal charges against a political opponent in the hope that some mud will eventually stick.
The Nehru-Gandhi scion has always favoured a more aggressive brand of politics but was held back by his mother and the old guard in the Congress who advocated a moderate approach. In fact, the old-timers are distinctly uncomfortable with Rahul Gandhi’s style of functioning. But with Sonia Gandhi taking a backseat, and the party vice-president calling the shots, they have little choice in the matter.
It was at Rahul Gandhi’s insistence that the Congress held up the passage of the Insurance Bill in 2015 and the Goods and Services Tax Bill earlier this year, which forced the Modi government to open a dialogue with the main Opposition party.
Similarly, it was Rahul Gandhi who raised the pitch on the Land Acquisition Bill last year, which again forced the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance to abandon its plans to dilute the legislation. And again it was the Congress vice-president who insisted that they should not allow Parliament to function in the recently-concluded Winter Session to highlight the hardship caused to people by the Modi government’s decision to withdraw Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 high-currency notes overnight.
When accused of disrupting Parliament, Rahul Gandhi’s constant refrain has been that the Bharatiya Janata Party did the same when it occupied the Opposition benches.
Will risk pay off?
While the focus of the Opposition attack during the session was on demonetisation, Rahul Gandhi changed the narrative by declaring that he had proof of personal corruption against Modi but he was not being allowed to make these disclosures in the Lok Sabha. The fact that the treasury benches derailed proceedings in the last few days of the session gave credence to his charge.
Under pressure to place the information in the public domain, Rahul Gandhi did so at on Wednesday at a public rally in Modi’s home state. The Congress leader was predictably criticised by the BJP, which fielded law minister Ravi Shankar Prasad to reject these allegations and declare that Modi was as pure as the Ganga.
While the BJP can be expected to target Rahul Gandhi in the coming days, he has succeeded in placing the prime minister in the line of direct fire. Hours after the Rahul Gandhi rally, Trinamool Congress leader and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee asked for a thorough inquiry into the allegations against Modi.
Raising the pitch further, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala demanded that Modi should be ready to face a probe.
“Let him not hide behind his spokespersons and come out and speak,” said Surjewala. “If the allegations are false then why he is not ready for an investigation...Even Sonia Gandhi had resigned on moral grounds.”
Now that Rahul Gandhi has taken a huge risk by levelling personal corruption charges against the prime minister, the question is: will he succeed in his mission to tarnish Modi’s reputation? Or will this move end up further discrediting the Nehru-Gandhi scion?