The Congress might have received a major boost this week after CSDS-Lokniti, one of the more reliable pollsters, published findings of a survey that found it neck and neck with the Bharatiya Janata Party in Gujarat, where elections are scheduled to be held on December 9 and 14. The survey found a huge surge in support for the party over the last three months and indeed, the Congress throughout the campaign has seemed more charged up than at any other time since Prime Minister Narendra Modi came to power. Yet despite the many changes, including the transfer of power from mother to son expected in a week’s time, flashes of the Congress that stumbled its way to a historic low of 44 Lok Sabha seats in 2014 still manage to sneak out.
Take the “chaiwallah” tweet. On November 21, the official twitter account of Yuva Desh, the Youth Congress magazine, posted an image showing US President Donald Trump and British Prime Minister Theresa May mocking Modi for pronouncing “meme” wrong. As if that were not bad enough, the image had May telling Modi, “tu chai bech”, which is to say, “go back to selling tea”.
Bereft of context, this is an offensive tweet but a relatively minor one – and certainly nothing close to the horrible language and humour employed by many others, including the head of the BJP’s Information Technology cell. But it stands out for two reasons. One being that this is a verified account of a Congress mouthpiece, and so the party was rightfully pilloried for the image, which the magazine withdrew. But the second is that it repeats an attempted insult from senior Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar ahead of elections in 2014, when he said Modi will never become prime minister, but if he wants to distribute tea we will find a place for him.
At the time, the BJP seized upon the remark as being emblematic of everything they wanted to demonstrate about their political battle: Modi as the hard-working, underprivileged son of the soil taking on corrupt, elitist, born-into-privilege Congress leaders who were all in service of one family. The BJP turned the controversy around that comment into an entire pillar of their campaign, inviting voters to listen to Modi’s speeches at tea-stalls around the country as part of its “chai pe charcha” outreach.
Repeating the same sort of derogatory humour only serves to remind people of how elitist the Congress still is, even as it tries to position itself as the voice of the people.
Aiyar himself was back in the news this week with another comment that the BJP quickly seized upon. Responding to questions about Shehzad Poonawalla, a Congress leader who said the party’s internal polls are rigged to favour Nehru-Gandhi scion Rahul Gandhi, Aiyar decided to draw an analogy with Mughal emperors. Asking whether there were elections when Shahjahan took Jahangir’s place, or when Aurangzeb succeeded Shah Jahan, Aiyar said no, it was then known that one of the emperor’s sons would take over. “But,” he added, “in a democracy, elections are held,” and then invited Poonawalla to contest presidential elections against Rahul Gandhi.
Modi immediately picked up the comment, twisting Aiyar’s words to say that the Congress leader was admitting that his party is all in service of a family, where power flows only to the heirs. He then congratulated the Congress on “Aurangzeb Raj”.
Aiyar might be right to protest and insist that this is not what he said, as others have pointed, but the Congress leader’s comment was still incredibly witless. For one, not even ardent Congress supporters will claim that the party has a thriving record of internal democracy. This is an outfit built around the Nehru-Gandhi family and, whatever one thinks of Rahul Gandhi’s abilities, he is in a position to take charge of the Congress mainly because of his lineage.
What’s more, any comparison to the Mughals is bound to remind people of another of Modi’s campaign hooks: “Shehzada”. Meaning prince, Modi repeatedly used the word to refer to Rahul Gandhi in 2014, to imply that his pre-eminence was purely a function of dynasty, with a slight Muslim-Mughal dog-whistle added into the mix since the term conjures more Persianate Islamic rulers than, say, the more sanskritised “Rajkumar”, also meaning prince.
Kapil Sibal was not speaking for the Congress on Tuesday. And yet, everything he told the Supreme Court in the Babri Masjid matter was seen as a political intervention, not least because he explicitly referenced politics. With the apex court expecting to start day-to-day hearings in the controversial property dispute that has sparked off much communal unrest, Sibal marched into court asking for the matter to be delayed. Saying that there were “serious repercussions” outside the court every time the case came up, he asked the bench to delay hearing the matter until after the general elections in 2019 – almost 18 months away.
Although Sibal was representing his client, the Sunni Waqf Board, one of the parties to the case, he cannot have been blind to the way his intervention would be read by the media, particularly television channels that the Congress will be happy to take that angle. And that is exactly what happened.
BJP President Amit Shah jumped on board, saying the Congress should “clear its stand” on this, saying Rahul Gandhi has been visiting temples in Gujarat, but Kapil Sibal is delaying the temple in court. Congress spokespersons tried to distance the party from Sibal’s arguments, saying he is free to represent his client in court, but the technicality is unlikely to make much of a dent on the narrative.
Slip-ups like these threaten to derail the storyline that the Congress has managed to put together in Gujarat, in part by getting out of the way and focusing on the issues. Broadly speaking, anti-incumbency after 20 years, disaffection among Patidars, Other Backward Classes and Dalits and the twin shocks of demonetisation and the botched rollout of the Goods and Services Tax created the atmosphere for Congress to take advantage of.
For much of the past three months, this is what has happened and it has coincided with a surge in the party’s popularity, if the polling and anecdotal evidence is to be believed. But the Congress has made the choice to turn the spotlight on its own leadership in the week during which elections take place, by having internal elections and a coronation for Rahul Gandhi. This strategy also means a closer focus on the weaknesses of the Congress high command especially when compared to Modi and Shah, two successful Gujarati politicians who run the BJP.
That itself is a slightly risky proposition, though the party made the gamble that it will receive more attention right before voting, which should be an advantage. If that increased scrutiny comes with mistakes like Aiyar’s and Sibal’s, which have nothing to do with Gujarat but say plenty about the Congress’ own political skills, it might end up derailing a strategy that has seemingly worked out so far.
Update: On Thursday, the foot-in-mouth Congress script played out almost perfectly. On a day when a horrific video of the killing of a Muslim man might have led the news bulletins, headlines instead focused on Aiyar who called Modi “neech”, which he said meant to convey that he was a “low life.” Modi instead took it as a casteist reference, and said this displayed the mindset of the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi, who is expected to take over the party next week, then responded via a tweet, calling on Aiyar to apologise.
Aiyar later spoke to the media, saying he “meant low level when I said ‘neech’... So if it has some other meaning then I apologise.” But the damage appears to have been done, with most TV channels picking up on the “neech” drama as their main news story for the day.