When the Congress finally ended a week of self-imposed restraint to finally confront Prime Minister Narendra Modi about the Pulwama attacks on Thursday, its criticism was based more on optics than policy. On Thursday, Congress spokesperson Randeep Surjewala held a press conference to claim that Prime Minister Narendra Modi had been shooting a documentary film hours after the attack on a paramilitary convoy on February 14 that resulted in the deaths of 40 paramilitary troops.

“When the entire country was mourning the deaths of the jawans, Prime Minister Modi was shooting for a film at Corbett National Park and indulging in a boat ride to look at crocodiles,” the Congress alleged. “This film shooting went on till 6.30 pm that day. He had tea and snacks at 6.45 pm. It is horrific that till four hours after such an attack, Modi was busy with his own branding, photoshoot and snacks.”

The allegation dominated the news discussion on Thursday, even though both West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu had already attacked the government on its operational and intelligence failures. It also drew some interesting responses from the government and the Bharatiya Janata Party.

Doval’s fault?

First, Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad insisted that this charge merely proved the insensitivity of the Congress, even though party president Rahul Gandhi had vowed to stand united with the government on the matter of national security. BJP President Amit Shah then said that the Congress was speaking nearly the same language as Pakistan on the issue. However, neither had much to say about the specific allegation.

Then, quite curiously, unnamed sources emerged on the NewsX television channel and a CNN-News18 journalist’s Twitter feed that seemed to put the blame on National Security Advisor Ajit Doval.

This line of defence suggested that Modi was unhappy with Doval for failing to inform him about the Pulwama attacks in time, presumably to explain why the prime minister had continued his engagement at Corbett. These sources also suggested that Modi could not be reached because of inclement weather.

Of course, this suggestion is a bigger scandal than Modi simply being insensitive in the face of a major tragedy: if bad weather or poor mobile-phone network can prevent information reaching India’s prime minister while he is on a scheduled trip, that raises bigger questions about the state of the country’s security apparatus.

Modi ‘didn’t eat’

Soon after they emerged, however, those stories disappeared. NewsX did not flash the headline again, and the reporter for CNN-News18 deleted her tweet attributed to sources.

As can be expected also, there was a diversion when Union Minister Nitin Gadkari appeared to say that India would prevent river water from reaching Pakistan in retaliation. This would have been a huge move, except it was later clarified that he simply meant implementing India’s stated interpretation of the Indus Water treaty.

Instead, the Bharatiya Janata Party released details of Modi’s schedule later in the day, which seemed to take a completely different tack from the line that it was all Doval’s fault. According to this, Modi was informed about the attack while still in Corbett, held “constant review calls” on the situation, which even led him to cancel plans to attend a public meeting in Rudrapur, which he addressed via phone instead.

Aiming to rebut the Congress claim that Modi was sitting and having chai and samosas in Corbett after the attacks, the BJP source even emphasised to India Today
that the prime minister “did not eat anything” after the attack. This response did mark a bit of a contrast to Prasad’s comment earlier in the day, when he said, “Desh chalna chahiye [the country must go on]... The Congress wants the entire country to stop.”

Policy vs optics

It is not as if the Congress did not also take on the BJP for operational failures. In breaking its silence on the matter, Surjewala used the opportunity to raise much more substantive questions about the massive attack.

“Why have Modi, national security adviser Ajit Doval and home minister Rajnath Singh not owned responsibility for the unpardonable failure?” he asked. “How did local terrorists acquire hundreds of kilos of RDX, M4 carbine and rocket launchers? How was an RDX-laden car permitted to enter the most secure Jammu-Srinagar National Highway, despite the ‘standard operating procedure’ for sanitising the convoy stretch?”

Despite this, it is clear that the Congress and the Opposition remain concerned about being labeled anti-national, which may explain why the press conference chose to foreground Modi’s alleged callousness. The thrust of the criticsm plays off an impression that already exists about Modi: that he is more interested in publicising himself than in India’s well being.

By making that the focus of its attack, the Congress is in someways taking the fight to the BJP’s turf. Modi has not seemed overly concerned by the optics over the last few days. He has continued to hold public rallies, including ones where he criticised the Congress. On Tuesday, he even broke protocol to hug the crown prince of Saudi Arabia despite that country’s support of Pakistan. A week after the attacks, Modi was in South Korea, cracking jokes.

Whether the Congress allegation will hit closer to home, or simply provoke a stronger response from Modi and the government remains to be seen.