A month is a long time in politics, particularly in an election year. Since February 14, when 40 paramilitary soldiers were killed in a suicide bombing in Pulwama, South Kashmir, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has aggressively foregrounded nationalism at both Union government and party events. Its leaders claim this has helped the saffron party regain the popularity it had lost on account of rising unemployment, low rural wages and farm distress across the country.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has attended and given speeches at 46 government engagements since the Pulwama attack – between February 15 and March 12 – according to the Press Information Bureau. These include the inauguration of development projects and government schemes, award ceremonies and media summits.
What has his principal challenger, Congress President Rahul Gandhi, been up to in this 26-day period?
Gandhi has addressed 23 public events, including 11 political rallies and two press conferences, according to Congress press releases, video recordings of rallies and his Twitter timeline.
He visited 11 states during this period: Chhattisgarh, Assam, Himachal Pradesh, Maharashtra, Jharkhand, Odisha, Telangana, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab and Goa.
In rallies held soon after the Pulwama attack, Gandhi refrained from criticising Modi or the government for the serious intelligence and operational lapses that permitted the attack to be executed in one of the most militarised zones in the world. But he has since struck out at Modi and the BJP for politicising the February 26 Indian Air Force strikes in Balakot, Pakistan.
The mainstay of Gandhi’s speeches in this period have been allegations of corruption against the BJP in connection with the controversial Rafale deal. Other major talking points have been the impact of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax regime, land rights for farmers and Adivasis, the Congress’ proposed minimum income guarantee scheme, farm loan waivers and unemployment.
On February 16, in his first rally after the Pulwama attack, in Dhuragaon, Chhattisgarh, Gandhi started his speech by paying homage to the victims of the Pulwama attack.
He then spoke about the impact of demonetisation and land rights for farmers and Adivasis. “The fight against black money,” he said. “Do you remember being in the line? Tell me, in the line did you see Anil Ambani, Mehul Choksi, Nirav Modi, Lalit Modi? Did you see a line of innocent people? Money was snatched away from mothers and sisters. If the fight was against black money then why were innocent people in the line?”
He did not criticise Modi or the Union government in relation to the suicide bombing.
On February 22, however, Gandhi mocked Modi at a rally in Tirupati, Andhra Pradesh, for continuing with a film shoot on the day of the Pulwama attack. “He did not feel the pain of the sacrifice the youngsters made for us,” he said. “Making a movie, smiling, laughing was more important to him than doing anything for the families…These are the kind of people who call themselves nationalists.”
On February 26, in Guwahati, Assam, he paid homage to the Pulwama victims but again did not criticise the government for the terror strike. Instead, he spoke of how Assam’s “history, language, lifestyle” was “being attacked” by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh ever since the BJP took charge at the Centre in 2014 and the state in 2016.
“Planning Commission made the strategy for the nation...it was shut. RBI [Reserve Bank of India]...is the backbone...the director resigned and said he is leaving. They demonetised notes without asking anyone. They left many of workers jobless. Four Supreme Court judges come to the press and say that they cannot work...they take Judge Loya’s name...Amit Shah has a case against him. Ordinarily, the public goes to the court for justice but in Narendra Modi’s India Supreme Court judges are asking public for justice.”
That same day, at a rally in Dhule, Maharashtra, Gandhi criticised Modi for targeting Congress workers after the Pulwama attack. He said:
“Now the prime minister...there are bombs going off in Pulwama...but he tells the media that India stands united and at that time he said that Congress party is attacking us…A memorial opens for martyrs but the prime minister starts attacking Congress. For not even five minutes can India’s prime minister leave his Public Relations aside.”
In Ranchi, Jharkhand, on March 2, Gandhi spoke of communalism, his party’s minimum income guarantee proposal, land rights and the Rafale deal, which he brought up in context of the Balakot air strikes. “You would have seen that the IAF [Indian Air Force] pilots have protected India and Narendra Modi took 30,000 crore from the IAF and gave it to Anil Ambani,” he said.
He also lashed out at the prime minister for spreading hatred wherever he goes. “He makes Hindus fight with Muslims, North Easterns with other Indians,” he said.
Gandhi criticised Modi for politicising the Balakot air strikes, in Kangra, Himachal Pradesh, on March 7. He said:
“When Pulwama happened, and when there was action against Pakistan, then I did a press conference and said that all Congress workers will stand with IAF [Indian Air Force] and the government,” he said. “We said clearly that we would not politicise the matter. I want to remind you that not even one Congress politician said a word in those few days. Sadly, when the whole Opposition was with the government…and there’s a fight with Pakistan…our Prime Minister politicised the matter. In his speech he criticises Congress and speaks ill of us.”
The Congress president also accused Modi of helping the rich grow richer. “[Gautam] Adani got the contract for five airports and a Rs 14,000 crore contract in Jharkhand,” he said. “They want to make two Indias. One of 15 to 20 rich people who will fly in private jets, do marketing for Modi and then Modi comes to you and lies. Did you get your Rs 15 lakh? Did it reach your bank account?”
On March 7, at a rally in Moga, Punjab, Gandhi focused on the Rafale deal. He alleged that Modi changed the contract with Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation to benefit Anil Ambani. “It is written in the Defence Ministry file that the aircrafts were delayed because of Narendra Modi,” he said. “And in his speeches, Modi said that the jets were delayed. But they were delayed because of his parallel negotiations with Anil Ambani.”
Gandhi continued to focus on the Rafale deal at a rally in Jeypore, Odisha, the following day. Here too he brought it up in context of the Balakot air strikes. He said:
“A few days back the IAF [Indian Air Force] attacked Pakistan...Since 70 years, HAL [Hindustan Aeronautics Limited] has been building aircrafts…Anil Ambani has never made an aircraft. HAL is not in debt but Anil Ambani owes a debt of Rs 45,000 crore. The UPA [United Progressive Alliance] government decided that HAL will make the Rafale. 128 jets and Rs 528 crore for one jet. The decision was made. The chowkidar became the prime minister. And that same aircraft Narendra Modi bought it for Rs 1,600 crore. Why does he buy it? because he wants to give Anil Ambani 30,000 crore.”
In Haveri, Karnataka on March 9, Gandhi reminded his audience that a BJP government had released Masood Azhar, the chief of the banned terrorist outfit Jaish-e-Mohammad, from an Indian jail in 1999. The group has claimed responsibility for the Pulwama attack. Gandhi said:
“I have a small question for the prime minister. Who killed these CRPF [Central Reserve Police Force] personnel? What is the Jaish-e-Mohammad chief’s name? Masood Azhar…Modi explain to me, who sent Azhar from India’s jail to Pakistan? Didn’t BJP’s government send Masood Azhar from a jail in India to Kandahar?...Why don’t you say this in your speeches? Why don’t you say this that the person who bombed the CRPF personnel and killed them, that person was sent back to Pakistan by the BJP government.”
In Ranga Reddy, Telangana, on March 9, Gandhi criticised Telangana Chief Minister K Chandrashekhar Rao, popularly known as KCR, and claimed that Modi controlled him. “My question is how many times did KCR speak about Rafale?” he asked. “Did he ever say that there should be an investigation into Rafale? Why not? Because your chief minister wants that Modi remains the PM of India. Modi is aware of KCR’s corruption.”
Gandhi held the first of his two press conferences a day after the Pulwama attack, on February 15.
“This is a terrible tragedy,” Gandhi said at the event. “This type of violence done against the most valuable, important Indians who are our soldiers is absolutely disgusting. I want to make it very clear that the aim of terrorism is to divide the country. And we are not going to be divided for one second. No matter how hard people try. This country and the entire Opposition is going to stand together. We are going to stand with the jawans [soldiers] and we are going to stand with the government.”
His second press conference, on March 7, was called to address the ongoing Supreme Court hearing on the Rafale deal. The previous day, Attorney General KK Venugopal had told the Supreme Court that the documents used by The Hindu for reports on the Rafale deal published in January – which the petitioners seeking an investigation into the deal have cited – were stolen from the Defence Ministry. However on March 8, Venugopal claimed that the documents were not stolen but photocopied.
“There is a new line now: ‘They disappeared’. Employment for two crore youth disappeared. The right price for farmers disappeared. The promise of Rs 15 lakh which were supposed to reach accounts also disappeared. The insurance money or farmers disappeared. After GST [Goods and Services Tax] and demonetisation, business disappeared. And the Rafale files also disappeared.”
In 10 other engagements, Gandhi addressed Congress workers and volunteers in Goa and Assam, met diplomats, and interacted with students and small and micro business entrepreneurs.
Along with his sister Priyanka Gandhi, he met families of the Central Reserve Police Force personnel killed in the Pulwama attack, on February 20.
The Congress president set up a “task force” on national security comprising retired Lieutenant General DS Hooda to prepare a “vision paper for the country” on February 21.
He took a swipe at the Institution of Eminence status that the Union government has granted to Reliance’s proposed Jio University, while speaking to a gathering of students in Delhi on February 23. “Today, if you are one of the big 15 to 20 industrialists you can get any tag,” he said.
Gandhi said his party opposed the Citizenship Amendment Bill, while speaking to district and block committee workers in Congress in Assam on February 26. “The Congress party….stopped the Bill in its tracks,” he said.
The Bill seeks to grant citizenship to Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Christians, Jains and Parsis from Bangladesh, Afghanistan and Pakistan if they have lived in India for six years, even if they do not possess the necessary documents. Assamese groups have opposed the Bill, saying it will undo the Assam Accord of 1985, which ended a six-year-long anti-foreigner agitation in the state.
After a meeting with other Opposition parties on February 27, Gandhi and Opposition leaders such as Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, released a joint statement in which they condemned the “blatant politicisation of the sacrifices made by the armed forces by leaders of the ruling party”.
While interacting with a group of women in Odisha on March 8, Gandhi said that the Congress would try to get the women’s reservation Bill back in Parliament if it came to power after the Lok Sabha elections. The legislation, which has been introduced in Parliament several times since 1996 without being passed, seeks to reserve 33% of seats in state Legislative Assemblies and Parliament for women.
On March 11, while addressing a Congress workers’ convention in Delhi, Gandhi asked if they wanted “[Mahatma] Gandhi’s India or [Nathuram] Godse’s India”. “On one hand there is brotherhood and love and on the other there is fear. On one hand Gandhi and on the other hand [Vinayak Damodar] Savarkar. Savarkar wrote letters to the British to beg them to release him from prison,” he said.