Rahul Gandhi believed he had hit upon a potent slogan to corner the Prime Minister. He had misjudged both the issue and Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi needs to thank Rahul Gandhi for the success of the Main Bhi chowkidar campaign. Modi had positioned himself as a sentinel against wrongdoing since the time he assumed power in May 2014; he also called himself a Pradhan Sevak. But these names had merely been refreshing terms and were not tools of political messaging. The Congress president changed that with his Chowkidar chor hai narrative, claiming that the Prime Minister had robbed the exchequer and given money to a private businessman in connection with the Rafale deal. Rahul Gandhi believed he had hit upon a potent slogan to corner the Prime Minister. He had misjudged both the issue and Modi.
Instead of going on the back foot, Modi grabbed the opportunity to turn the tables on the Congress. Even as he proudly began to present himself as a chowkidar who protected the nation’s interest against corruption, against elements who wanted to fragment India, against terrorists and their sympathisers and handlers, he asked the people to identify themselves as chowkidars. Almost overnight, several lakhs of ordinary Indians on social media prefixed ‘chowkidar’ to their names. Most of his party and ministerial colleagues too did it. A survey conducted by a television channel on narratives that have most resonated with the public found that Main Bhi chowkidar scored the highest rating. The Chowkidar chor hai call has since got as good as buried in the Main Bhi chowkidar blitz.
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s response in the last session of Parliament is a particularly good example of that — it was a devastating mix of emotion and facts
Rahul Gandhi should have known better. He ought to have realised that he was dealing with an effective mass communicator, a person who had mastered the art of coining slogans out of thin air, and nuancing adverse slogans that suited his purpose. To make matters worse, the Congress chief premise for Chowkidar chor hai was on wobbly legs. There has not been any prima facie evidence of wrongdoing in the Rafale deal, and even the Supreme Court had given a clean chit. There has neither been any dubious change of money nor is there a money trail. Besides, there has been no middleman since the purchase of Rafale jets in ready to fly condition has been cleared through a Government-to-Government route between France and India.
Various opinion polls have thrown up the finding that the Rafale matter does not figure very high in the list of issues that are bothering the people. This is partly because the public has seen through the Congress’s game plan of concocting smoke to cry ‘fire’, and partly because various senior BJP and Government functionaries have effectively countered the Opposition’s propaganda. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s response in the last session of Parliament is a particularly good example of that — it was a devastating mix of emotion and facts.
Prime Minister Modi has taken that old narrative of ‘ordinary versus privileged’ forward in the run-up to the 2019 elections, with the kamdar versus naamdar battle cry.
Rahul Gandhi attempted damage control when he said that the Prime Minister was a chowkidar of the rich. But here too facts have rebelled against him. Under Modi’s leadership and with the help of some astute diplomacy, Vijay Mallya faces extradition from Great Britain. Nirav Modi is under arrest. Defence middleman Christian Michel has been extradited to India and is presently facing trial. Mehul Choksi is feeling the heat too. All of them can safely be called rich. The Modi Government has brought in the Indian bankruptcy Code which tightens the noose around errant businessman. One of the more welcome side effects of demonetisation has been that money which had been hidden by the rich and the powerful, has been flushed out.
Rahul Gandhi would have saved himself the embarrassment of his self-professed offensive going haywire if he had only studied recent history. A little over five years ago, when Modi was declared the NDA’s prime ministerial face, Congress loose cannons had ridiculed him for being a chaiwallah (tea vendor). Senior party leader Mani Shankar Aiyar had insultingly remarked that, after the polls, Modi could be given space in the Congress premises to hawk tea. Other Congress members were not lagging behind in sarcasm. Congress’s top leadership did precious little to contain such remarks, leading to the impression that the likes of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi had implicitly endorsed the behaviour. We know how Modi turned these remarks to his advantage. The chaiwallah became overnight a metaphor for the ordinary, honest and hardworking Indian who made it big through sheer talent and not because he or she came from a privileged background. The Chai pe Charcha concept thus came into being, which was used by the BJP as an innovative way to reach out to the masses.
In fact, Prime Minister Modi has taken that old narrative of ‘ordinary versus privileged’ forward in the run-up to the 2019 elections, with the kamdar versus naamdar battle cry. Amit Shah became party president on the strength of decades of work in the party’s organisation, while Rahul Gandhi became president because he belonged to a particular family. The latter charge sticks even more, with the elevation of Priyanka Vadra as the Congress’s general secretary.
In sum, when it comes to perception via nuanced slogans, it is difficult to beat Narendra Modi.
1. The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of PGurus.