Rahul banks on emotion; Modi on weak wicket

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Rahul and Modi
Several features of the election scene are becoming clear. While Narendra Modi is steering clear of the Bharatiya Janata Party's "non-negotiable" temple plank, in Murli Manohar Joshi's words, Rahul Gandhi has decided to up the ante on this very aspect of communal politics which can aggravate Hindu-Muslim tension.

The Congress vice-president's view that the BJP will light communal fires since these tend to consolidate the Hindu vote in its favour may not seem all that far-fetched, considering how eager the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) is to revive the temple issue in Uttar Pradesh.

However, Rahul Gandhi may have overstated his case by expressing the fear that in the process of dousing the fires, he may be killed as his 'dadi' (Indira Gandhi) and 'papa' (Rajiv Gandhi) were.

Notwithstanding the maudlin nature of the apprehension, it might resonate with admirers of the Nehru-Gandhi family, particularly in rural areas, because of, first, the dynasty's longstanding secular and pro-minority credentials and, second, because of the tragic price the family has had to pay as a result of the insensate enmity of its opponents.

Aware of how the Congress still tends to get more votes than any other party from the rural and urban poor, Dalits and Adivasis (tribes), Rahul Gandhi may have decided to go the whole hog to direct his campaign specifically at them by tugging at their heart-strings. He is also probably conscious of the fact that if anything has marked out his electioneering from that of others it is his earnestness.

True, sometimes his rhetoric has been overblown, as when he described poverty as a "state of the mind" or claimed that Dalits will need to attain the escape velocity required on the surface of planet Jupiter to rise above their lowly status. The same propensity to exaggerate was evident earlier when he described himself as a "foot soldier" in Delhi of the Niyamgiri tribes in Odisha who were resisting mining projects in their sacred hills.

Even if his fear of being assassinated is put in the same category of an unwarranted hyperbole, it carries the risk of off-putting for some, especially in towns and among the middle and upper classes, who have grown cynical of the Congress because of the party's sinking reputation on matters of probity.

Rahul Gandhi's references to his mother can also be counter-productive. These have become rather too frequent of late, starting from the party conclave earlier in the year where he recounted how she cried on his anointment as the party vice-president since politics can be "poison". More recently, Rahul pointed out how she deeply regretted being unable to vote on the food security bill because of illness.

The emotive pitch can be an effective weapon to sway the audience, but only if used sparingly. Unfortunately, Rahul Gandhi is overdoing it. The ostensible reason, arguably, is that his rhetorical cupboard is bare. The government's failures have left little for him to say. This paucity may be the reason why he is virtually the lone campaigner for the Congress.

Just as Modi is for the BJP. While Modi's emphasis is on criticizing the Congress since he is yet to showcase his abilities at the national level, Rahul Gandhi has to fall back on championing the cause of the poor and on his family's commitments in this respect.

The difficulty with such an approach is that lamenting the plight of the downtrodden implies that the government has been unable to do anything for them during its years in power. In effect, it is an indictment of Manmohan Singh although Rahul Gandhi claims that he regards him as his "guru".

Instead of looking back, therefore, the "foot soldier" will do well to look forward and articulate his vision for the future. But he does not seem to have spent much time developing a sophisticated economic outlook. As a result, he seemingly subscribes to the "outdated ideology" of socialism, to quote Manmohan Singh, like his mother.

At the same time, even as Rahul Gandhi gropes for a cogent political philosophy, it is not impossible that, purposefully or inadvertently, he is laying a trap for Modi by harping on the BJP's communal politics. Rahul Gandhi has even asserted that the riots can induce disaffected Muslim youths to seek help from Pakistan, an allegation which hasn't gone down well with the Muslim community.

In a way, these tactics are a return to the Congress's 'maut ki saudagar' (merchant of death) diatribe against Modi in the 2007 Gujarat election. The taunt did not work then, but who knows what effect it will have at the national level where the spectre of death and destruction will be much more threatening?

Modi's difficulty is that he is on a weak wicket where riots are concerned because of his refusal to apologize for what happened in 2002 and because of his suspected complicity in the outbreak. Arguably, the anticipated secular vs communal debate has taken off in right earnest.

(26-10-2013-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at amulyaganguli@gmail.com)

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