The rupee may be at 60, we may be in for another year of 5 percent growth or lower, unemployment may be increasing (or so the latest NSSO survey shows), but the focus has shifted from governance and economic performance to Modi's negatives.
You've got to hand it to the Congress. Three months ago, it seemed like it had the cards stacked heavily against it: from corruption scandals to growth slowdown, it seemed like it could get nothing right. And the BJP, with Narendra Modi in the ascendant, looked to be on course to decide the agenda based on its strongman's Gujarat governance record.
Now, one can't be sure. The Congress gameplan to shift the focus away from the economy and governance appears to be working. The rupee may be at 60, we may be in for another year of 5 percent growth or lower, unemployment may be increasing (or so the latest NSSO survey shows), but the focus has shifted from governance and economic performance to Modi's negatives.
The Ishrat Jahan case—which now looks like playing out in slow motion over the next few months—will keep the BJP and Modi perpetually off balance, unless the party can find a less shrill way to combat it. Party spokespersons appearing on TV channels either appear too vehement and angry or too defensive on the case – and this suits the Congress very well. The BJP sounds like it is either trying to malign a 19-year-old girl who was killed in the encounter, or trying to plead mea culpa by saying there have been other encounters elsewhere. Saying you are no greater a sinner than the Congress when it comes to encounters is not a winning strategy. The difference is: the Congress is not in the dock, the BJP is on Ishrat.
Worse, the BJP seems to be falling into the trap set by the Congress – of making the Ram temple a big issue again. Modi's man in Uttar Pradesh, Amit Shah, made a high-profile visit to Ayodhya and said it was his dream to see a Ram temple built there. This again led to speculation that the temple is back on the agenda – even though Modi has been at pains to avoid the Hindutva tag.
The Congress knows the BJP is in a bind on this. The latter cannot openly abandon the Ram temple goal on which it built its fortunes in the 1990s – and so it will be raising the issue again and again. The BJP, when pushed to a corner on this, will come out in a lather saying it will indeed build the temple – but fails to answer how.
On Times Now yesterday, this is what I saw a BJP worthy do – saying the BJP is committed to building the temple. A bland assertion like that is just what the Congress is waiting to pounce on. This is the agenda it wants.
The problem for the BJP is simple: it is in the Congress' interest to keep the focus on Modi and Hindutva, and this is where the Ishrat Jahan case comes in.
First, it paints Modi and Gujarat as part of an evil empire out to murder poor "innocent" Muslims. Since 2002 was a lot rioting and murder, the narrative plays very well on Muslim insecurities.
Second, having lost some of its allies after playing the Modi card, the Congress knows that the BJP will be sorely tempted to play the temple card if it is pressured enough. It will be tempted to seek its own kind of polarisation. This is why it is piling the pressure on the fake encounter case, and also taunting the BJP repeatedly on its failure to build the temple. The BJP is damned if it does, damned if it doesn't. If it says it is no rush for the temple, it will be taunted for a false promise. If it says yes to the temple, it again paints itself into the communal corner that the Congress want to see it in.
Third, even on the Food Security Bill, the Congress has managed to set the agenda. The BJP feels it cannot oppose it because it does not want to seem anti-poor. But having wasted the last few Parliament sessions creating a ruckus, the BJP gave the Congress the perfect excuse to introduce an ordinance and now has no option but to allow it to pass.
The BJP's best hope is to keep the electorate's focus on the economy and governance; but this is exactly what the Congress won't allow it space for. It would prefer to keep the focus on the encounter, Ram temple and other such non-issues so that Muslims can be herded into the voting booth one more time.
If the BJP is to break out of this trap, it has to have a clear line on each of these three issues – and all party spokespersons must speak the same language.
a) It has to say that it wants a Ram temple, but it will not be done outside the law of the land. This is a sane and sensible answer that needs no greater elaboration. Allowing scores of party workers to keep talking endlessly about the temple without talking of respecting the law is a sure vote loser. The young middle class that is entering the voting booths in large numbers—a key Modi vote bank—has other things on its mind than building a temple.
b) On the Food Bill, the BJP should clearly say that this is the wrong bill. What India needs is more protein-based foods, and not rice and wheat – which is anyway available in plenty. It should present its own plan to increase supplies of milk, eggs, veggies, fruits, etc, in abundance and bring their prices down. It could even offer a special cash transfer plan for protein-based food purchases to the poor. Fighting cheap rice with more enticing—but less costly—protein diets is likely to level the field. Even the poor want better food. Rice is downmarket, milk and eggs are not.
c) Every BJP spokesperson should talk about the rupee, the slowdown, the rising cost of fuels, vegetables, et al, never mind the official inflation rate which may be falling.
d) The BJP must also bring focus back to the Congress scams—from 2G to CWG to Coalgate to the real estate gambits of the First Family—from Robert Vadra to Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi.
The BJP is wrong to believe that merely having Modi as its mascot will bring it victory. Many other things have to fall into place. And it cannot afford to forget that the Congress is the best player in the dirty games Olympics. It did not rule the country for over 55 years without knowing how to use power to perpetuate itself in power.
But as of now, it seems safe to say that the BJP has not got its act together, and the Congress has seized control of the agenda.
The writer is editor-in-chief, digital and publishing, Network18 Group