Why Congress should refrain from becoming a poor clone of BJP
Bid to ape the saffron party on social and national security issues, is not a great idea.
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To keep the poll pot boiling, the BJP for long has been using "Pakistan" as a secret ingredient. In fact, it has been used so liberally that it's no longer a secret.
During a rally ahead of the second phase of Gujarat Assembly elections, PM Narendra Modi referred to a dinner hosted by former Union minister Mani Shankar Aiyar in honour of former Pakistan foreign minister, Khurshid Kasuri. Modi in his speech said that former PM Manmohan Singh and former vice-president Hamid Ansari were among the attendees, and the Gujarat elections were discussed. The PM linked Aiyar’s "neech aadmi" remark, for which he was expelled by the Congress, with the meeting.
This is what the PM said during the election rally: “A Pakistan delegation meets at Mani Shankar’s house and the next day he disrespects Gujarat’s society, its pachat (backward) society, its poor and Modi. Don’t all these things raise questions and concern?”
Modi also stated: "Why are people who previously held high posts in the Pakistan military intelligence writing that we should help make Ahmed Patel [senior Congress leader] the CM [of Gujarat]."
Former PM Manmohan Singh, not known for his aggression, responded to the PM’s accusations by stating that: "I sincerely hope that Prime Minister Narendra Modi will show the maturity and gravitas expected of the high office he holds instead of concentrating his energy solely on erroneously scored brownie points... Sadly and regrettably, Modi is setting a dangerous precedent by his insatiable desire to tarnish every constitutional office, including that of a former prime minister and Army chief."
Pakistan an electoral issue
This is not the first time that Pakistan has become an election issue. Even in previous election campaigns, the BJP has invoked Pakistan. In the run-up to the 2014 General Elections, Modi repeatedly stated that the Congress was sharing "chicken biryani with Pakistan while Indians soldiers were dying along the border". This is the then BJP’s PM candidate in March 2013 said:
"Heads of our soldiers are cut but then their prime minister is fed chicken biryani."
Modi was referring to the lunch hosted by Khurshid for then Pakistan Prime Minister, Raja Pervaiz Ashraf, and his entourage, at Jaipur's Rambagh Palace hotel. Ashraf had flown into Jaipur in a Pakistan Air Force plane on his way to the sufi shrine of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer. The lunch was hosted days after Indian soldiers had been beheaded on January 8, 2013. PM Manmohan Singh had unequivocally condemned the Pakistani action, saying that in such an environment, peace was next to impossible. There is no doubt, that tensions between both countries were high, but this was a courtesy being extended to a head of state, and for the BJP to make an issue of this was rather immature, though Congress too should have been less defensive in regard to the move.
Congress’s defensive approach
While the BJP has played a significant role in lowering the discourse and increasing the pitch on Pakistan, the Congress too is to be blamed. In the aftermath of the Sharm el-Sheikh episode (July 16, 2009) the Congress did not stand behind Singh.
The then Indian PM, Manmohan Singh, and his Pakistani counterpart Yousuf Raza Gilani met on the sidelines of the Non-Aligned Summit at Sharm el-Sheikh. The joint statement spoke about de-hyphenating terrorism from the composite dialogue, while also making a mention of Indian meddling in Balochistan. Said the joint statement, Pakistan has "some information on threats in Balochistan and other areas".
It is not just the Opposition, but even a section within the ruling Congress party, put the PM on the mat publically. Besides not supporting Manmohan Singh, his party, rather than owning the peace initiative with Pakistan, was critical of Narendra Modi’s overtures towards Pakistan, especially the impromptu stop over at Lahore in December 2015 on his return from Kabul.
The PM stopped over to wish then Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, while also congratulating Sharif and his family for the latter’s granddaughter’s wedding.
PM Modi did commit a U-turn as has been the case on many issues, but the grand old party should have welcomed the initiative and declared its own victory. Instead, the Congress was critical of the decision.
Manish Tewari, one of the articulate faces within the Congress stated, "If the decision is not preposterous then it is utterly ridiculous. This adventure of PM Modi is going to have serious implications on India’s national security."
Attempts to ape the BJP
Within the Congress, there are sections which want to outflank the BJP on issues pertaining to national security, religious identity etc. It is not just over Pakistan, but even on sensitive issues such as military, terrorism and playing the Hindu card (as was evident from the recent Gujarat elections), the party has taken a line similar to that of the BJP not out of conviction, but political opportunism.
The Congress should realise that its attempts of aping the BJP on social and national security issues, is not a great idea. Whenever the party has meddled in religious issues, it has harmed not only the party, but the country. Similarly on security issues, it cannot be weak, but it cannot capture the extreme right space either.
If Congress takes a similar position to the BJP, it leaves centrists with no options. One hopes, that Rahul Gandhi, who has conducted himself with dignity during the Gujarat election campaign, will not seek to indulge in competitive nationalism, and create a niche for Congress as a genuinely centrist/centre-left alternative which is progressive and pragmatic, while also being compassionate.