The optically-dodgy Rafale deal has finally turned Rahul Gandhi, Congress President, into a real leader. Gandhi, who was arrested today for protesting outside the CBI headquarters, has been consistent on what he calls the "Rafale scam"; his stand has placed him on the same side as Yashwant Sinha, Arun Shourie and Prashant Bhushan; most if not all other opposition leaders have been weak-willed or ineffectual in accusing the Modi government of crony capitalism at the least and outright corruption at worst in signing up for 36 fighter jets from France.
This is possibly the one issue where Gandhi has displayed heartland political smarts, hit the streets, used it as a hot button campaign issue in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh and, most importantly, set the agenda and the narrative. None of this comes naturally to him. But he has, from the beginning, used the Rafale controversy to hit straight at Modi, accusing the "chowkidar" of "chori."
With this catchy if crude idiom, Gandhi has scored in Rafale against the PM who is a master at setting the narrative; to be fair, Gandhi has been vastly enabled by the Modi government seemingly losing the plot with the late-night coup that saw CBI chief Alok Verma being forced from his office.
Gandhi has smartly broken down Rafale for dummies. "Billionaire friend helped by crooked PM" is the communication strategy and it seems to be working as well as "Suit boot ki Sarkar" as defining image of the Modi Sarkar.
Gandhi now even has support from his fractious allies. Sensing the traction of the issue, Mamata Banerjee the most temperamental putative ally of Gandhi, sent her troops today to join in the agitation.
This is perhaps the first time that Gandhi has individually been able to carry along opposition leaders who belong to a different generation and who were not about to give him any quarter in occupying opposition centerstage.
Says a senior Congress leader from Rajasthan where Gandhi campaigned yesterday, "This is the first time I have seen crowds at rallies hang on to Gandhi's word. They seem to believe his story. Perhaps because he has identified Rafale as the most potent issue and a shorthand for Modi's (mis)deeds. Remember this - I am telling you we are winning Rajasthan and that will give us energy to push for 2019."
I would normally dismiss this as the heirloom hopes of the Congress but because Gandhi has plugged away at Rafale, he has forced the other leaders to finally use it to target Modi.
Unpredictable on and off ally NCP chief Sharad Pawar who had earlier "ghosted" Gandhi on Rafale, going to the extent of issuing Modi a personal certificate of honesty, has now meekly fallen into line. Pawar had no choice as his party read him the riot act and Ahmed Patel, the Congress's new treasurer told him bluntly to decide on his relationship status with the opposition. Pawar had to commit and do the deal on seats in Maharashtra from his earlier dalliance with Modi and Shah.
Gandhi has been equally tough with his party, well aware of the fact that the Rafale deal, since it was negotiated personally by Modi, cannot be fobbed off by the government onto other officials. He issued orders that all spokies had to focus on the Rafale deal, even those who supposedly have relationships with the Anil Ambani group. Gandhi's office monitored appearances on TV channels for a week and two spokesman were pulled up.
Gandhi also told his party's legal eagles that they could no longer keep retainers or appear for Anil Ambani in court. Says a senior leader ,"They were told you are either with the Congress or Anil Ambani. That was the end of the cosy relationship".
The BJP's shrill attacks on Gandhi calling him a "clown prince" and "serial liar" have raised his public profile, and because the BJP reacts so viscerally to him, he is now taken more seriously across the political spectrum. The moment 17 BJP ministers rush to TV channels to decry how they don't take Gandhi seriously, they give the game away.
Politics is always about irony. Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul's father, had the most brutal majority in the history of Indian politics. He lost it all because of the the Bofors arms deal. Decades later, his son has come of age on another defence deal.
(Swati Chaturvedi is an author and a journalist who has worked with The Indian Express, The Statesman and The Hindustan Times.)
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