Fifth column: Reversing roles
Odd things happen at election time. Friends become foes, ideologies blur and bitter rivals can end up on the same side. Last week saw a reversal of roles so bizarre that as a responsible political columnist I consider it my duty to bring it to your attention. Sonia Gandhi met Ahmed Bukhari, the Imam of Delhi’s Jama Masjid, and reportedly asked him to urge Muslims to vote en bloc for the Congress to defeat communalism. Meanwhile, Narendra Modi, the man she once called a ‘maut ka saudagar (merchant of death)’, gave us a lecture on the nuances of ‘real’ secularism. In long years of covering elections, I have never before seen such a reversal of roles.
What makes this reversal most interesting is that it finally forced Modi to fall into the Congress trap and talk about secularism. Congress campaign managers had carefully planned a strategy that was centered around frightening voters (especially Muslim voters) to shun Modi on Hindutva grounds. But ever since he became the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, he has stayed far away from any mention of Hindutva. And he seems to have consciously avoided getting into the fetid debate over secularism and communalism that has so often distracted India away from much more important things such as the war against poverty.
At public rallies across the country, Modi has emphasised that his priorities, if he becomes prime minister, will be to give India better governance so that ordinary Indians can finally dream a dream of prosperity. So cleverly has he dictated the agenda of the campaign that Rahul Gandhi has been forced to respond with his own economic ideas. These are simple and simply explained even if they are not true. Only the Congress cares about poor people, Rahul says at his public rallies and to the televised gatherings of coolies, rickshaw-wallahs, fishermen, tribal folk and assorted other disadvantaged groups whom he has sought out.
It is because the Congress cares so much about the poor, he tells them, that it has spent the past decade giving ordinary Indians the right to information, education, tribal land and cheap food grain. And, if the gods are kind and allow a UPA-III to come to be, then there will be more rights available like a right to free medicines and healthcare. He emphasises that these things have happened because the Congress cares for the poor while the BJP cares only for the rich.
Not true for obvious reasons. No political party can hope to win even a municipal election in India by relying on the votes of rich Indians. Us political pundits have, nevertheless, been so delighted that economic issues have dominated the campaign that reams continued…