The Congress’s heightened state of agitation over Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s jibe at Manmohan Singh and its decision to boycott the PM in Parliament for the rest of the budget session because of it, only draws attention to its own depleted political arsenal — to the hollow sounds it is making. In the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, while replying to the motion of thanks on the presidential address, Modi said that Singh knew the art of bathing while wearing a raincoat. It was a taunt directed at a predecessor whose personal image and reputation, as many have pointed out previously, has seemed remarkably untouched by the several accusations of corruption levelled against his regime. Of course, it could be said that the PM could have used different rhetoric to make his point. It is possible to argue that the parliamentary joust can be more aesthetically appealing than this. But to fulminate, as the Congress has done, against the “derogatory language” and intolerable “disrespect” to a former PM, and to demand that the PM must apologise, withdraw his remarks, or else, is surely to inflate the issue to cover up an absence.
In its tenure as the main party of the Opposition so far, the Congress has seemed to lack a strategy and tactic, inside Parliament and outside it, which is not dependent on episodic and noisy eruptions — the sustained and purposeful argument that led to the rollback of the law on land acquisition has seemed more of an exception. The party’s recourse now to what must surely be the weapon of last resort in a parliamentary democracy — the boycott of the prime minister — in response to a merely inelegant jab, is revealing. It shows that the party does not have a proportionate or graded response to perceived provocation. The question the Congress must ask itself, as a party that has ruled the Centre and has stakes in the system, is this: Where does it go from here? Having raised its pitch so high, what more can it do to register its protest at the PM’s barb? The Congress must also know that the other, arguably more legitimate, arguments in the Opposition’s case — that
the PM and finance minister “misinformed” the House on certain aspects of demonetisation, or that the PM did not address or answer questions raised in the debate on the motion of thanks — are getting relegated in its show of petulance.
This episode also underlines a feature of the Modi prime ministership. When he first entered Parliament, the PM bowed in respect, expressed his deference to the institution. Ever since then, however, it has not always seemed that his government upholds parliamentary conventions and boundaries. All too often, as in the PM’s Rajya Sabha speech on Wednesday, the belligerence of the electoral arena has been allowed to enter the House, and the spirit of dialogue and engagement forced to take a backseat. Even as its noise shows up the Congress’s lack of tactic, constantly looking back over his shoulder, halfway into his tenure, to target the political opponent, does not behove the PM.