Story of Cong ‘compassion’ vs BJP ‘aggression’ in polls

The image of an elderly woman hugging Congress President Rahul Gandhi, which the Congress used to promote their NYAY scheme, has generated much controversy. Many opposed to the party claimed it was photoshopped. Perhaps it was, but that was hardly the point of the picture. What the picture actually revealed was how actively the Congress sought to highlight an ‘alternative politics’ that it has been pitching with an eye on General Elections 2019.

The representative phrase for their idea of an alternative politics is a “politics of compassion”, frequently repeated in Congress campaigns and press conferences by different office bearers of the party.

Both the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress have entered this election fray pitching their own competing narratives. While the BJP seems to be comfortable continuing their rhetoric of aggressive nationalism and divisive politics, the Congress – out of power at the Centre and in a majority of the States – seems to have recouped at long last.  It is trying its best to present itself as a strong contender for power at the Centre and its president, Rahul Gandhi, as a deserving candidate for the prime ministerial post. 

During the 2014 elections, it was low on morale and high on lethargy. But now the party seems to have understood the need to reinvent itself to stay relevant. To this end, it seems to be trying out a mix of positions, of which one strand that has stood out is its invocation of a “politics of compassion”. It sees this as a coherent, alternative narrative to counter Narendra Modi’s brand of nationalism. 

It could be argued that the thought process behind the current political pitch of Congress began a year ago at least. Rahul Gandhi hugging Prime Minister Modi during a discussion in Lok Sabha and claiming that his brand of politics represented ‘love’ is a telling moment in the unfolding of this narrative.  

As the 2019 election dates drew closer, Rahul Gandhi’s speeches and tweets made repeated references to his politics of “love and compassion” vis-á-vis, what he called, the BJP’s “politics of hatred.” His sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s relatively new entry and exchanges on Twitter too were marked by praise for renunciation of violence and hatred. Sonia Gandhi, in her speech at a recent event, claimed that the “soul of the country” was being crushed under the current regime. 
Congress is not leaving any stone unturned in advertising this brand of ‘compassionate politics’ as superior to Modi’s “divisive” rhetoric and in pitching this election as a battle for the “soul of the country.” Party leaders actively publicised how Rahul Gandhi aided an injured journalist in Delhi in January 2019, and how both the Gandhi siblings come to the rescue of journalists injured during their road show in Wayanad. Similarly, they have praised Rahul Gandhi’s call to citizens to vote for the “soul of India”. 

Notwithstanding the important role that regional players are expected to play in this election, Congress and the BJP have asserted themselves as  major players in this war of optics. It is interesting to note that both parties are not sharing their competing narratives with their regional allies, who are also potential coalition partners in a future government at the Centre. Regional players, wanting to keep their options open, are also not aligning themselves explicitly with either of these narratives. 

For the BJP and the Congress, the micro-logic of implementing the policies and programs that arise out of their respective narratives may not always tally with the larger narrative. For example, Congress has adopted a soft Hindutva approach in the states that it recently came to power in, promising cow protection and so on. Similarly, the BJP is also willing to deviate from its nationalist and divisive narrative according to the needs of vote bank politics. Recently, one BJP candidate for the Lok Sabha polls from Kerala promised his constituents “good quality beef” if he were to be elected to power. 

What is perhaps more interesting beyond the war of optics is how and why the two national parties – the Congress and the BJP – are fighting each other through competing narratives. 
BJP, which rode to victory in the 2014 polls on the dynamic image of Modi, continued the brand of muscular and majoritarian nationalism during its stay in power. This was marked by its soft approach towards cow vigilantes, a retaliatory foreign policy towards Pakistan and a generally divisive approach. 

Their campaign speeches and manifesto give the impression that they are planning to continue this line. It is imperative for the BJP to continue to please their supporters who were disappointed with the alleged weak foreign policy and minority appeasement of the Congress. 

The Congress which was out of power for the last five years does not have the wherewithal to sell such a narrative and compete with the BJP on similar lines, even though it might want to. In comparison, the BJP led by Prime Minister Modi has plenty to boost his party’s nationalist narrative. It wants to present itself as the only party which can safeguard the sovereignty and integrity of India.  Additionally, to appeal to the sections of the electorate that are disappointed with the BJP, Congress has to present itself as inclusive and provide a credible alternative. Through its   “politics of compassion”, the Congress is attempting to carve out a niche space for itself and tap into the discontent with the Modi regime. 

Whether the “politics of compassion’ will aid the Congress or not and whether BJP’s hyper-nationalist narrative will continue to work in its favor in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections will be clear only post the declaration of results. 

(Aparna Vincent is a political scientist specialising in the study of rhetoric and symbolism in Indian politics. She completed her PhD from the University of Hyderabad)

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Story of Cong ‘compassion’ vs BJP ‘aggression’ in polls

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