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Rafale Deal: Advantage Rahul Gandhi

Thursday, November 01, 2018
By Bharatkumar Raut

In the eighties, it was the controversial Bofors deal that hit the then prime minister Rajiv Gandhi at a wrong side and ended up his departure from power. Though the Indian judiciary later exonerated him and the Hinduja Business House of all corruption charges, it was too late by then as Rajiv by then had lost his life and the issue had lost all its relevance. It seems now Rafale has replaced Bofors and Ambanis have replaced Hindujas. But the story continues. Ever since the story of Rafale broke out some six months ago, there has been a repeated demand from all corners that Prime Minister Narendra Modi should now break his silence and come out with his side of the story. However, Modi is silent despite many provocations. This situation leaves the Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman to hold the fort all by her. The situation is such that she is visibly failing to defend confidently. If she for any reason fails in the task, not only will she loose her face but the BJP will loose the power.

As the situation stands today, the Rafale deal has finally turned Rahul Gandhi, Congress President, into a power to reckon with. Rahul, who was arrested 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 for 36 fighter jets from France.

‘Chowkidar’ of ‘Chori’
This is possibly the one issue where Rahul has displayed heartland political smartness, 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, Rahul has scored in Rafale against the PM who is a master at setting the narrative; to be fair, Rahul has been vastly enabled by the Modi government seemingly losing the plot.

Rahul 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. Rahul 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 center stage.

"This is the first time I have seen crowds at rallies hang on to Gandhi's word" said a veteran Congressman from Rajasthan. He further observed that they seem to believe his story. Perhaps because he has identified Rafale as the most potent issue and a shorthand for Modi's deeds."

NCP chief Sharad Pawar, who held the Defence Ministry for a brief period during P V Narasimha Rao regime, had earlier "ghosted" Rahul on Rafale, going to the extent of issuing Modi a personal certificate of honesty. He 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. Rahul 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.

Focus on Rafale
He issued orders that all spokespersons had to focus on the Rafale deal, even those who supposedly have relationships with the Anil Ambani group. Rahul's office monitored appearances on TV channels for a week and two spokesmen were pulled up. Rahul also told his party's legal eagles that they could no longer keep retainers or appear for Anil Ambani in court. The BJP's shrill attacks on Rahul 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.

Irony thy name is Politics. Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul's late father, had the most brutal majority in the history of Indian politics. He lost it all because of the Bofors arms deal. Decades later, his son has come of age on another defence deal. Now the situation has come to such a pass that Modi's ship would either sail or will sink in the controversy of Rafale deal.

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