In the Anant Hegde controversy, a lesson for Rahul Gandhi to look beyond temple-visits
Just a week after losing two key Assembly polls, the Congress party is likely to end the year on a partially high note. Displaying firm resistance in Parliament, the party and its allies in the Opposition managed to extract two apologies back-to-back from an otherwise brazen Bharatiya Janata Party and two of its Union Ministers.
The first came from someone of no less a stature than the Finance Minister and Leader of the House in the Rajya Sabha, Arun Jaitley. He apologised on behalf of his entire government for Prime Minister Narendra Modi's conduct.
Though Jaitley's proxy-statement – ideally, Modi should have made it – was technically short of an apology, it did show the BJP having forced to eat humble pie. The finance minister said his government held Singh and Ansari in high esteem and never questioned their commitment to the nation.
That was a far cry from what Modi had alleged just about a fortnight ago, that the two leaders and some others had colluded with Pakistan to defeat BJP in Gujarat.
Another day, another apology
The second apology came just a day later, when Anantkumar Hegde, Union minister of state for skill development, apologised for his comments on the Constitution, in the Lok Sabha. A media report had pointed out on 26 December that Hegde had said at a public meeting in Karnataka that the BJP had come to power to change the Constitution and would change it.
Since then, Opposition leaders in Parliament had been livid over this statement and had been demanding that Hegde should either apologise or resign as minister. How could somebody who had sworn allegiance to the Constitution have such lack of faith in it, they asked.
On 28 December, Hegde apologised in the Lok Sabha, prodded by the Speaker, saying – “I respect the Constitution and believe that it is supreme. If, however, my statement has hurt anyone's sentiment, I have no problems in apologising for it".
Are apologies real victories?
The Congress party has proudly posted on its twitter time-line that Hegde apologised – “After protests by Congress members”.
After protests by Congress members Union Minister Anant Kumar Hegde apologises for his comments on changing the constitution. https://t.co/HQvuQJpRFn— Congress (@INCIndia) December 28, 2017
This indicates the party is indeed taking it as some sort of an achievement that it forced a minister in the Modi-government to bend. But the Congress should be well-advised to look beyond the obvious.
Hegde is a habitual offender and is not new to such controversies. His Twitter timeline is evidence enough of his penchant for rabble-rousing.
Yet, he was inducted into the Union cabinet, just a few months ago.
Do you remember why was he brought in? Not just because he is a five-term MP now, but because his home-state Karnataka will go to polls in 2018 and the BJP is hungry to come back to power in the state.
By picking the fire-brand MP for a berth in the Union council of ministers, Modi, BJP chief Amit Shah and RSS signalled their approval of Hegde's approach to electoral victory.
Does his apology indicate a rethink in that strategy? Not in the least.
An apology is only a convenient ploy for the BJP, to be used to calm ruffled feathers whenever decibel levels get too high. It is not a guarantee that the transgression will not be repeated. It is, in fact, only a tool to divert attention from the ulterior motive.
Look beyond the obvious
The Manmohan-Pakistan controversy is a classic demonstration of the BJP's strategy – say or do something radically polarising, snatch away victory and then, if need be, apologise. The party may have almost apologised for Modi's sinister allegation against Singh and Ansari, but that missile had already hit its target.
The morality of his allegations aside, Modi succeeded in making BJP win Gujarat again, even if the party came too close to defeat this time. That is his craft and that is the Congress' challenge.
Ashok Gehlot, Gujarat in-charge and one of the party's wiliest old war-horses, has understood this game. In a fresh but simple articulation of what liberals label as Congress's soft-Hindutva, Gehlot has said the biggest challenge for his party is that it needs to counter the narrative that BJP has succeeded in selling – that Congress is synonymous with Muslims and that the BJP is equivalent to Hindus.
He explained that Congress gave the country a message that the party takes all religions along but the BJP misused that perception to create a narrative among Hindus that Congress has become a party only for Muslims. He said this was the same narrative that BJP had successfully sold to people during the Ram Mandir-movement over three decades ago.
Gehlot's assessment is that perception is still prevalent to a significant extent in the country and it is important to counter it in national interest.
Karnataka is a communally-sensitive state and the BJP will use polarisation as a tool in the run-up to elections there too. Hegde will be among the leading faces of that campaign. To counter him and his party there, the Congress will have to think beyond its own Gujarat-model. As the results have shown, Gandhi's temple-hopping was not sufficient enough an enticement for the voter.
To get Hegde to apologise for his comments will not dent the BJP's prospects in Karnataka. The open threat to the Constitution that he gave must be resisted, but it will not help the Congress much if it focuses only on Hegde's speeches. Congress has to counter the larger narrative and carve out its own message.
What is this message? To articulate this is the real challenge for the man who has just taken the mantle from his mother.