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Ambani: The one name you will hear often till 2019 elections

By Maneesh Chhibber

Make no mistake, Rafale is Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bofors moment. A lot will still depend on how the Congress and its chief Rahul Gandhi take the fight forward to turn the issue into a vote-garnering political fireball in the 2019 elections. But Modi is certainly on the back foot now.
Personally, he is as guilty or guilt-free of corruption in the mega deal as Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi was more than 30 years ago. But Modi must know that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has lost the high moral ground now.
Get ready to hear Anil Ambani’s name being mentioned repeatedly in the run-up to the elections now. But, this isn’t about Rahul, Bofors or even Ambani. It is about Modi.
Nobody in the contemporary Indian political scene understands the importance of the perception factor in winning an election more than Modi. Whether it is hubris or over-confidence, the master strategist seems to have decided not to correct the perception that his government helped Ambani become the offset partner for Dassault, the manufacturer of Rafale jets.
If not corruption, Modi has certainly been cornered on the issue of crony capitalism. This brings us to the important question, which must also be weighing on the minds of several BJP leaders and right-wing supporters: Why is the Prime Minister silent?
Modi is among the best political orators we have today. He has a way of connecting with the masses, something that few leaders – yes, I am being charitable here – in the Congress can. Why then was he busy attending inane events, even if those are shown live on most channels, when his party was clearly on the back foot a day after former French president Francois Hollande claimed that the Indian government proposed the Indian partner for the Rafale deal?
Modi is his party’s biggest mascot as well as its most effective salesman. In leaving crucial issues to be defended by ‘the unelected’ – a coinage by Arun Jaitley in another context – he is only queering the pitch for himself.
To say that Modi is an effective communicator would be stating the obvious. But nobody, not even his vast army of supporters, can be faulted for wondering aloud why he is leaving all the defending to others, especially when most of his defenders have little connect with the masses.
Defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who is clearly not cut-out for the post that she is currently holding, has played a crucial role in making things difficult for her government and the party. Sniping at journalists and other politicians isn’t the way to tide over choppy waters.
Ditto for the party spokespersons whose studied response to every question, including those not connected to the Rafale, seems to be two counter-questions: Has the Congress forgotten its own scams? Why is it trying to break India?
Sorry, but nobody is buying this anymore. True, many Modi voters in 2014 still strongly believe that the UPA era Congress was corrupt. But then, they also have started asking why Modi hasn’t taken any action against them. Is Robert Vadra in jail? Has any action been taken against Jayanthi Natarajan – remember the “Jayanthi tax” jibe by Modi during the 2014 campaign – except a raid in search of some papers? What about the 2G case, which was allegedly mishandled by the central investigating agency and finally led to the special court acquitting every accused?
Modi speaks a lot but the public is getting disenchanted with and disinterested in his speeches. It was looking for quick action against all those that Modi called corrupt. For some reason that hasn’t happened. And, if the CBI, ED, Income Tax department do go after Vadra and others, it will be seen as a last-ditch attempt by a vindictive government, trying to deflect attention from its own shortcomings in the run up to the crucial national elections next year.
Nobody knows and understands all this better than Modi himself. But, he is silent.
Since taking over as the Prime Minister, Modi has not held a single press conference and has preferred what appear to be scripted interviews.
Rafale may be the issue that could finally force him to take questions from the media. Unless, he still thinks he can afford to keep quiet in the hope that the dust will soon settle. But the canny politician that he is, he knows fully well that the opposition has finally landed a sharp blow on his carefully groomed persona. And, that only he can douse this fire. But, he needs to do it fast.
Because this issue isn’t going to simply fade away, especially since Rahul and his Congress have invested so much political capital in it.
The way things are proceeding, Manmohan Singh, it seems, may actually return the taunt that was heaped on him by referring to the PM as ‘Maun’ Modi (silent Modi). Remember the ‘Maun’mohan Singh jibe? If he doesn’t break his silence, it may well be goodbye 2019.