New Delhi: Congress leader Anand Sharma raised many eyebrows Sunday, when he welcomed Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s three-city tour to review the Covid-19 vaccine development the previous day.
Sharma, deputy leader of the opposition in the Rajya Sabha and a former Union minister, stepped away from the Congress’ official line on the subject — he called the PM’s trip a move that will “lift the morale of frontline warriors and reassure the nation”, while his party had called it a way to seek “publicity”.
However, a few hours later, Sharma seemed to try and make amends when he tweeted a reworked statement, saying that “lines got misplaced resulting in avoidable confusion” in the original tweet.
This isn’t the first time a Congress leader has tried to appreciate an effort or an initiative by PM Modi. Multiple Congress leaders have argued against the strategy to indulge in personal attacks against PM Modi, but faced ire from Rahul Gandhi, the former party president and Wayanad MP.
Rahul Gandhi’s line
In June this year, Rahul had lashed out at party leaders at a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting for not directly criticising PM Modi, saying he wasn’t “scared of naming Modi”.
Gandhi reportedly lost his temper after party leader R.P.N. Singh had suggested that the criticism of PM Modi should “not be personal”, but issue-based. However, Rahul’s sister and Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra had reiterated Rahul’s complaint, saying that “barring Rahul ji and a few”, the rest of the Congress leaders avoided direct criticism of PM Modi.
Thus, Anand Sharma’s original comment seems like a direct repudiation and defiance of Rahul Gandhi’s line to make direct attacks against PM Modi.
Rahul himself hasn’t shied away from launching scathing attacks against PM Modi: Whether it means levelling corruption charges against him in 2016, saying he is in possession of diaries that would ‘expose’ Modi, or the controversy over the Rafale deal, in which he accused PM Modi of having “sold” the Indian Air Force and “stolen” opportunities from the youth by giving away Rs 30,000 crore to his “friend” and businessman Anil Ambani.
Sharma’s initial statement against the official party line is also significant because just last week, he had hit out at those in the Congress who slammed “dissenters” and called for “decency and decorum” to be maintained.
The former Union minister was one of the 23 leaders who had, in August this year, written a letter to interim party president Sonia Gandhi, calling for “full-time and effective leadership”.
3 leaders who said ‘don’t demonise Modi’ faced ire
Ever since the Modi-led BJP’s win in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, there has been a persistent debate within the Congress about whether or not attacking the PM directly is the “right strategy”, or something that’s likely to backfire.
In August last year, senior Congress leaders Abhishek Manu Singhvi, Jairam Ramesh and Shashi Tharoor had all argued that “demonising” PM Modi wasn’t the right approach.
At a book launch, Rajya Sabha MP Ramesh had said PM Modi’s governance was “not a complete negative story”, adding that the opposition must recognise the work done by PM Modi, for which he was voted back to power with 37.4 per cent of the electorate choosing him.
Ramesh, also a former Union minister, had gone on to cite the Ujjwala scheme — offering free LPG gas connections along with cylinders to ‘Below Poverty Line’ families — as something that contributed to BJP’s victory.
“Modi talks in a language that connects him with the people…If you criticise him all the time, you are not going to be able to confront him,” Ramesh said.
Singhvi had concurred with Ramesh, saying he had “always said demonising Modi (is) wrong”.
Always said demonising #Modi wrong. No only is he #PM of nation, a one way opposition actually helps him. Acts are always good, bad & indifferent—they must be judged issue wise and nt person wise. Certainly, #ujjawala scheme is only one amongst other good deeds. #Jairamramesh
— Abhishek Singhvi (@DrAMSinghvi) August 23, 2019
Tharoor, too, had said he had long held the same belief.
“As you know, I have argued for six years now that Narendra Modi should be praised whenever he says or does the right thing, which would add credibility to our criticisms whenever he errs,” he said.
. As you know, I have argued for six years now that @narendramodi should be praised whenever he says or does the right thing, which would add credibility to our criticisms whenever he errs. I welcome others in Oppn coming around to a view for which i was excoriated at the time!
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) August 23, 2019
However, the three leaders’ comments hadn’t gone down too well with sections of the Congress party.
Veteran Congress leader and former Union minister K.K. Tiwari had urged Congress interim president Sonia Gandhi to “immediately suspend Congressmen who are making such statements in favour of Modi and show them the door”.
Tharoor, specifically, had come under fire from the Kerala Congress, who had called his views “unacceptable” and an “attempt to portray PM Modi in a good light”.
Tharoor, also a former Union minister, had borne the brunt for his candour in praising PM Modi in the past too. In an article for Huffington Post in 2014, Tharoor had called PM Modi an “avatar of modernity and progress”, who had remodelled himself from being a “hate figure”.
Subsequently, in a press conference, he had said the opposition must not be “churlish” in ignoring the signalling being done by PM Modi.
The final straw was when Tharoor swiftly accepted PM Modi’s invite to be an ambassador for the Swachh Bharat mission, following which he was removed as the Congress’ spokesperson. The Kerala unit had also submitted a report to the All India Congress Committee, flagging Tharoor’s praise for Modi.
‘Rahul’s advice is never to indulge in personal attacks’
Asked about the different approaches taken by various leaders over how to attack the Modi government, Congress spokesperson Jaiveer Shergill said “there is no one fixed and uniform formula or methodology to question or expose the government”.
“Certain times, there needs to be a direct attack on PM Modi in order to expose the hypocrisy in his words and actions, while keeping in mind the respect for the office,” Shergill said. “In other cases, the issue demands rising above party lines in the interest of the nation.”
Shergill added that the larger consensus within the party, on the advice of Rahul Gandhi, is to never indulge in personal attacks or mudslinging against the PM.
“That is the reason he (Rahul) has never called the PM any names, even when he has been at the receiving end of personal attacks,” Shergill insisted.
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