7 February 2020
“Maine Congress ke ek neta ka kal ghoshana patra suna,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said in the Lok Sabha Thursday. (“Yesterday, I heard the manifesto of a Congress leader.”)
He then went on to refer to Rahul Gandhi’s statement that in six months, India’s youth will start raining wooden rods (danda) on the prime minister. Modi, of course, did not mention that Rahul Gandhi made this forecast on account of rising unemployment in India.
But if you hadn’t heard Rahul Gandhi’s rally speech in Delhi the previous day, you wouldn’t know which Congress leader Modi was referring to. He did not mention Rahul Gandhi by name.
When Rahul Gandhi stood up to interject, PM Modi sharpened his attack further, calling Rahul Gandhi a slow “tubelight”. Once again, he did not say either Rahul or Gandhi.
Narendra Modi does name Rahul Gandhi on Twitter once a year – to wish him on his birthday. Modi had also named Rahul Gandhi while congratulating him on becoming the Congress president in December 2017. But these are perfunctory greetings.
In political speeches, I have never heard Narendra Modi say the words “Rahul Gandhi”. If you can find a rare instance, the exception will only prove the rule.
In his early days as Gujarat chief minister, Narendra Modi famously referred to Rahul Gandhi as “shehzada,” Urdu for prince. It was a dog whistle of a kind, subtly equating Rahul Gandhi with Muslims.
In what was by far the most distasteful instance of Modi finding alternative ways to refer to Rahul Gandhi, he wondered early last year if an invention to help dyslexic students could also help 40-year-olds. He didn’t have to say who he was referring to. Everyone knew.
Around 2013, the BJP built Rahul Gandhi’s image as “Pappu”, a dim-witted boy. Modi’s campaign team has a ‘Pappupedia’ division to create and disseminate social media jokes and cartoons that depict Rahul Gandhi as dumb. I have met someone who was part of this team.
But Modi has himself never used the word ‘Pappu’, to the best of my knowledge. Modi seems to believe that naming an opponent actually helps him/her. If Modi uses the words ‘Rahul Gandhi’, it could make people think about Rahul Gandhi in many different ways. Someone might think of secularism, someone might think of farmers, someone might think of Rajiv Gandhi.
It is Rahul Gandhi’s mistake to use the words ‘Narendra Modi’ all too often. He could learn from Modi and stop using the word ‘Modi’.
In Priyanka Gandhi’s statements before cameras, I have seen her avoid the words ‘Narendra’ and ‘Modi’. She seems to get it.
This was also a problem with Rahul Gandhi’s “Chowkidar Chor Hai” slogan (the watchman is the thief). The slogan was a play on Modi’s claim that he was the nation’s watchman, or chowkidar. The slogan reminded people of how Modi wants to be seen: as a chowkidar. Sure enough, Modi did some ambush marketing and coined a counter-slogan, ‘Main bhi Chowkidar’, urging his supporters to join his symbolic project of ‘guarding the nation’.