Rahul Gandhi criticised the Central government and Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a press conference on New Year’s Eve in Delhi about Chinese incursions along the border. But instead of repeating the oft-repeated charge that China had taken Indian territory and that the government was handling the situation poorly, he emphasised and went into more detail on one subject.
Rahul Gandhi remarked, “They think I’m talking about the Army when I talk about the government.
“No. I’m not referring to the Army. I’m referring to the executive branch. The government and the Army are two different things. The Army, Navy, and Air Force should not be used as a cover by the government because it has made bad decisions. That’s being a coward. Government should take responsibility. We made a mistake in the way we did it, and we will correct it. We’ll lend a hand. The entire Opposition, not just us, will support the administration. But describe what occurred.
Rahul Gandhi’s clarification was politically noteworthy because the governing BJP had accused him and the Congress of insulting the forces and casting doubt on their bravery and valour in relation to China after the Galwan clash as well as Pakistan after the 2016 surgical strike and the 2019 Balakot air raid. Many in the Congress had been suggesting that the party needed to be more cautious in how it criticised national security problems for fear that the BJP would use it against it and have the attack backfire.
There is also a past. In the summer of 1999, when the Kargil conflict was about to come to a close, the Congress had similarly unleashed a fusillade against the Atal Bihari Vajpayee administration. In a subsequent statement, the Congress Working Committee charged that the government had “deliberately kept the people in the dark” about the Pakistani invasion since doing so would have undermined the “much-lauded Lahore ethos” and exposed Vajpayee to “ridicule” in front of the country.
The Vajpayee administration was then charged by the Congress with incompetence, which it claimed “cost the nation many courageous and valuable lives.” The assault failed. A few months later, the Congress saw its third straight defeat in the Lok Sabha elections. At a campaign event, Sonia Gandhi, the then-president of the Congress, is infamous for calling the government a “gaddar (traitor)” for allegedly importing sugar from Pakistan at the height of the Kargil conflict.
Her comments were picked up by the BJP, who said she had called an accomplished leader like Vajpayee a traitor. The Congress responded by claiming that she had not adopted his moniker but rather had just called those individuals who had brought sugar from Pakistan during the war “traitors.” Since then, the Congress has had difficulty articulating its public positions on national security concerns, whether it is in the administration or the Opposition. Ironic coming from a party whose administration divided Pakistan in half in 1971.
Every time the UPA government dealt with Pakistan, the BJP criticised it. After terrorist incidents, the BJP in Opposition used to criticise the UPA administration harshly, but their language tended toward aggression and war-mongering. After Lance Naik Sudhakar Singh and Hemraj were slain by Pakistan Army regulars who sneaked into the Poonch area of Jammu and Kashmir in 2013, Sushma Swaraj urged India to “get ten heads for one head.” If his head (Hemraj’s) couldn’t be returned from Pakistan, Swaraj remarked, “we should get at least 10 heads from their side.”
The constant argument was that the Indian forces could accomplish anything and that the government should provide them complete autonomy. After the BJP overhyped the 2016 surgical strike across the Line of Control, the Congress found itself in a precarious position as the Opposition.
Its initial reaction was to welcome the military operation, but it may have lost its way when the BJP started aggressively touting the operation as Prime Minister Modi’s accomplishment. After the airstrike on Balakot, the same scenario repeated itself during the Lok Sabha election campaign in 2019. Once more, the election was badly lost by the Congress.
The fact that Rahul Gandhi publicly criticised veteran and twice-elected chief minister Digvijaya Singh shows that the Congress’ top brass understands the necessity for extreme caution when it comes to the party’s articulation of national security problems, which has historically been its Achilles heel. The message is that party leaders would need to restrain their urge and temper their criticisms of the Modi administration on matters of national security.