Round Peg in a Square Hole?
On 3 August, 2018, the Congress confirmed that the opposition will not name a prime ministerial candidate to run against Narendra Modi in the 2019 elections. That excludes among other things, the possibility of a very consequential and potentially costly face-off for Rahul Gandhi, the current President of the party and the political heir of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The opposition, which is very serious about that particular tag, plan on a campaign by elimination, with their main aim being to defeat the BJP and to eliminate Modi from power. The Congress is seeking alliances with the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samajwadi Party, Rashtriya Lok Dal and probably more other such deals with the devils. As of now, the campaign seems more of an independence struggle rather than a campaign for conquest.
But much of what remains constant, giving the benefit of the doubt to Rahul Gandhi for the fiendish trolling campaign against him, he is no renaissance man in Indian politics. He doesn’t challenge the status quo, he is what conserves it. He is not the solution, he is part of the problem. A ‘youth leader’ at age 48, with murky political and philosophical projections and highly conventional foreign policy and economic plans, an heir to a family that is privy to monarchical privileges and power in a democratic country, seemingly unconfident about his and his party’s vision, and has nothing new to say.
Gandhi belongs to a family that is almost impossible to be judged categorically or absolutely. Having ruled the country for 40 out of its 71 years of independence, it has consolidated power in ways that makes their severance from the party almost unthinkable (but only until now) and this has given rise to a sick culture of sycophancy and nepotism in India, which has now become almost a national crisis, given that even Modi revels in it. Sure enough the court of history will acquit them of all misdemeanours and crimes, for it is they who have scripted most of post-Independent India’s history. The exploitation of the ‘post-colonial minds’ was and will always be tragic, and Rahul Gandhi’s rise to power in the Congress is a vulgar display of that exploitation and his family’s cosmic power. As with the rise of the ‘billionaire Raj’ in India, as James Crabtree notes in his recent book, a mix of India’s feudal culture (which is propagated by such political hierarchies and the caste system in India) combined with its unrestrained and fiery flirtations with neo-liberalism, we might just create an India that is even more unequal (if that is even fathomable).
Many critics now usher in a tone of caution before dismissing Rahul Gandhi’s pre-condensed political state citing equal dismissals of his grandmother who was dismissed by her contemporaries (a rather sexist attack that too) as a ‘goongi gudiya’ (dumb doll). What they fail to understand however, is that firstly, not everybody enjoyed his grandmother’s transformation into the fascist autocrat who had very less regard for democracy and democratic institutions, and secondly, that such an argument itself proves Rahul Gandhi’s grossly unfair privilege in politics. The question one could address is: had Rahul Gandhi come from the lower ranks of society, would he be even remotely appreciated or taken in as a leader as he is today or given the multiple chances that he has been? I believe a resounding no would be the answer. A round peg in a square hole? Probably with regard to his lacklustre and political naivety, yes. But a solution to our problems? An answer to the Modi regime? Definitely not.
Why are the Royals still a thing?
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle were married on 19 May, 2018 in what was lauded as a ‘revolutionary wedding’ since Markle isn’t completely white and of course, not British. Other such things that made good difference although not ‘tradition busting’ difference was the strong black presence in the church, a gospel choir and a black bishop giving an address. Sure, for all the equal rights and equal treatment and the radical political thought that was born in the West, as an answer to the monarchy’s and the clergy’s divine rights, it seems absurd that even in 2018, such an institution, which is deeply rooted in British imperialism, a deeply white and patriarchal institution should even exist. The idea that some people are born more equal than others is an idea that was sought to be eradicated by the birth of liberal democracies and hence an absurd one to let it exist and be propagated in a democracy.
Similarly, even though one might give Rahul Gandhi the benefit of the doubt since he didn’t choose to take birth in the family as he likes to defend himself, his family too, represents India’s version of the Raj – an upper caste, patriarchal, monolithic institution that enjoys divine rights in politics. Essentially why the potential election of Rahul Gandhi would mean our country going back to the irate age of UPA and the culture of sycophancy, which is no less relevant in even Modi’s regime. We must be reminded that this was exactly what wore off Indian citizens in 2014, before the ‘Modi factor’ catapulted into politics, and before all of us got washed off by that ‘tsunami’. 2014 was a dangerous cocktail of the politics of resentment and anger combined with the so long unfulfilled promises of democracy – that you can get everywhere from nowhere, that being born unequal doesn’t matter, that the very purpose of democracy is to see to it that the rags and riches fit into one pocket of the country, equally. No matter how Modi turned out to be, he did fit into the picture really well, and his story still provides the rare beacon of hope in a country which is deeply feudal, casteist and unequal, the beacon of hope that Rahul Gandhi quenches.
Leaders take over the reins of their predecessors, and this transition is almost always understood with obtuse and wishful thinking. The actions of the predecessors have consequences for well over decades and very well into the successor’s regime, be in terms of policy, economics, law etc. Sycophancy is not an ‘Indian problem’ – it is an institutional problem, and must be tackled by the constitutional framework of India. Starting from the very fashionable but visionary Nehru who lived in a time when the world was not yet very adept with ideas of liberalism and democracy, and especially a new independent India, to Indira Gandhi who had her own ‘three musketeers’ – Siddharth Shankar Ray, D.K. Barooah (that guy who mistook India for Indira) and Rangarajan Kumarmangalam (the trio of ‘goodfellas’ who did the dirty work for Mrs. Gandhi, her own Dr. Kissingers, the guys who drafted the infamous 42nd Amendment) and her ‘Kashimiri Mafia’ – P.N. Dhar, R.N. Rao, D.P. Dhar, P.N. Haksar, T.N. Kaul and B.K. Nehru, to her not very adroit son prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, whose henchmen, the likes of Jagdish Tytler, Sajjan Kumar, H.K.L. Bhagat have been directly accused of participating in the 1984 Sikh Riots, to Sonia Gandhi who was accused of de facto ruling India during the entirety of the UPA regime, a season of peak sycophancy which resulted in a very strong catharsis in 2014, which leads us to the current son of the Congress – Rahul Gandhi, who is relatively distant and aloof but still capable of shrewd manoeuvring of the dynasty politics.
Certain aspects of India’s power dynamics as worked out by the Constitution are problematic, and sadly, they reek of colonialism. The role of the President, for example bears a strong resemblance with that of the Queen of England, emblematic but powerless, more of a show of divinity with great impunities and royal perks. One major and saving difference however is that lineage doesn’t matter in becoming a President. By far, the Prime Minister’s powers are immense and over the years have been overcentralised. The steady strengthening of the Prime Minister’s personal secretariat starting from Indira Gandhi’s tenure, and well concretised by her successor Rajiv Gandhi went surprisingly unchecked. During Rajiv Gandhi’s tenure, all authority and all initiatives of a policy or administrative nature would vest and emanate from the Prime Minister, taking away the relatively larger powers of the Cabinet Ministers to initiate management of the portfolios under their charge, a regime of interference which is still largely prevalent and which breeds sycophancy and authoritarian cult figures like Modi. Come Rahul Gandhi and we’ll see a reversion to the dynasty politics and everything that led us here in the first place. We can’t afford such a reversion. The royals shouldn’t be a ‘thing’. They’ve worn out their welcome. No more of the coterie politics.
Politics & Liberalism of Convenience
From absolute political lenses, one must ask what a leader is selling. Much to the surprise of both his fans and critics alike, Modi’s run has been terrible, failing miserably to make good use of the sound majority of 336 seats of the National Democratic Alliance, creating a vacuum for good leaders at the Centre, a similar vacuum Modi himself had exploited back in 2014. But to undermine the BJP and the Modi factor in 2019 can be a huge blunder, but can the same be said of the Rahul Gandhi factor? I highly doubt it.
One of the fronts where Modi has failed, surprisingly, is in ‘keeping in touch’ with the people, which echoes of the troll politics against Manmohan Singh initiated by Modi himself. Having seldom spoken out on major issues such as the drastic consequences of demonetisation or the Kathua gang rape case, Modi spends his time in splendid isolation in his ivory tower. But Rahul Gandhi hasn’t fared any better, nor has he tried to capitalise on Modi’s silence. What is so irritating to see how most Indian leaders choose to work with the media, often distancing themselves as far as possible. It is the duty of any leader to constantly stay in touch with the people, the masses, and they must be open to challenge and debate, or interviews in which they can project their thoughts and philosophy onto the people. Rahul Gandhi has been lazy in doing that and has seldom done any interviews post his debacle of an interview with the William ‘Lord Haw-Haw’ Joyce of India – Arnab Goswami.
Rahul Gandhi’s politics of forgiveness and love is very well appreciated and is a timely intitiative. On July 21, 2018, Gandhi even went on to hug Modi during a debate on no-confidence motion, taking the latter completely by surprise and relaxing the unusually high testosterone levels in the parliament. Having both his grandmother and father slain in a brutal fashion by assassins, he chose to forgive them, which is a very bold move. Hence, it’s surprising when the same Rahul Gandhi goes on to declare that the Congress wasn’t involved in the anti-Sikh genocide of 1984. Funnily enough, the text of his denial is missing from the INC’s website although there are seemingly contradictory things said by Gandhi just days before with regard to the riots, at the London School of Economics & Political Science:
Q: 1984, we’ve heard PM MMS’ statement, how you feel about the riots? Rahul Gandhi: When Mr. Manmohan Singh spoke, he spoke for all of us. As I said earlier, I’m a victim of violence and I understand what it feels like. So I’m against any sort of violence against anybody, even anybody on this planet. I get disturbed when I see anybody getting hurt. I condemn that 100%, and I’m 100% for punishment to people who are involved in violence against anybody. And that’s crystal clear. You know, people who haven’t had violence done to them think that violence is what you see in movies, that’s not what it is. I’ve seen people whom I loved very much being killed. I’ve also seen the person who killed my father being killed. And I can say that when I saw Mr. Prabhakaran lying on the beaches in Jaffna and when I saw him being humiliated, the way he was being humiliated because that is what was happening, I felt sorry for him because I saw my father in his place and I felt sorry for him because I saw his children in my place. So when you’ve been hit by violence and you understand it, it has a completely different impact on you. Most people don’t actually understand violence, your average person doesn’t understand violence, it’s an absolutely horrible thing and I don’t wish it on anybody.
Gandhi must drop such politics and liberalism of convenience and admit the involvement of the Congress, and also ensure that the victims of this forgotten genocide do get some justice at the end of their 33 years of waiting. This hypocrisy must stop, if he does indeed believe in the politics of love and emotion. The arc of the moral universe is indeed long, as Dr. Martin Luther King had noted, but it must always bend towards justice, and that must be ensured by a great leader, who is willing to go above petty party politics for that matter.
Gandhi’s liberalism of convenience extends further, in the form of the leadership by abdication and politics of abstinence when it comes to his foreign policy. With scanty thoughts and generic talks about China being the new age super power and the main competition of India, Gandhi’s philosophy has seldom endured the rigours of foreign policy albeit with a bit of wandering. If he does feel that India needs to be taken seriously, he must make his foreign policy clear before the upcoming elections. Examples include abstaining from commenting on Israel’s new segregationist and racial legislation making it a Jewish state and its unfettered and cruel attacks on civilian population in Palestine, and Modi’s strong ties with Israel, abstaining from taking any sort of stance whatsoever on Trump and a stance against the ‘illiberal democracies’ of Putin’s Russia or Erdogan’s Turkey which is all very convenient and nothing new. The debates must stretch beyond cow slaughter in India, and Gandhi bears the insurmountable task of making himself and his vision clear before the elections, else he risks the peril of a debacle at the polls.
Looking for a leader in Rahul Gandhi by mere exclusionary ways is wishful thinking. Gandhi must do better, because the people demand better. Tackling Modi’s populism with populism is bound to fail. In Modi, we have a very shrewd politician and a megalomaniac autocrat who is willing to seize power by any means necessary and even, at the expense of the welfare of the country. The 2019 elections will be a testing time for both the Congress and Gandhi, both risking political deaths. The political chances provided by Modi are plenty, but there hasn’t been a good capitalisation by the opposition and mainly, their leader Rahul Gandhi. All in all, he doesn’t sell an idea of India that is convincing enough for us to live in, he doesn’t prove how his election will not be a conservation of the status quo and a reversion to his family’s dynastic politics, there are no hopes and no aspirations and more than anything, a blueprint for an ‘Indian century’ as Henry Luce had predicted of the American century. Until then, he will never be the solution, he’ll continue to remain a part of the problem.
Is it too early to publish a political obituary? The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind, either so obvious that it’s right on our faces, or is as intangible as the wind.
Swagat Baruah is writer/editor for Catharsis Magazine.
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