I CAN’T claim to know why Rahul Gandhi doesn’t speak in public as often as his supporters expect him to but he makes me think of my Uncle Jafri from Karachi.
A prosperous businessman and a reticent conversationalist, Uncle Jafri often found himself at a loose end in the midst of his Indian relatives in Delhi. They would be discussing Sheila Bhatia’s new play or Sheila Dhar’s latest take on Begum Akhtar’s jibe from the stage at an unsuspecting listener. A line from Neruda on Chile could divine Nehru’s assault on the Telangana struggle.
Uncle Jafri sat with an unlit cigar in his mouth through it all. He tried hard not to look disinterested. The unlit cigar made the inaction seamless and uncontrived. Did the silence indicate ignorance, or was it evidence of a good listener? It was hard to tell.
Rahul Gandhi’s apparent lack of involvement in any public discourse worries those who may have to choose between him and Narendra Modi if that is what the race for the top job boils down to. I have seen him feverishly working out in the gym. What about the intellectual prowess needed to run a complex country like India?
His latest outing was in Delhi on Sunday. A huge Congress party rally seemed to confirm him as Manmohan Singh’s most likely successor, provided the party got its sums right by 2014.
And what did he tell his teeming supporters? Foreign direct investments (FDI) in multi-brand retail trade was good for the country. The country is still debating the pros and cons of inviting foreign capital in the socially sensitive retail sector.
He could have joined the debate or explained why he is right, but Rahul chose to issue a fiat at a public rally. And then he went on to link it all up with the Kargil war. “We helped you in the Kargil war and now you should help us with FDI”.
This is more or less what he told his principal rivals, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Now, I can understand the Americans seeking a quid pro quo with the BJP on that, but Rahul?
It was Bill Clinton, if you remember, who got mobbed and cheered by Indian MPs when he took them into confidence about how he had helped India evict Pakistani troops from Kargil’s strategic heights.
The Americans want Wal-Mart to spread its business in India and that is what the FDI issue is really all about. Perhaps Rahul was signalling to the world’s powerful nations his political faith in the free market, something that Third World leaders are often required to affirm before being entrusted with the levers of power?
The Congress party was almost invincible when it had the unbridled support of lowly Dalits and impoverished Muslims. After Indira Gandhi’s death both the communities fled the coop. The result was earthshaking for Indian politics.
Following the huge surge of sympathy her son got in the 1984 polls, the era of single-party rule ended in India. The unleashing of a new energy among middle caste Hindus via a job reservations bill further unsettled the political arithmetic.
The BJP and the Congress are the two main upper caste parties in the fray. It means that for sheer survival they need to look for support, or even poach if necessary, from the lower layers of the social heap. Communalism is one of the tools at their disposal.
The BJP commandeered unsuspecting Dalits and tribes-people to pit them against the lowest layers of Muslims in Gujarat. The Congress pitted the hapless Bodo tribes-people against the dispossessed Muslims in Assam. A similar plot is getting unveiled in Uttar Pradesh and there is no knowing where all it might surface before the next elections.
It is not that Rahul Gandhi has not been trying to woo the Dalit voters back to the Congress fold, but there is little evidence of success. On one occasion he took a British foreign secretary to a Dalit home in his rural constituency where he was given a cot to spend the night on. There is no indication that he has a strategy to win Muslims over. He may not need one.
Muslims, Rahul Gandhi’s advisers may calculate, would in any case flock back if the BJP puts up a candidate like Narendra Modi. It’s hard to believe, but Rahul Gandhi’s safest bet today seems to be Modi’s candidature for the top job. But Modi is himself a shrewd man. He has put up a record number of three Muslim candidates for the Gujarat assembly polls next month.
The Karachi session of the Congress had dreamt the dream of India’s tryst with socialism in 1931. Sunday’s rally in Delhi signalled the last nail in the coffin of that dream. As for secularism, Rahul Gandhi has to decide if he wants to continue be the BJP’s ‘B’ team.
In 2004, after the Congress assembled a workable coalition, he declared the BJP ‘a joke’ with a one-point agenda of insulting his family. This was when memories of the Gujarat pogrom were still reverberating across the country. BJP a joke?
Then, apropos of nothing really, on his walk through Moradabad during an election in Uttar Pradesh he declared: “My grandmother broke Pakistan into two.” Had the comment got him even two extra votes he should be declared a great political strategist. In the absence of any such evidence, the Gandhi scion should usefully learn a lesson or two from Uncle Jafri.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi. firstname.lastname@example.org