RAHUL Gandhi is poised to become the new Congress party president. Far from any power grab that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has accused him of, he seems to be akin to a sacrificial lamb his mother has been reluctant to make an offering of.
The mother knows that in the violence-wracked political battlefield that India has become, the young Gandhi will be more, not less, vulnerable to harm than his ill-fated father or grandmother were. Now that he has rolled up his sleeves, however, his work ahead is multipronged, of which two problems need immediate attention — economic loot and cynically stoked social fault lines that have deepened with the advent of Mr Modi.
Economic villainy has strengthened its hold on politics, as has religiously cloaked barbarism that brazenly poses as nationalism. The combination licks into shape Gandhi’s fascist challenge. Rahul’s grandmother took away the usurious banks of these challengers and then locked them up under the Conservation of Foreign Exchange and Prevention of Smuggling Act. COFEPOSA was one of the less disagreeable spin-offs of the emergency and it would have deterred the rise of Hindu and Muslim Dawood Ibrahims had it not been dismantled by Indira Gandhi’s hare-brained successors.
It was during the Congress party’s centenary celebrations in Mumbai in 1985 when a squeaky clean Rajiv Gandhi sent out his inspired call to get the culture of ‘moneybags’ off the backs of the Congress workers. The moneybags retaliated swiftly, using his closest friends and trusted family members, and through the media they owned. They successfully put the Bofors mud on his face, which curiously and studiously spared the rogue friends and family retainers, the real suspects in the crime.
The overriding challenge for Rahul Gandhi will be to confront religious fascism head on.
Mr Modi was half right when he said during the ongoing election rallies last week that the Gandhis have contempt for Gujarat. With Feroze Gandhi, a handpicked Gujarati student of Mahatma Gandhi, at the foundation of the family, Modi’s claim about the family’s aversion to Gujaratis simply doesn’t wash. What he was perhaps referring to was the tradition, initiated by Feroze Gandhi himself, of keeping a close eye on unscrupulous businesses, led by the Gujarati ones shoring up Modi’s crony cabal. It may not be a coincidence that the two big tycoons being made an example of today — Vijay Mallya and Subrata Roy — do not fit in with the linguistic and regional profile of those in ascendance under Modi’s watch.
After the centenary speech, the cabal seems to have resolved that no one from the Gandhi family would again lead India. When Sonia Gandhi was denied her bid for the top job at the last minute, it was Mulayam Singh Yadav who pulled the plug on her. And we know his links with the moneybags that Rajiv had warned of.
It is a welcome sign for the Congress and for India that we have heard Rahul Gandhi naming names of some of the more unruly businessmen during election rallies and in parliament. The new Congress leader has chided Modi for unfairly favouring handpicked businesses, one of them named in a new French warplanes deal.
There is one big name, the biggest perhaps, missing though among those he named. This tycoon is the biggest bête-noir of the Aam Aadmi Party and its leader Arvind Kejriwal. Under Rahul, there seems to be a sliver of hope here, however. For the first time, as far as one can tell, Kejriwal directed his supporters to vote for the Congress (garbed as ‘anyone’ who could defeat the BJP) in Gujarat. As the so-called Radia tapes revealed, the political reach of unscrupulous tycoons is deep. Rahul can perhaps already feel some of the go-betweens surrounding him as they did his father. His fight begins in his own sanctum sanctorum, therefore, which will immediately connect his larger battle to rural distress, galloping unemployment and beyond. Does he feel up to it?
There is nothing particularly wrong about going to temples if that helps Rahul Gandhi come close to the voters. That’s India. Rahul’s father did one worse. He got his head kicked (thus blessed) by a maverick priest in Ayodhya who would hang from a tree to grant boons with his foot. It was something bizarre for an enlightened leader though not as disagreeable as his opposing the Supreme Court’s secular hand of help to a Muslim divorcee, or as unappealing as opening the locks of a disputed temple in Ayodhya to woo Hindu votes, which he didn’t get.
The overriding challenge for Rahul Gandhi will be to confront religious fascism head on. He may have to begin by restoring academic institutions to the care of the country’s globally respected secular academics. He may have to also fumigate these institutions of any sectarian and obscurantist residue that has built up under Modi’s tenure. Reviving cases against the politically powerful criminals in Gujarat and elsewhere will be a challenge he cannot shy away from. And if he feels diffident, he should hand over the job to someone who doesn’t. Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal, or even Mayawati are excellent allies. The communist chief minister of Kerala would be another great comrade provided the latter’s party agrees to join the Congress in the fight against the challenge of fascism.
It would all add up to building castles in the air, however, if the opposition parties would not first come together to prevent another Muzaffarnagar, the assured route to success of the present dispensation. Changing India’s destiny for the better will require a closer scrutiny of the electronic voting system, which appears to work for the cabal that is seen to have falsified the people’s will. The pattern of electronically manipulated results as reported from the recent civic polls in Uttar Pradesh is evidence of the first challenge that Rahul Gandhi faces before he can begin his quest for India’s soul.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2017