Next item, Bihar and onward

30 Jun 2020


The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

AS with Inspector Clouseau so with Prime Minister Modi; his adversaries can’t seem to get the better of him, be they from across the border or domestic rivals. The attack in Pulwama recoiled on the perpetrators as well as the planners. They sought to question Mr Modi’s image of a leader with an impressive chest measurement. They shored up that very image for him, military sinews and all.

The latest projectile from China apparently targeted Modi personally, credible observers say. And look how he has sidestepped it Clouseau-like. The volley from Beijing has landed instead in the opposition’s verandah, making Rahul Gandhi wonder where he had gone wrong after reading the script nearly accurately. Opposition allies deserted him.

Rahul was prescient with his Covid-19 warnings when the government was busy derailing the opposition in Madhya Pradesh. But the news switched to more rewarding muscular nationalism.

On the China border, it happened by sheer coincidence that the Indian troops involved in the tragic scuffle belonged to the Bihar regiment even though several soldiers and the commanding officer came from different provinces. The prime minister praised the bravery of Bihar’s soldiers, while the opposition could only stand by as he embraced the tragedy. Crucial Bihar elections are due later this year. One can expect handy coincidences before the critical West Bengal elections next year too.

Rahul Gandhi can be the spark to galvanise the opposition provided he doesn’t seek the political high ground for himself.

According to the prevailing narrative, Muslim zealots ended up doing the job for Modi while they were targeting his political gambit in Gujarat (2002) and Muzaffarnagar (2014). Even Modi’s disastrous-looking demonetisation, a very Clouseau-like shooting one’s own foot on most counts, turned into gold in Uttar Pradesh, just a few weeks down the line. The opposition was stupefied. It is frustrated but not agitated enough as the prime minister converts adversities into winning goals. And this is where some soul-searching is perhaps missing.

Contrary to loud claims that Rahul Gandhi is unfit to lead the country, there are good reasons why he could, but with a caveat. This is not the time for him to be thrust into the leadership role. Nor was it so last year. It just so happens that the best in the pack are not necessarily the most popular. They have to wait to be discovered.

Besides, there are the Scindias, too many of them, really, and Sanjay Gandhi’s entrenched hangers-on among other interlopers — for example, the deputies who are periodically bought over by the other side for a fee — to be dealt with. They have to be excised as the party’s putrid flab as Indira Gandhi did in 1969 to make history. At the same time, there can be no opposition unity with the Gandhis at the helm, not for now, not in the next few years.

To be clear on facts, one must junk the cultivated myth of Gandhis as seething with ambition. The unceasing claims are not supported by history. Take the day when Sonia Gandhi unsuccessfully pleaded with her husband not to step into his mother’s shoes when she was assassinated in 1984. Her instinct was he would be killed. With him gone, the next five or six years saw her as the grieving widow seeking only the inquiry into her husband’s assassination to be speeded up.

When Narasimha Rao demitted office he promoted his lightweight colleague Sitaram Kesri the head of the minority Congress party. Kesri supported Deve Gowda’s government and then Inder Gujral’s brief tenure, both backed by the left. India missed by a whisker the prospect of Kesri shoring up Jyoti Basu as India’s only communist prime minister Basu’s own party turned down the offer.

It is clear that Kesri was overthrown in a vicious coup led by a former minister the Gandhis never ever trusted, and some other associates of business houses. Moreover, Kesri was a backward caste Hindu from Bihar, as Modi is from Gujarat. Call it a corporate-led upper caste coup. Did Sonia Gandhi order it? Kesri didn’t believe she had. It was a cabal projecting Sonia Gandhi as the party president, for without her in the lead there would be no Congress for them to feed off.

Everyone knows the story of the two opposition women who threatened to shave their heads if Sonia ‘the foreigner’ became prime minister. There were threats to her life if she was sworn in. That she counted the support of 272 MPs in her European accent cannot be seen as ambition but more accurately as a ploy to humiliate her and the Congress under her leadership.

This bating and manipulation of the Gandhis is still on. They’ve been stripped of their security cover, which was mandated by an act of parliament. During Manmohan Singh’s tenure, Sonia countered his runaway neoliberal economic policies by keeping a cell of well-regarded advisers on social and economic issues. She was forced to resign as MP for heading the National Advisory Council but she won the by-election and pressed on with the only saving grace of the Manmohan tenure, the rural employment guarantee scheme, which is serving the displaced and the poorest victims of the coronavirus pandemic.

What needs to be done? The Congress is at its best when equidistant from power blocs. Indira Gandhi charmed Reagan and Brezhnev alike. It must avoid needling Modi over China.

Rahul Gandhi can start with Bihar. He can be the spark to galvanise the opposition provided he doesn’t seek the political high ground for himself. However, Gandhi has a more difficult task — that of convincing his left partners to follow the principle of a united front against fascism. Last year, the bright and inspirational Kanhaiya Kumar cut into secular votes and enabled the Hindutva candidate to win in Bihar. If similar errors can be prevented, no future surprises from Modi can undermine the restoration of democracy in India.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, June 30th, 2020