‘PRASHANT’ means pacific. Prashant Bhushan is anything but. ‘Rahul’, according to early Upanishads, means conqueror of all miseries. Rahul Gandhi knows he doesn’t fit the bill though he does deserve applause as the rare opposition leader who dares to stand up to Prime Minister Modi’s wilful rule. Prashant and Rahul thus strangely share a destiny. Should they unite their enormous energies, they may well save Indian democracy from getting crushed by a strident right-wing state.
Let’s figure out if indeed there’s a meeting ground for the two. The Congress though reduced to less than 10 per cent of seats in the Lok Sabha remains the only party with reach from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.
The Congress also represents a history of things that have gone wrong with India over the last several decades, which in turn have paved the way for right-wing demagogues to seize power. Congress governments gave oxygen to crony capitalism and simultaneously created room for a socially divisive lobby that hijacked the Indian state.
Prashant represents the quest to set things right on both counts, the first step being the killing of the nexus between moneybags and the political class. He has spoken up for Kashmir’s democratic rights, for Dalits and Muslims too.
Prashant Bhushan knows he cannot fight the fight alone. Who then could be his allies to cover the flanks?
The lawyer activist lends his voice to myriad votaries of dissent and radical change. He admires Arundhati Roy and she him, to see where he stands on the canvas of political ideas. Roy has served a jail term for contempt of court, and it is his turn now. She refused to apologise to the supreme court judges who charged her with contempt, so has Bhushan. He told the court, which postponed his sentencing on Monday, that rowing back from his views, which have offended some judges with tweets old and recent would be contempt of his own conscience.
Prashant’s range of politics is wide. He helped form the Aam Aadmi Party that stalled the Modi juggernaut in 2015, but left Arvind Kejriwal who he thought had begun to imitate those they together once criticised. However, his main targets are the corporate moneybags that run the country’s politics, and, according to well-regarded former judges, may have wormed their way into the hallowed precincts of the higher judiciary.
Prashant Bhushan knows he cannot fight the fight alone. Who then could be his allies to cover the flanks? Theoretically, Prashant represents every earnest politician’s dream by speaking for the common man and against the most powerful. He has targeted corruption during the Congress party rule as forcefully as he has probed shady deals during the Modi era.
How and what does Rahul Gandhi bring to the political field to complement Prashant Bhushan’s fight? The young Gandhi knows that he is maligned by opponents as a Johnny-come-lately. He is called names by the prime minister and at his behest by the media. The prime minister has sworn to evict the Congress party from India’s political arena.
Put two and two together. He wants a Congress without the Gandhis. Why? Rahul has spoken up on the government’s mishandling of China. He has called out the government over the secret Rafale warplanes deal. He has taken on Modi on the apparent incompetence with which the coronavirus pandemic has been approached. He has expressed his dismay at the way the Ayodhya temple project has been hijacked by the party in power.
When most TV channels show Rahul as mentally ill-equipped to lead the party, they are warming the cockles of the hearts of the very tycoons he has named in parliament and outside — as did his grandfather Feroze Gandhi — as beneficiaries of corruption.
Strikingly close to Prashant’s stand in the supreme court, Rahul has said it openly: he would continue to slam the government’s anti-people policies even if it costs him his political career. One can’t think of another current politician ready to put his career on the line as Rahul Gandhi is ready to do. There are other reasons why many in the press hate his guts. We need to go into the background a bit.
When P.V. Narasimha Rao demitted office in 1996, Congress treasurer Sitaram Kesri was elected the party president. He was a backward caste Hindu from Bihar who spoke well of the Gandhi family, a family that was still recovering from the trauma of losing Rajiv Gandhi to a suicide bomber during an election rally in 1991.
The Congress had shrunk in seats and prestige, and Kesri was busy stitching up alliances, something that the Congress needs to do more fervently today. Dalit leader Mayawati, the Left Front and other backward caste leaders were being approached. The Bombay business lobby resented this. That’s when Pranab Mukherjee led the charge against Kesri. The Congress president was locked up in the toilet and his board removed, all in the name of Sonia Gandhi.
Kesri told people close to him that Sonia had nothing to do with his ouster. It was a move to use her shoulder to instal a candidate loyal to the business club. They used Sonia Gandhi to shore up pro-market Manmohan Singh but they also resented it when she set up the National Advisory Council to counter the fallout of Singh’s pro-market economic policies on the poor. It was not surprising that the second tenure of Manmohan Singh became a melee with senior journalists advising the government on who to appoint ministers with which portfolio, and they were doing it on behalf of sponsors in Mumbai.
One of the names that figured as the conduit in the media-politicians-business club at the time was of a Congress leader who also authored a letter that prompted Sonia Gandhi to offer to resign on Monday. How does an interim president resign though? No Gandhi wants to be party president, anyway. And they call the family feudal. Hopefully, Prashant Bhushan and Rahul Gandhi will seize the moment that destiny has thrown at them, and not quibble over their misleading names.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
Published in Dawn, August 25th, 2020