Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s comments on Hindutva ideologue Vinayak Damodar Savarkar have triggered a controversy. During the Bharat Jodo Yatra, addressing a press conference in Akola district, Mr Gandhi fished out documents dating back to 1920 in which he referred to a letter written and signed by Savarkar to the British as “I beg to remain your most obedient servant.”. Mr Gandhi also said “Savarkar signed mercy petitions out of fear unlike Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru or Sardar Patel who never signed any petitions while in jail”. He hit his point home by making a reference to Savarkar drawing a pension of Rs60 a month from the British.
The former Congress President vocalised these aspects of history during an event honouring tribal leader Birsa Munda, which clearly shows that the young Gandhi scion was addressing the constituency of tribals while hurting the BJP at the same time with a historical truth that has always brought discomfiture to the saffron camp.
Has Mr Gandhi broken his silence on Savarkar for the first time? No. Whether he should have spoken on this matter during his 3,570 km cross-country march is moot, but what one can see lucidly is a well-thought-out and efficiently calibrated strategy to take on the BJP and its ideology and expose what is propagated amongst the people as a bunch of lies. Mr Gandhi could not have found a better moment to draw the red line.
Mr Gandhi began his march on foot in September with multiple goals, starting from speaking directly to the common people about issues such as inflation, the Government's misuse of power in appropriating institutions, the media's imperviousness to crucial issues and the corrosive communal atmosphere engulfing the country. With the yatra’s Maharashtra leg at an end and the march about to enter Madhya Pradesh, Mr Gandhi, through his comment on Savarkar, brought out the clear ideological divide between the Congress and the BJP, between the latter’s version of history and the way the Congress has etched it, putting the distinction between secularism and communalism out there in the open. Mr Gandhi wasn't just talking through his hat. He targeted the icon and ideology of someone whom the Congress considers maafiveer (mercy petitioner), knowing full well that Savarkar is the BJP's tender spot. So Mr Gandhi’s comment was akin to telling the country that India can either stand with Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru or with Savarkar and Godse.
So far, the BJP had not found any good reason to attack the cross-country march because its tone and tenor was based on love, harmony and brotherhood. But after the Savarkar comment, Mr Gandhi has taken the yatra to a different level. It could become more belligerent, aggressive, loaded with political risks for the Congress, signs of which are already visible in Maharashtra with cases being registered against Mr Gandhi and allies Uddhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar distancing themselves from his words.
The chapter of cool photo-ops with young and old fans during the yatra looks to be over now as the focus shifts to the ideological battle and to exposing the BJP's lies. The Congress says it will continue to expose Savarkar’s truth until the time the BJP stops telling lies about Nehru, Gandhi and Patel.
Will this fight between truth and lies, between the historical icons of the Congress and the BJP, further polarise the nation? Can it lead to more violence? Will it endanger Mr Gandhi's life and jeopardise the Bharat Jodo Yatra? While such questions are speculative, they cannot be dismissed out of hand.
What is clear is that Mr Gandhi has, through his Savarkar comment, marked a watershed, not only proving his ideological consistency and commitment to take on the Narendra Modi Government but mincing no words that the yatra will be political and only political from here on.
Till the best part of the Maharashtra leg, the yatra appeared to be about building Brand Rahul, unveiling the Congress MP’s humane side, skinning and shedding the Pappu image created for him by the BJP and its troll army. But for Central India and beyond, as the foot march progresses, his projection is likely to be of a Leviathan or Pegasus ready to leave his imprint in zones where the party’s hold is weak, at least in terms of cadre presence.
Whether Mr Gandhi was right in centring his address on Savarkar has become a moot point for many political analysts. Some say he should not have given the BJP ammunition to further polarise the country on Hindutva. But others believe that Mr Gandhi is not looking at short-term political gains. Instead, he is focusing on the long-term spiritual, philosophical and ideological benefits for the country. Whether he will be able to carry it through as he tries to make the metamorphosis into a spiritual leader is something everyone will scrutinise closely. The more difficult question is whether this journey into uncharted territory can bring electoral benefits for the Grand Old Party. That, I am afraid, is anybody's guess.
Neelu Vyas is a senior television anchor and consulting editor with Satya Hindi