Can The New, Improved Rahul Gandhi Usher In A Revolution?

Can The New, Improved Rahul Gandhi Usher In A Revolution?

India’s old socio-political order had first shown cracks in the early 1990s which saw the emergence of three parallel but simultaneous ideas

AshutoshUpdated: Tuesday, July 02, 2024, 10:43 AM IST
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Has Rahul Gandhi revolutionised Indian politics? Has he reinvented the party he leads? Maybe. It is too early to pass the judgment, but, yes, undoubtedly, he has set the revolutionary agenda for the country and also for the Congress. The issue is, can he take it forward to its logical conclusion? I know my writing this would have hurt the sensibilities of many self-proclaimed right-wing Rahul haters who have made a career out of hating Rahul Gandhi. But there are many on the liberal side too who hate Rahul Gandhi, for no fault of his but of their own. These are those who have failed to reconcile with the fact that Narendra Modi has become an indomitable force, and the prime minister and when he has become the prime minister, he is not losing, and if he is not losing then Rahul Gandhi should be blamed for this.

The truth is that these groups of liberals are not unhappy with Rahul Gandhi, they are unhappy with themselves. In their liberal hubris, where no other idea has any right to germinate, grow and become a plant, firstly they failed to see the rise of Modi alongside the emergence of Hindutva and once it had become a reality then they didn’t know how to live with it. Hate either way is the defining creed for these gentlemen and women too, but the bitter reality is that Rahul Gandhi is the only antidote to Modi.

The fact is that Modi and Rahul Gandhi, both are products of the age we live in. When the ‘old’ order crumbles and ‘new’ yearns to take shape, then the logic of politics also changes and along with that changes the nature and the conduct of the leadership. If Modi is not soft like Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Rahul Gandhi is not sophisticated like his father Rajiv Gandhi, but despite that they are liked, then it is due to the changes in our socio-political environment. If one expects these two gentlemen to behave according to old sensibilities, to be ‘good men’ of politics then the problem is ours, the ‘no-changers’.

It is easy to say that Modi changed politics. This is the most easy and lazy thing to say. The fact is that Modi is the product of the times. He did not invent time, time invented him. India’s old socio-political order had first shown cracks in the early 1990s which saw the emergence of three parallel but simultaneous ideas. If Hindutva was rising as a challenge to the hegemony of the Congress’s secular-democratic-republicanism, then as a counter to Hindutva, Mandal politics of India’s subalterns arose as a major force. Both had their roots in the past but had been on the margins for a long time. They were considered to be aberrations despite the presence of leaders like Atal-Advani and Lohia-Limaye. These two forces were not unleashed by the Congress but the third one was to originate from the Congress. Market entered the life of India in a big way through Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh.

Market, Mandal and Hindutva together, shook the foundation of the old order which was led by the Congress. It is no coincidence that 1989 onwards, the Congress never had a majority on its own at the centre and it lost major states like UP, Bihar, Tamil Nādu, West Bengal and Odisha. The Congress which was once in a pole position, by 2014 was reduced to 44 seats and its demise seemed to be total as it refused to read the writing on the wall and make changes in its thought process and acquire new tools of politics, out of arrogance and ignorance. This was also the time when with the fall of the German wall communist ideas collapsed globally. Communism, which was once such a formidable idea, was on its deathbed by 1991. Communism could never recover. Historian Gary Gerstle beautifully sketches this phenomenon in his book “The Rise and Fall of the Neo Liberal Order – America and the world in the Market Era”. He writes, “the success of a political order depends on its proficiency in shaping what broad majorities of elected officials and voters on both sides of the partisan divide regard as politically possible and desirable. By the same token, losing the capacity to exercise ideological hegemony signals a political order's decline.” The Congress, 1989 onwards was in no position to ‘exercise its ideological hegemony’.

Gary Gerstle further writes, “In these moments of decline, political ideas and programmes formerly regarded as radical, heterodox, or unworkable, or dismissed as the product of the overheated imagination of fringe groups on the right and left, are able to move from margin to mainstream.” Demand for the OBC reservation was old but it could be implemented only in 1990 and unleashed such energy that it became impossible for any party to ignore the demands of subaltern politics. Similarly, Hindutva was on the agenda of Jan Sangh since its inception but it caught the imagination of the people only after the Ram Mandir movement and both coincided with each other at the same time. It is a matter of great debate what role market played in their rise but it certainly heralded that socialism of Indian variety has outlived its utility and market replaced powerful state controlled economy. The system created by the Congress tried to resist the change, but the pushback was feeble.

In this struggle, the recession of 2008 played a major role in hastening the process of decline globally. Since the liberal order was refusing to change, and was in no position to address people’s anxieties, demand for alternative rose, the rhetoric of the right looked attractive, and thus emerged a new order. Rise of leaders like Trump in America, Modi in India, Viktor Orban in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Boris Johnson in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France and Bjorn Hocke in Germany are reflection of the change the world is going through. All of them are similar in their thought process. All of them insist on identity politics, inculcating the idea of ‘country first’ in the minds of their citizens. In the larger scheme of things they resist globalisation, are opposed to social assimilation and pluralism, and specialise in scare-mongering.

In the Indian context, politics has changed and Modi epitomises that change. Right-wing leaders are by nature aggressive and irreverent. Modi is no exception. His use of language has changed the lexicon of Indian politics. The ethno-nationalism which was a hated word earlier has today become successful. And no party in India is in a position to ignore Hindutva; Muslims are left with no option but to stay silent. Modi’s use of the word Vishwaguru is akin to Trump’s promise to ‘make America great again’. Like Orban of Hungary, Modi also believes in ‘illiberal democracy’. He might have lost his original aura in this election but he can’t be written off. The technique of old order is of no use to fight Modi. That is dead and out. Modi’s aggression can only be countered by aggression. Rahul Gandhi’s frontal attack on Modi looks silly to my liberal friends but that is how it is.

Modi’s identity politics, his ethno-nationalism, can only be neutralised by another kind of identity politics. In this framework, Congress’s manifesto is a welcome change, being a good departure from the past. The Congress, which ignored Mandal politics earlier, has now written a script for New Mandal politics. Mandal 1.0 had ignited the imagination of the OBCs and Dalits but it did not try to connect it with the economic aspirations of this group. Rahul Gandhi is trying to do that. In that way the Congress manifesto for the 2024 election is a radical document, it’s the beginning of Mandal 2.0. Modi being an astute politician realised its efficacy, and therefore attacked it in no uncertain terms and tried to shred it into pieces.

But it is too early to predict the outcome of this war. The battle to challenge the hegemony of the new order led by Modi has just begun. It will be interesting to see how the future unfolds.

The writer is Co-Founder, SatyaHindi.com, and author of Hindu Rashtra. He tweets at @ashutosh83B

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