The Congress may go on living in denial, but the political elite’s haughtiness and insouciance is fast becoming an election issue—even in Amethi
By invoking the secular wolf and kindling an unstated idea of India that apparently linked the 128-year-old Indian National Congress with 3,000 years of Indian civilisation, the speech-writers of Rahul Gandhi attempted to pour some cement down the spine of an ailing Congress. The appeal had some currency precisely because it coincided with the inability of the over-exuberant AAP Government in Delhi to reconcile the contradictory impulses of its two groups of supporters
Every political intervention has to be judged within a context. Rahul Gandhi’s spirited intervention at the AICC meeting that had been planned to celebrate his coronation as the Congress’ s prime ministerial candidate for the general election—it’s a different matter that the script was modified at the last minute—was aimed at lifting the spirits of the Congress and sounding the bugle for battle. But in many ways, it was akin to the Maori ‘haka’ dance being performed by a soccer team trailing 4-0, with only injury time remaining. The team might have been energised momentarily, but neither the opposition nor the spectators imagined that this last-minute flamboyance was anything but a prayer for a miracle. The Congress, it was proclaimed last Friday afternoon, would perhaps go down, but it would go down lustily with the self-delusion that it was bearing the burden of 3,000 years of Indian history and 12 gas cylinders.
It was necessary for the Congress to disseminate the message that it was battling for a cause. It was bad enough that the announcement of the results of the four Assembly elections had led to profound demoralisation and a belief that defeat in the forthcoming general election was inevitable. What has compounded the problem was the quiet detachment of an influential body of the intellectual class from the Congress. Those pillars of the opinion-making industry the Congress had nurtured, promoted and patronised through bodies such as the National Advisory Council, the UGC and the ICSSR and even sent on attractive junkets suddenly became intoxicated with the heady brew being served by the Aam Aadmi Party.
The attractions were less ideological than tactical, although the promotion of grassroots democracy was often cited as the ostensible reason for the gush-gush over the white ‘topi’ army. The Congress, it was calculated, had become so flabby and decrepit that it was in danger of giving Narendra Modi a clear walkover in the coming battle for the hearts and minds of India. The newly-energised AAP, it was believed, had the energy and the moral halo to appropriate some of the anti-establishment thrust of Modi. In short, if the priority was to stop Modi at all costs, using all means, both fair and foul, the AAP seemed better placed to be a wall against Modi. The idea was never to win, but to prevent Modi from winning.
An unintended consequence of the AAP project was that the first casualty was unquestionably the Congress. Opinion polls seem to veer to the conclusion that AAP had damaged Congress grievously and only dented the BJP. Examined from another perspective, the AAP had divided the anti-Modi vote to the point of actually increasing the BJP’s potential tally of seats.
By invoking the secular wolf and kindling an unstated idea of India that apparently linked the 128-year-old Indian National Congress with 3,000 years of Indian civilisation, the speech-writers of Rahul Gandhi attempted to pour some cement down the spine of an ailing Congress. The appeal had some currency precisely because it coincided with the inability of the over-exuberant AAP Government in Delhi to reconcile the contradictory impulses of its two groups of supporters: the middle classes that sought hassle-free governance and the activists, who wanted to use the Delhi government to ferment a social revolution. Whether AAP will be a political tsunami or India’s shortest-lived political bubble is still unknown.
However, in suggesting that there is still some fight left in the Congress, Rahul Gandhi may have checked the desertion of his party’s traditional supporters into the ragtag army.
There was a second aspect to the Rahul project: To distance himself from the anti-incumbency attached to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, by packaging himself as a rebel prince. The fierce gesticulations, the raising of the decibel level and the 12-cylinder drama were features of this positioning. Also important was his underlying assurance that despite the top job being reserved for a member of the first family, the Congress would promote dedicated grassroots workers and women to positions of importance. The Congress, he was at pains to stress, would be a vehicle for monarchical egalitarianism.
Sadly for the Congress, it took just two incidents to puncture the contrived piousness. The first was the unprovoked, but calculated outburst of Mani Shankar Aiyar that Modi was best suited to distributing tea at the AICC offices. Having traditionally occupied the twilight zone between socialist earnestness and the role of court jester, Aiyar epitomises the arrogance of an elite that believes it is born to rule (through the Gandhis). His aside on the humble origins of Modi was revealing, not merely on account of the insight it provides on the in-jokes of a party that has milked poverty for electoral advantage. Read along with Salman Khurshid’s remark about AAP comprising ‘third class’ individuals who ‘stink’, they suggest that the Congress edifice rests on two different architectures of entitlements: the sops for the poor and the imperishable comfort zones for the socially privileged.
The Congress may go on living in denial, but the political elite’s haughtiness and insouciance is fast becoming an election issue—even in Amethi. That is why even the circumstances surrounding the grave personal tragedy of a Congress minister may well escalate into bouts of class resentment. Coming before an election, each one of the English-speaking Congress’ misdemeanours will help puncture the claims of Rahul Gandhi to be an instrument of sincerity and integrity.