By disgracing Mani Shankar Aiyar and virtually throwing him out of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi may think that he has improved its chances of winning the elections in Gujarat. But if there is any conclusion that not only Gujarat’s but also India’s voters will draw from his hasty rebuke of the Congress party’s most senior, most loyal, most eloquent and most fearless member, it is not that the Congress is morally superior to the BJP, but that he is unfit to lead the Congress and unfit to govern the country. For Rahul has committed the cardinal sin of politics, and statecraft: he has abandoned his bravest general at the height of a battle that he could very well have won.
What is worse, he has cut down the only member of the Congress party who was doing any serious damage to the image that Narendra Modi has built of himself in the eyes of the people. That is, of course, why Modi singled him out for destruction. Instead of defending Aiyar or, better still, leading a counterattack on Modi, Rahul and the entire Congress party joined in his destruction. No matter what gloss his party’s spin doctors now try to put on this action, there is only one conclusion that the public can draw from this: Rahul does not have what it takes to be a leader, let alone the prime minister of the second largest country in the world.
To appreciate the sheer magnitude of Rahul’s loss of nerve, it is necessary to follow the train of events that preceded his public rebuke of Aiyar closely. While inaugurating the B.R. Ambedkar International Centre in Delhi, Modi said that the Congress had, for years, suppressed the memory of Ambedkar and belittled his contribution to nation building, solely to promote the “interests” of one family. No one was left in any doubt about which family he was referring to.
Modi’s remark was, to say the least, in poor taste. As the British had found out during the first Round Table Conference in 1931, Ambedkar was an ardent nationalist and the respect the Congress held him in is writ large on every page of the constitution. The Ambedkar Centre was conceived by the Congress government of Narasimha Rao in 1992, and if there was any reason for the delay in its creation it has to be shared by every political party in the country including the BJP. Modi could have taken credit for expediting it, but it was a truly national project so there could not have been a better moment to remind all Indians of their common commitment to the removal of the inequities of caste from our country. But Modi could not resist the temptation to take a cheap, unsubstantiated dig at not just the Congress, but the Gandhi family.
It would have been surprising indeed if this had not left a bad taste in the mouths of many of those present. So Aiyar had every right to voice his distaste for what Modi had said. Why, then, did Rahul turn so hastily, and so publicly, upon him? The official excuse is that by calling Modi a “Neech kisam ka aadmi”, he had given Modi a chance to claim that the Congress was denigrating him as a member of a ‘neech’ jaat (caste). This would alienate some of the lower castes who traditionally supported the Congress and give Modi a victory in Gujarat. Rahul swallowed this hook, line and sinker. As Congress president, he did not even ask Aiyar for an explanation first. He simply joined Modi in denigrating a senior and loyal member of his own party.
Rahul is so far removed from the party he now commands that he did not remember that Modi had tried to play the same card when Priyanka Gandhi had similarly called him ‘neech’ during an election rally in Amethi in 2014. But Modi’s ploy did not work, for the Congress candidate won in Amethi by 1.07 lakh votes. He should have remembered, because he was the candidate.
In Hindi, there is no automatic connection between the words ‘neech’ and ‘jaat’. The closest translation of ‘neech’ in English is ‘immoral’ or ‘unsavoury’. But Modi’s attempt to link it to caste in Gujarat had nothing to do with attracting lower caste votes. His precise statement was, “They have called me a neech jaat. This is an insult to Gujaratis.” This was therefore an appeal to Gujarati nationalism, but one designed to capture the vote of upper caste and upwardly mobile Gujaratis only – so the Patidars. That he felt compelled to use it again shows how uncertain the BJP is of retaining the Patidar vote.
How much damage has Rahul’s abandonment of his own general done to the Congress? There is no way to tell for sure, but it will be greatest among the swing voters who voted for the BJP and forsook the Congress for the first time in 2014. The BJP’s vote share jumped by 12%, from 48% in the 2012 assembly elections to 60% in the parliamentary elections of 2014. The Congress’s vote fell by 7%, from 40% to 33%. If the 12% switch back to the Congress, the BJP will still have a wafer-thin margin of 3%. This is what Modi is sparing no effort to retain. Rahul’s action has made it a lot easier for him to do so.
Prem Shankar Jha is a senior journalist and author of several books.