The presence of three Gandhis – the mother, the son and the sister – in the rejigged Congress Working Committee is a painful reminder of the persistence of a central dilemma in Indian politics: the continued dominance of the Gandhis in the Congress scheme of things provides Narendra Modi with his most potent emotional appeal to the electorate; yet, no one – including, ironically, the family – knows what to do with them.
Admittedly, the Modi strategists feel that if Rahul Gandhi is the opposition’s prime ministerial candidate, then their man will happily laugh his way to the bank in the 2024 Lok Sabha contest. On the other hand, there are very many, including some very thoughtful and wise voices, who remain convinced that Rahul Gandhi has earned the spurs to position himself as the prime opponent of Modi. And, it is no rocket science to note that the edifice of opposition unity will collapse if there is an insistence on making Rahul Gandhi the keystone of the challenge to the BJP.
It is most unfortunate that the Gandhis and their partisans tend to forget that the last time the Congress notched up a substantive performance at the national level was way back in 2009. The Congress had had a fine hour, after a long time. It was a unique achievement, with the Congress crossing the 200-mark for the first time since 1991. What was most noteworthy about that battle –and this cannot be overemphasized – was that the Gandhis were seen, gladly and joyfully, campaigning for a non-Gandhi to become the prime minister. Not before 2009 nor since have the Gandhis batted for someone from outside the family to take up the prime ministerial mantle.
Arguably, the country could have been spared a Narendra Modi tragedy had only the Gandhis learnt the correct lesson from the 2009 vote. The voters, especially the influential middle classes, opted to endorse Manmohan Singh’s stewardship because he represented stability and solidity. It is necessary to recall that Singh’s claim to get re-elected was presented in the context of the horrible Mumbai terror attack in November 2008 and his own heart surgery a few months later. On both these counts, his leadership claims came under a cloud. Yet the voters made a clear choice between a cautious but competent consensus-seeking Manmohan Singh and the loh purush Lal Krishna Advani, who promised a strong, danda government. The Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi “combo” carried with it delicious a flavour – an honest, hard-working self-made man, offering his competence and experience in the service of the nation, being backed whole-heartedly by the Nehru-Gandhi family, with its own place in our collective imagination. The global community cheered Manmohan Singh’s victory as a reaffirmation of meritocracy and educated leadership.
It is a different story – and, a painful one, at that – that the Congress, especially the Gandhis, failed to appreciate the electorate’s wisdom and common sense. Instead, the top Congress leadership went into overdrive to undermine its own government and in the process ended up betraying the voters’ trust. And unthinkingly created the conditions for the authoritarianism India is now suffering.
The tragedy is that no lessons seem to have been learnt from the last two Lok Sabha defeats. Rahul Gandhi’s speech in the no-confidence motion debate was as self-absorbed as Modi’s. The prime minister, of course, is in control of the gaadi and can allow his megalomania to get the better of him, but Rahul Gandhi does not have the luxury of using the Lok Sabha forum for some kind of catharsis. Once again, the nation was given a good reason to conclude – rather sadly – that Gandhi would not do as an alternative to Modi. The even bigger tragedy is that the Gandhis do not seem to understand that securing the country relief from Modi and all that he has come to represent is of far-greater relevance and importance than their own political prosperity.
For better or worse, the Modi political persona is cast in stone: the granite of arrogance, the sand of moral expedience, the slippery marble of political chicanery, all cemented with alternative layers of self-obsession and an inferiority complex. After ten years of self-proclaimed success, he feels no need to change. His handlers must be reminding him of the old Yankee advice: if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. In his two most recent speeches, in the Lok Sabha and from the Red Fort, Modi has left no one in doubt that it would be more of the same. Worse, another mandate would be read by his patrons and partisans as a license to overhaul the (Nehruvian) constitution.
So, the polity is saddled with an unresolved dilemma. There is no sign of the Gandhis standing down. The other day, Sonia Gandhi’s son-in-law went public with his expectation that the Congress party would have the good sense to send his wife to parliament. The Gandhis’ chorus is prepared to full-throatedly sing “Rahul the messiah,” even if it means performing in empty halls.
Without the Congress being in the driver’s seat, the opposition unity bandwagon will be stranded in irrelevance and unilateralism. But that driver cannot be a Gandhi. The country deserves a different choice than the one between the extremism of a pugnacious Modi and the extremism of an underbaked Rahul. The country needs moderation, sobriety and steadiness. Both Modi and Rahul Gandhi represent a certain kind of recklessness.
The onus is on the Gandhis. They have only one honourable course of action left open to them: replicate the 2009 formula. The country does not owe anything anymore to the Gandhis. It is time for them to repay a debt to Indian democracy. It is time for them to listen once again to an “inner voice”.