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To citizens such as the present writer who may not expect to live to see the general elections of 2024, the dynamics of the contemporary moment carry a terminal significance.
Clearly, the ongoing campaigns for the forthcoming assembly elections are foremost in this regard. Without a doubt, the outcomes, especially in Uttar Pradesh, will tell us a good deal about how the republic may be set to shape in the coming years.
But, the return of debate to the houses of parliament bearing formally on the “motion of thanks” to the President for his address has been suggestive of ideological concerns and directions that seem to mark a departure from the beleaguered stasis and hopelessness of recent years.
During that debate, some truly outstanding and acute presentations came to the fore, chiefly from speakers of the Congress, the All India Trinamool Congress, the Rashtriya Janata Dal, the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Samajwadi Party, the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the All India Majlis-e-Ittehadul Muslimeen, the Jammu and Kashmir National Conference, and even the Biju Janata Dal and Telangana Rashtra Samithi, unraveling the puerile and disingenuously self-congratulatory content of the government’s report card as read by the President.
Incisive critiques were made without any pusillanimous dithering of the crony-complicit nature of its economic “performance”, its role in causing irreparable damage to the social fabric of the nation’s composite life, to the credibility of state institutions, and to the impartiality of prosecutorial law-enforcement systems.
Listening to these presentations indeed brought reassurance that democratic verve and the all-important spirit of criticism rooted in the hard grind of grass roots knowledge, irrefutable research, and allegiance to constitutional injunctions remain alive.
If Rahul Gandhi’s speech carried the stamp of a defining moment, it was for the reason that some watershed rethink was forthcoming from the de facto leader of the alternative national political formation whose own record has in the past remained blemished in areas which Rahul Gandhi critiqued, and which, however the ruling right-wing may downplay, continues to be seen by it as its chief likely nemesis.
From the moment he stood up to speak, it was clear from his assured demeanour that he had important things to say.
And important things he did say on the economic, political, and cultural state of the nation – all that with an acuteness of formulation and focus which bespoke many hours of reading and corrective cogitation.
Consistent with what he has through the last few years sought to share with the citizenry, Rahul Gandhi’s persuasive encapsulation of the economic ideology of the current right-wing government took in the major axes of its macro-economic preferences, such as have today rendered India perhaps the most brutally unequal of societies worldwide.
In a throwback to Benjamin Disraeli (who it was had first underlined how the England of his time was ‘two nations, the rich and the poor’), Rahul Gandhi produced indices that substantiated his formulation that there are now two visibly discrete Indias.
At one end he suggested was an India in which some 98 individuals possess assets equal to those of some 55 crore other Indians, and where some 142 billionaires (up from 140 a year ago, the third highest number of billionaires globally) had increased their wealth from Rs 23 lakh crores to Rs 56 lakh crores during the Modi dispensation, and at the other end an India which ranked 101 in the Global Hunger Index, below all of India’s minion neighbours, including the reviled Pakistan.
He may have further added how India has the world’s largest population of malnourished and stunted children, and how this great nation, all set to achieve a 5 trillion dollar economy spends perhaps the lowest percentages of its GDP on education and public health.
Reading off two discrete lists of assets and holdings, Rahul established how this unconscionable state of the nation’s economic life has resulted not only from a wholesale transfer of wealth from public holdings to private hands, but indeed, to just a handful, chiefly two favoured cronies, even as he put on record that the Congress was not a blanket enemy to the nation’s corporate sector.
This was the easy part, since the gross and uncaring appropriation of wealth over the last seven years has now come to be common knowledge, the touted direct benefit schemes notwithstanding, most of them hollow and without any real bearing on the immiserated lives of some 80% Indians.
We may underscore the irony that the lofty claims of the regime here sit only too ill with the fact that it has found itself impelled to deliver free preliminary rations (chiefly cereals) to this vast mass of people who it claims in the same breath it has lifted into economic respectability.
That the forbidding prices of oils, fruits and vegetables disallow this mass of people even to think of nourishment is of course the not-so-hidden and hideous reality.
It will remain to be seen what policies a Congress-led government in future may adopt to push back a berserk and blood-thirsty capitalism that, after all, has resulted from the neo-liberal economics initiated by a Congress government in 1991.
It seems obvious that mere tokenist welfarism may not suffice anymore to restore equitable sanity to the management and distribution of national wealth, and that some far-reaching structural transformations may require to be made.
The ideological or political critique and future roadmap
It is here that Rahul Gandhi did not simply make routine observations but enunciated a new and unexpected structure of perceptions and convictions that are set to become subject of a rejuvenated analysis and debate about the politics of a new possible collective future.
He was clearly charting a course that derived from a studied analysis of how the state has been sought to be transformed from a democracy to rule by a “king, a shahenshah, a ruler of rulers”, something that the freedom movement had fought and defeated in 1947.
One may note in passing here that nothing offends the principle of federalism as much as the prime minister’s sickeningly repetitive reference to the desirability of “double engine” governments; this averment clearly suggests that the ruler may be expected to shower bounties only on those states who elect his party to power – a stipulation deeply obnoxious both to the democratic structure and to constitutional principles. And, yet, no section of the media seems to want to make even the least comment on this propagation of the “double engine” thesis.
What was remarkable about Rahul Gandhi’s presentation here was the understanding he offered of how the right-wing had a view of India wholly out of sync with the bouquet-like variety of the country’s discrete linguistic, cultural, self- respecting plurality over millenia of living, and how the unique and unparalleled diversity of this land’s people had over thousands of years achieved an organic unity rooted in a rich skein of negotiations, conversations and mutually beneficial transactions rather than through the aegis of a centralised stick that drew its so-called legitimacy from some monochromatic and unitary structure of values.
Turning to history, Rahul Gandhi underscored the reality that no empire had ever succeeded in homogenising this rich and diverse plurality, and whenever tried, had drawn strong counter hegemonies based in the genius of profoundly rich and self-respecting identities.
As Jawhar Sircar of the Trinamool Congress tellingly underscored, India has never known “central rule” for more than some five centuries of its extended history over some five millennia – the Mauryas for some 200 years, the Mughals for some 120 years, and the British for another 150 years.
Rahul Gandhi thus suggested why the assumption of a centralised autocracy lorded over by a “ruler of rulers” was grossly inimical to the genius of India’s diverse history and polity, and would not but draw reactions in time that could dangerously vitiate the peace and harmony of the realm.
In pointing to the fact that the constitution defined India as a “union of states” and not a homogeneous “nation”, Rahul Gandhi laid a firm ideological ground for the conviction that only a negotiated cooperative federalism could hope to both keep the republic together and meet the ends of the democratic and egalitarian ideals enshrined in the constitution.
It has been pointed out by political observers that the Congress itself bears substantial responsibility for having debilitated federalism of the sort Rahul Gandhi enunciated in his watershed speech, beginning with the dismissal of the first ever elected communist government in Kerala in 1959.
This cannot be denied. And, Rahul Gandhi’s offering would have been doubly persuasive if he had made some acknowledgement of that reality, although it does seem that the firmness with which he has now formulated his understanding of India’s diversely rich and inter-active social and cultural history, he will not shy at some future point to do so. It is understandably not an easy thing for him simply to say that he, after all, had no part in the excesses committed by his party in times past, although no fair-minded construction of India’s post-Independence life may justly compare the scale or frequency of those excesses with what we have experienced over the last seven years.
We must remember that never during the five decades or so of Congress rule, barring the episode of the 19 months of the Emergency, have state authorities and socially emboldened satraps been so employed to undermine constitutional rule as over the life of the Modi regime. Nor were the nation’s largest minority so ruthlessly relegated and deterred as they have come to be since 2014.
What clearly emerges from his resounding caution is that no centre can ever hope to subjugate large swathes of India, be it in the south, the east or the suppressed territory of Jammu and Kashmir. This is a probable course that the grand old party may undertake in the months and years to come, seeking partnership with diversities rather than hegemonic rule from Delhi, indeed just from the prime minister’s office.
Clearly, the thrust of Rahul Gandhi’s stated ideological vision here poses a challenge to the “demonic” hegemonisation sought by the Hindutva right-wing, (as his seminal departure from some previously disabling thinking within the Congress may be set to be jettisoned), preparing the party for a sentient equation with regional forces that have hitherto tended to view the grand old party as yet another oppressive behemoth.
That this departure can have telling implications for the next general election should be apparent. One may speculate that secular parties other than the Congress would have taken due note of all that Rahul Gandhi has said, and may take initiatives that may have seemed hitherto difficult to envisage.
It of course remains to be seen how the reorganisation of the grand old party may proceed in the coming months.
In sharing a vignette from his interaction with some political leaders from Manipur, Rahul Gandhi brought home at one stroke the more ugly aspects of a centralising cultural gumption.
He recounted how these leaders from Manipur had felt insulted by first being asked to take off their footwear before entering a room to meet the home minister, and then discovering that the minister indeed wore his chappals while they were barefoot.
Rahul Gandhi reinforced his earlier democratic concern with overbearingly centralised political authority by suggesting how that autocratic bent of mind extended to enforcing degrading inequalities in cultural practice at the highest levels of political life, and how this tantamounted to putting “lesser” Indians in their place in a rather gauche Brahminical assertion.
One was reminded here of how King George wished Gandhi to dress “properly” for his meeting with the monarch at the time of the Round Table conference – a diktat that Gandhi famously rejected.
It is to be hoped that such rejections will multiply in the days to come at all levels of national life, by the high and the low, men and women, Hindus and Muslims, leading to a social revolt against majoritarian injunctions about what we may or may not eat, or wear, or even think or believe.
The sum and substance of Rahul Gandhi’s discourse encourages the thought that the now brazenly and coercively overt and stated purpose of the Hindutva forces to have India declared a Hindu Rashtra, with all the cultural implications that shift carries, may never find acceptance in some three fourths of the country.
And the electoral campaigns now underway seem also to suggest that the fake devices employed by a ruthlessly anti-poor regime bearing on communal and sectarian shenanigans may also have run their course.
We will know, come March 10.
In the meanwhile, if Rahul Gandhi has indeed put the grand old party on a reworked scheme of political and cultural perceptions and relations, including an increasingly forthright jettisoning of the temptation to ape cultural majoritarianism in favour of secular platforms of praxis, the country may have been given a choice it has lacked over a decade or so of its political life.