A battle for the idea of India

POORNIMA JOSHI | Updated on March 12, 2018 Published on January 17, 2014

Suddenly, a spring in Rahul Gandhi's step. — PTI

Instead of pitching Rahul Gandhi against Narendra Modi, the Congress Party is projecting itself as more representative of the socio-cultural ideas that have shaped India.

A rare burst of originality is suddenly on display from the ruling party. Just when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had begun to prematurely enjoy what seemed to be the inevitable prospect of a personality clash between the reticent Rahul Gandhi and the indefatigable Narendra Modi, the Congress has changed the rules of the game.

During the one-day session of the All India Congress Committee (AICC), the ruling party crafted its own turf rather than fight the upcoming elections on the BJP’s home-ground where Modi’s larger-than-life persona and skill for rhetoric was bound to overshadow Rahul Gandhi. Instead, the Congress revealed that it intends to turn the predictable personality clash into a battle for the superior idea of India.

Politics for public good

It was done in the understated fashion typical of the Grand Old Party, the venue showcasing all the past luminaries — Mahatma Gandhi, Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel et al in sepia-tinged frames; the speakers at the session including more than the usual number of Muslim leaders; the general emphasis on India’s syncretic socio-cultural milieu and finally, Rahul Gandhi pointing at the framed pictures of the past luminaries to integrate the Congress with their inclusive, diverse ideas.

“We are not assembled here as individuals but as trustees of an idea. We are going to defend this idea which is greater than the Prime Minister, the Congress President and all of us put together,” the Congress Vice President said, gesturing at the images of Gandhi, Patel, Nehru and Azad that framed the backdrop for his speech. For good measure, the Congress Vice President went on to talk about the Gita, the Ramayana, Guru Nanak and Emperor Akbar, and traced their legacy to the Mahatma and the Congress.

The nuances are not very difficult to grasp. The Congress has fought back the impulse to give in to the pressure to let its top leader be projected in a personality contest that he is bound to lose. So, while it cushioned its leader against fall, it was all done purportedly for the larger good and a better vision for the Nation.

The message clearly is that for the Gandhis, politics is not about power but public good. And the Congress is the party most representative of the inclusive, diverse and secular socio-cultural ideas that have shaped India. The plan is to stress on the BJP’s communal character and its PM candidate’s riot-tainted past without letting the opposition cash in on Rahul Gandhi’s weaknesses as a public speaker and mass leader.

Indeed, fighting ten years of anti-incumbency and a popular upsurge which reflected in the recent assembly elections in the debutant Arvind Kejriwal easily trouncing the seemingly invincible Sheila Dikshit, it is a clever move not just to insulate the Gandhis but also unveil the only strategy that is marketable in a difficult election. Rahul Gandhi remains the leader conducting and managing the elections in the unexpected scenario of Congress getting to form the government. But if the party faces total decimation, he is not going to shoulder the blame alone.

The only disingenuous point in the strategy is the explanation he gave, other than the un-stated positioning that Gandhis are not in politics for power, for not allowing himself to be projected as PM candidate — “The Constitution decrees that Prime Ministers are elected by the Members of Parliament, not declared before the elections”. The point that Manmohan Singh was nominated by the Congress President, who was the obvious choice in the Congress Legislature Party to be PM after the 2004 general elections, is not going to be lost on the opposition. But overall, the loopholes were surprisingly not as glaring as a number of moves that the Congress has made in the recent past.

Eloquent and accessible

In the face of allegations about a multitude of corruption scandals, price rise and lack of credibility, the UPA II was packaged as the deliverer of power to the most marginalised and the poor. The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) may have hijacked the Congress common man slogan but at least belatedly, the Congress made a valiant effort to reclaim its heritage with the Gandhis strongly pitching the party as a vehicle for socio-cultural empowerment. In one stroke, the ruling coalition’s right-based policy measures in the last ten years — MNREGA, RTI, RTE, farm loan waiver, Right to Food et al — were held up with a strong emphasis on further empowerment of the poor with future policy programmes.

As opposed to ‘Indira is India’, the larger strategy is to pitch the Congress as encompassing and representing the values superior than the BJP. However, the ruling party and the Gandhis made an effort to subtly repackage Rahul Gandhi as well. While he remains above the ugly power games that his opponents supposedly play, the Congress Vice President seems to have taken special trouble to connect with his party cadre.

In his concluding remarks at the AICC session, he was more eloquent and accessible than ever before. Speaking alternately in Hindi and English, he regaled the party workers with finely sharpened barbs at his opponents while presenting himself as a visionary engaged in the more meaningful tasks than merely winning elections i.e. revamping the party, connecting with people’s issues and accordingly mould policy. He spoke with rare confidence and assertion and the crowd was delirious despite the clear disappointment that some had about him not having been made PM.

The BJP has clearly been taken by surprise at this unexpected attempt at originality. Although the various spokespersons mocked at the Congress “saving” him for the future and “defeat written large” on the ruling party, the opposition is going to need more ammunition.

The Congress has refused to gratify them by doing the predictable and the Opposition’s strategy will need to change accordingly. Darting barbs at Rahul Gandhi would have been infinitely simpler than fighting against the charge of dividing and communalising polity and politics. In the run-up to the election campaign that has so far been predictably one-sided, the Congress has certainly dealt a surprise hand.

Published on January 17, 2014
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor