18 May 2019

The outrage about Modi is hiding the real story of these elections—the failings of Rahul Gandhi


After having danced to Narendra Modi’s tune for over five years, the media is doing much the same during the ongoing Lok Sabha elections—only now, it is doing so without coercion. Much of the media is reporting, as it should, the violations of the electoral code, the divisive rhetoric, the bigotry and the sheer uncouthness of language that Modi brings to the campaign. But it is doing so with a misplaced sense of outrage. This language is exactly what is expected of Modi—he is not doing anything that is out of character. He has been elected and endorsed by a good many voters for doing exactly this.

We can but hope that at some point, some institution will show the necessary sense and courage to act, but it seems Modi’s actions are guided by careful deliberation. He appears sure that no one will act, and that the media will report events in just the fashion he wants, to provoke the outrage he seeks.

The latest such episode has involved some rather uncharitable remarks about the former Congress prime minister Rajiv Gandhi. This attack was perplexing only given that Rajiv is Modi’s true spiritual forebearer. Rajiv handed Modi the template of using a single violent incident—the assassination of Indira Gandhi or the deaths in the train in Gujarat’s Godhra—as the pretext for allowing one’s political party to target a minority while ensuring that the police refuses to act, and even collaborates with the violence. And then, of using this orchestrated violence as the basis for a bigoted election campaign, driven by a professional corporate advertising agency.

In a real sense, it is the Congress under Rajiv Gandhi that scripted the first Hindu majoritarian election victory. This is not the only debt the Hindu Right owes Rajiv Gandhi. Having crafted a majority of exactly the kind the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh wanted and approved, Rajiv handed it over to the Bharatiya Janata Party by his opportunistic attempt to open the locks of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya. So why did Modi choose Rajiv Gandhi as his target?

We do not have to look far for an answer. He was reacting exactly as anyone on the street would react, to the accusation that Rahul Gandhi has been throwing at Modi for the past few months. Essentially, Rahul has been telling Modi, “tu chor hai,”—you are a thief—and the only response to that on the street is “chor hoga tera baap,”—your father must be a thief. In this case, even the language of the street had first been ushered in by Rahul Gandhi. Delivering “chowkidar chor hai,”—the watchman is a thief—in a polished accent does not make it more palatable than the appropriate response delivered in a cruder accent.

Moreover, Modi had calculated something the Congress and those who serve as its cheerleaders in the name of liberalism have not realised. For the most part, no one cares about what is said about Rajiv or any Congress leader. Their outrage only served to focus attention on just another Gandhi who left a less than chequered mark on Indian public life. Not only was Modi invoking the dynasty, he was invoking its seamiest side. As social media was flooded with tweets by BJP members about Rajiv Gandhi’s role in the massacre of the Sikhs in 1984, we were living out one final irony—that the charge of communal killings against the BJP was something the Congress was shying away from, at a time the BJP was invoking it against the Congress.

How did we get here? The answer to the question does not lie in what the media is reporting about Modi, but in what it is not reporting about Rahul Gandhi. The same outraged reporters, who are aghast by Modi behaving exactly as expected, are working overtime not to look critically at Rahul Gandhi’s campaign. It seems to rely on two planks. One is that the chowkidar is a chor, referring to corruption allegations against Modi surrounding the deal to purchase 36 Rafale aircrafts from the French company Dassault Aviation. The second is NYAY—or justice—referring to the universal basic income that he is promising to deliver to citizens.

The Rafale deal is an important story, and we at The Caravan have reported on it in some detail—but is it a story that separates the Congress from the BJP? Not really. It only convinces us that as far as corporate capital, defence deals and party funding are concerned, there is little to separate the two parties. It is not for nothing that the industrialist Anil Ambani has pointed out that his Reliance Group was awarded contracts worth Rs 1,00,000 crore during the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance years. If, as Rahul seems convinced, the BJP profited from Ambani’s dealings with the party, then how much did the Congress make from these deals?

As for the NYAY, in the end, it is again an evasion of the basic problem of inequity in Indian society. As an idea, there is little to separate it from the Modi government’s pitch for reservations on an economic basis—the fact that it works through cash transfers rather than jobs does not change its intent. The scheme does nothing to address the issues of differential access to education, healthcare and livelihood. In fact, the entire thrust of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign is to evade the issue of inequity in Indian society—the inequity before the law as Muslims become targets, and the inequity in every situation where Dalits and tribals are concerned.

As for what could really separate the Congress from the BJP, Rahul is silent but we are expected to fill it in ourselves—at least the Congress does not treat Muslims as second-class citizens. But what does that really mean if Rahul is afraid to even articulate this fact, or counter it by backing Muslim candidates or speaking out against hate? It just means that he also treats them as second-class citizens, not to be beaten or killed, but to be kept to one side by the Congress, brought out to vote for it during elections.

Rahul gets away with this because much of what passes for liberal media is still stuck in the malaise that destroyed the Congress in the first place. Much of Rahul Gandhi’s media outreach is controlled by family friends, children of family friends who either have friends in the media or have family friends who have friends in the media. Through this informal network, linked through drawing rooms and relationships, we have journalists who pretend to be independent during the day, but who sit down at night with other like-minded journalists or activists—or simply, family friends—to decide why they think it is their duty to ensure that the Congress wins an election. They convince themselves and the people around Rahul, who, in turn, seem to convince Rahul that he is doing a good job.

How else can one explain the so-called unscripted interviews he has given to India Today, NDTV, Economic Times and the Indian Express, where all the questions lingered only on the turf Rahul Gandhi has selected—Rafale, chowkidar chor hai and NYAY? Not one person has thought it necessary to ask why Rahul Gandhi is afraid to talk about the terrorisation of Muslims on a daily basis under Modi. Why has nobody thought it necessary to talk about lynchings or to question him on the choice of Kamal Nath as the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh despite strong suggestions of Nath’s involvement in the 1984 massacres of the Sikhs?

When this criticism is raised of Rahul, the standard reply is that in the current vitiated atmosphere any talk of attempts to bring about social or economic equity will only strengthen Modi. We are being told that if Rahul was to stand and speak from the heart about a country where the rule of law must be pre-eminent, where people cannot be terrorised, attacked or killed for their belief, then he would lose the election. There cannot be a more damning comment on what they think of the country. If it is indeed what they believe, then they have already lost the elections.

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