India’s Congress Party in Renewal Mode
It has been a fairly considered tactic on behalf of the main political opposition to the Congress to smirk and snigger generally at Rahul Gandhi. The idea is to ridicule the young man into relegation from any serious-minded public attention. All that besides dubbing him an undeserving beneficiary merely of the accident of birth. Needless to say, of course, that more than a third of India’s elected leaderships today across pretty much all parties barring the Left owe their initial launches into political life to the accident of birth. Curiously, only the Congress seems ever to come in for opprobrium on this account, although no one from the Congress has been India’s Prime Minister for more than a quarter century now, of which the Party has been in power for about twenty years. It is notable that, more than any of the others, Rahul Gandhi has several times bemoaned the fact that the accident of birth should continue to be such a draw in India’s party-political system, obliging many outstanding claimants outside the “system” to suffer undemocratic denial , and indeed sought over the last few years to introduce a democratic leveling of opportunities into the Party’s youth organizations. Not an easy thing to do, given the fact that India’s democracy still remains in great measure an arbitrary intellectual imposition on forms of hierarchy that continue to thwart the deepening of a democratic and egalitarian social culture.
There is, noticeably, a quality of school ma’mish self-absorption that characterizes Rahul Gandhi’s public speaking, and often one has seen him stop a round of cheer or sloganeering in its track to bring the audience back to actually listening to what he wishes to be saying. As the customary zeitgeist of India’s political culture goes, such temperamental preferences in a political-public speaker evoke disfavour, since some form of a mesmerizing orality still remains within the popular imagination a decisive hallmark of leadership.
Yet, recalling the adage that a week is too long a time in politics, it may not be out of place to underline certain techtonic shifts that seem underway in India’s public expectation overall, such as ought to oblige the close observer to evaluate with lesser condescension and greater objectivity what Rahul Gandhi brings to the moment both in relation to his party and to India’s national “mainstream” political culture.
Writing in his On Heroes Hero Worship,and the Heroic in History ( 1840)Thomas Carlyle was to identify as one type of hero the man who seems often short of words or flourish, but whose transparent force of earnestness communicates itself with a self-evident conviction. One may recall that his example of this type from British history was Oliver Cromwell.
In our own post-independence history, more than anyone else, Jawaharlal Nehru exemplified that sort of earnestness of address—one that was rarely flamboyant or ornate, but such as took for granted the truth-value of his words, and that never had a thought to catering to an audience. In his case, of course, that earnestness often illustrated itself in concrete acts of moral leadership. One recalls a stunning instance during an election campaign when, after his speech on behalf of his party, he actually admonished the audience not to vote for the Congress candidate sitting next to him on the dais because the fellow was corrupt!
As much as I have watched and heard Rahul Gandhi, I venture to say that although his sincerity of presentation all too obviously seems reminiscent of his late father, Rajiv Gandhi, in his overall quality of concern about India -- its state, institutions and polity-- it is more his great grand father, Nehru, who speaks through him. His naivete seems informed by a similar indifference to the clever tropes of the day, or to the habits of mind that colour those that come to hear.
And as was amply on display in his address the other day now in his capacity as Congress Vice-President, his bold and uncaring barbs were reserved most of all for his own party’s political culture, much as often Nehru’s used to be. His plain-speaking—those that practice corruption routinely can be heard protesting at corruption; those that dishonour women habitually can be heard to speak for gender justice and gender equality; those that seek power ostensibly for public good often use it merely to feather their own nests—clearly seems reminiscent of a Nehruvian quality of impatience with cant and hypocrisy. And at another level, this tactless impatience also seems to voice a Kejriwal-like impulse from within the country’s largest and oldest political formation, the idea that the “system” does not need as much to be “improved” as it needs to be “transformed,” an impulse that may actually have an audience in cities and towns today that it may not have had prior to the Anna Hazare intervention and before the watershed gang-rape case in the Capital.
When one links this new and bold preparedness of a self-critical attitude with Rahul Gandhi’s demonstrated capacity for interminable legwork, and with hitherto non-existent democratic processes that seem now installed among the Congress’s youthful organizations, it may be a miscalculation to think that, in the face of good old cloistered sectarian electorates and Modi-like habits of public-speak, the new kid on the block will have only scant purchase. Or none at all.
This especially so because Rahul Gandhi’s address also underscored unreservedly the conviction that it is to the Advasis, Dalits, Women, and Minorities that India’s policy apparatus must address itself in the coming days, and that “development” that remains confined to those that already have cannot but only exacerbate the systemic collapses that everyone bemoans, and often most of all those who continue to be the greatest beneficiaries of the “system.” Caveat: it is in this area of social vision that seems to bespeak a preference for a democratic socialism that Rahul Gandhi’s toughest tests will occur, should he ever find himself in a position of national authority. The cussed order of a class society and of a state that speaks and works for it is more easily wished away than dented, especially with a rampant neo-liberal dispensation in the saddle. Just as the other big question must be whether the quality of his battle against majoritarian communalism will be any more no-nonsensical than has been the Party’s wont generally.
The big question must be whether the most concerted resistance to the idealism that he has voiced may not after all come from the Congress itself, as happened during Nehru’s tenure. Notwithstanding the chorus of approbation that his speech to his party conclave drew, it is a sure enough bet that many a party sartrap might have gone home very distraught with the idea that the Congress party culture must be transformed radically to ensure that the grass roots worker has first say, and that decisions for her are not made by those that spend most of their time “behind closed doors.” Or that, come hustings time, the Party’s ticket distribution machinery should favour those who may be better placed to win, even if such ones may be instant imports from other parties, money bags, or hangers-on at some influential door or the other. Or simply venerable old hands who claim such privilege purely on grounds of elderliness. If Rahul Gandhi has been reluctant to take on a chair of office, be it within the Party or the Cabinet for eight long years after he first made entry into parliament, this may well have been a demostration of his conviction that advancement must be seen to be earned rather than merely be inherited. And most of his detractors admit that his labours among the people and among his Party’s work force over these years has been both strenuous and selfless, even if often muddled and frustrated. Yet, should Rahul Gandhi not succeed in pulling the party behind the substance now of his more weighty enunciations, the sycophancy notwithstanding, the losses to the Congress may well turn out to be irretrievable.
But, for now, both morally and in policy terms, what we have heard must give pause to voices that always seem to know better about him.