The monarch and the mask

It is a hard choice between the presumptive heir of a century-old political family and the man who wants every Indian cast in his own image

Updated - February 23, 2013 12:49 am IST

Published - February 23, 2013 12:48 am IST

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edit page vidya 230213

The time to choose is here — or so it would seem judging from the speed with which people are picking sides. The decision is thought to be especially inescapable for those of us conferred the appellation “pseudo-secular”: With Narendra Modi looming large on the electoral horizon, there apparently cannot be any more ifs and buts for us.

Yet it is a depressing choice between Rahul Gandhi and Modi. Though neither has officially been named his party’s Prime Ministerial candidate for 2014, and many difficulties persist on this score, the prevailing wisdom is that the face-off is unavoidable. Assuming — and only assuming — this will be so, let us see what could be in store.

One is a 40ish something presumptive heir of a long-running political dynasty with a predilection for renunciation; its members come around eventually because they see leadership as their ordained duty. The other is an abrasive, authoritarian regional satrap who having cast his State’s population of “six crore” in his own image, wants to do the same thing to all Indians alive. One gives the impression that he has been carried into his new job kicking and screaming. The other’s vision is a billion Modis.

Tears, sacrifice, destiny

Rahul could be “the reluctant monarch” in the tradition of George VI and Queen Elizabeth-II instead of the second-in command of the largest democracy’s largest political party. For eight long years he resisted the role marked out for him. Just as his parents resisted the roles marked out for them.

The day before his brother, Edward VIII, abdicated the throne, the soon-to-be King George VI went to see their mother, Mary of Teck. He didn’t want to be king, he told her, and wrote in his diary: “I broke down and sobbed like a child.” But destiny beckoned him as it did his daughter Elizabeth for whom too the throne was an obligation “she never wanted” but was bound to discharge, as is evident from the title of the 1998 television biography Elizabeth: The Reluctant Monarch .

Tearful accession has been the story of India’s First Family — at least since the assassination of Indira Gandhi which saw Rajiv installed in her place in an imitation of royal succession. Indira’s death was announced at 6 p.m. on October 31, 1984. Within the hour, Rajiv had been sworn in. He was only a Congress general secretary then, and at age 40, aeons junior to veterans such as P.V. Narasimha Rao, Pranab Mukherjee and S.B. Chavan. Sonia was in tears over this transition and had to surrender after Rajiv told her that while he knew what power entailed, he could not flinch from doing his duty. Rajiv’s 1981 political debut was as fiercely opposed by Sonia, who would record in her own words that she “fought (it) like a tigress”, and finally, “I would bow to those forces which were beyond me to fight.” The party demanded him as “a sacrificial lamb..,” she recorded ( Rajiv by Sonia Gandhi, Penguin Books, 1992).

Sonia’s own political career carried forward the family’s history of tears, resistance and destiny. For seven years, she stonewalled anguished party pleas to take her rightful place, finally succumbing to her karmic duty in March 1998. Biographer Rani Singh quotes from TV clips of a rare Sonia’s interview: “.. each time I walked past those photographs (of Rajiv’s and Indira’s) I felt I wasn’t responding to my duty, the duty to this family and the country.” Though the ungainly manner in which she displaced then Congress chief Sitaram Kesri suggested larger ambitions, Sonia would spurn the chance to be Prime Minister when the time came, setting the stage for a fresh enactment of “tears and entreaties” by inconsolable Congresspersons. That Manmohan Singh was standing in for Rahul was always known. And so when Rahul arrived, it was with a sense of destiny. His futile resistance would end typically: with his mother’s tears. “Last night my mother came to my room and she sat with me and she cried … because she understands that the power so many seek is actually a poison…,” Rahul recalled in his speech post his promotion to Congress vice-president.

Thus it is that another Nehru-Gandhi has drunk the poison of power — not by his own will but by predestination, by cosmic decree. To be fair to the family, there was little of this shying away in the early Nehrus. Political historian B.R. Nanda records that “Motilal’s early incursions into politics were reluctant, brief and sporadic” but that he plunged himself fully into it, becoming Congress president in 1919 and 1928, after being convinced of the righteousness of Mahatma Gandhi’s path. Jawaharlal was of course the Mahatma’s chosen one. But the idealism of the time ensured that power was viewed, not as greed, but as a means towards nation-building.

Indira will probably go down as the only Nehru-Gandhi who wielded power for its own sake. She was ruthless, dictatorial and Machiavellian in the way she carried out internal and external purges. And yes, she put in place a drill for family members to follow. Each time she was in crisis — the worst one was in June 1975 when she was unseated by a court judgment for electoral malpractice — she would gather around her masses of breast-beating Congresspersons who would implore her to stay on for the sake of the party. The act has since been restaged multiple times. Unending petitions from partypersons preceded Rajiv’s induction as general secretary. When Sharad Pawar targeted Sonia’s foreign ancestry in 1999, she resigned as party chief, causing despairing Congresspersons to assemble in tens of thousands outside 10 Janpath. They would turn up again when she refused to be Prime Minister. The chorus would also nudge and re-nudge Rahul to his place in the firmament.

The pattern of tears, sacrifice and mass appeals raises one question: Agreed Rahul sounds sincere as did his father. But how does destiny square with democracy and for how long? The reference to family in Rahul’s Jaipur speech moved his party to tears — but of course — but family has been the running theme since he filed his nomination from Amethi in 2004. He spoke then of people running after the train that carried his father’s ashes: “I thought I must do something for the people who loved my father.” Sonia said memories of her husband flooded her mind when she saw Rahul file his nomination from Amethi.

In 2019, the clan would complete 100 years of active political existence. For the chain not to break, the call of duty must extend down the line. Who next? Priyanka, husband Robert Vadra or their children? Should Vadra capitulate to duty and destiny — he boasted in an interview that he could win from anywhere — where would we be? Vadra alone is reason to be wary of the legacy going any further. How can a member of a century-old political family not know that Aam Aadmi has been the Congress’s winning slogan? From Nehru to Vadra, it has been a stunning decline in intellectual calibre.

At odds with democracy

The other knight in shining armour is an equally unwholesome prospect. Much has been written about the hollowness of Modi’s development claims. Gujarat’s development is material development and not human development as its dismal statistics on malnutrition, hunger and maternal mortality show. Modi’s supporters haven’t been able to explain why Modi aide Maya Kodnani, who was an MLA and a minister, has been convicted of murder, conspiracy and rioting in the 2002 Naroda Patiya anti-Muslim violence. The Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigating Team (SIT) which investigated the Naroda case sought the death penalty for Kodnani. She incidentally also figured in the list of 63 “accused” — Modi included — named by Zakia Jafri in her omnibus petition seeking punishment for the 2002 pogrom. Yet the same SIT fully closed the Zakia complaint for want of evidence. If Kodnani acted on her own to commit a crime deserving death, a crime the judge described as a “black chapter” in India’s secular-democratic history, then Modi was surely a poor administrator who didn’t know what happened in his backyard and who went on to reward her with the party ticket and ministership.

More than anything else, Modi represents an idea wholly at odds with democracy. The mask is an unnerving, ubiquitous presence at all his rallies. On the podium is Modi and in the audience are the Modi masks, hundreds and thousands of them. The masked men and women wave, scream and stomp their feet to muscular music sung in praise of the State and its leader. Vanthambhyu Gujarat (unstoppable Gujarat) is an anthem sung as much to unstoppable Modi. Modi’s promotional line is: Hoon to Modi No Manas Chu (I’m Modi’s person).

Gujarat might be the Capital of the world considering its ability to produce and supply anything and everything of significance. Singaporeans and Delhiites drink milk from Gujarat. They perhaps do. But that is Verghese Kurien’s Amul milk. And Modi humiliated Kurien publicly.

Finally, what is the mask if not a desire to perpetuate yourself? Is that not a form of dynasty? Bring on the alternatives.


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