Byline by M J Akbar: The point missed between hyperbole and ridicule
The question begs to be asked. Has the Congress changed its view of Jaya Prakash Narayan after 35 years, or has the Congress changed its view of Rahul Gandhi after 35 months? An official spokesman of the party has, after all, compared Rahul Gandhi to a national hero, a veteran of the Congress Socialist Party, the leftist group that became a power within the party in the 1930s, and a freedom fighter whose last fight for freedom was to liberate India from the censorship, suspension of democracy and Emergency which Mrs Indira Gandhi imposed in 1975 upon the country in order to save her Prime Minister’s chair.
The Congress line on JP, as he was popularly known, was unambiguous: the khadi-clad Gandhian was alternatively a “fascist”, “anarchist”, “anti-national”, and whatever else came into the mind of the Congress leaders after they had read yet another polemical tract written by forgotten Bolsheviks. The Seventies were a decade when it was still fashionable to be of the leftist persuasion. Mani Shankar Aiyar, one of the brightest minds in Congress, would not have been consigned to the doldrums: he would have been an intellectually vigorous colleague of Mohan Kumaramangalam and D.P. Dhar, rather than a mere nominated Rajya Sabha MP. That was a time when “CIA” was a dread acronym, an organisation accused of assassinating unfriendly world leaders, not a building block of an allied security system whose chief could get an appointment with the Indian Prime Minister whenever he sought it. It was an age when Palestine was an ally of India, rather than Israel. Anyone who opposed this “politically correct” left was therefore ipso facto a “fascist” et al. The “anti-national” bit was added not only because JP had the temerity to challenge the rule of a woman who had been equated with India [the Congress president in 1975 famously said “Indira is India”] but because JP in a public speech had come close to asking Indian soldiers to reconsider their oath of loyalty to a government that had become venal. As you can see, that was a tempestuous era.
One presumes that Rahul Gandhi has none of these JP-type political characteristics, at least in Congress eyes. No Congress spokesman would even dare to think of Rahul as a fascist, and even if his political views are a trifle fuzzy they are hardly authoritarian. There will of course come a time when a Congressman will claim that “Rahul is India and India is Rahul” without getting sacked, since sycophancy is eternal, but that is still into the future. So the spokesman must have been, at some internal level, comparing Rahul’s popularity to JP’s. But that too is a radical departure, since JP’s appeal was always dismissed as false.
The spokesman’s enthusiasm for historic parallels has, apparently, been snubbed into silence since it was clear to the high command, a single-person unit consisting solely of Rahul’s mother Sonia Gandhi, that the hyperbole had opened Rahul up to ridicule. But while this is sensible [it always makes sense to cut your losses while the balance sheet is still manageable], the corrective is missing the point. JP’s place in the history of Indian democracy is not going to be determined by political social-climbers. The problem is not what the spokesman said but the impulse that made him say what he did. He was indulging in public sycophancy because he believed that this was the shortest route to promotion.
This disease is not limited to the Congress; most parties have created supra-human icons out of their leaders. This is because the life of the party is about as long as the life of the leader; one-man, or one-woman parties do not cross the lifetime of their creator. But the Congress is 135 years old. It was the torchbearer not only of the freedom movement but also of the values that have become enshrined in the Indian Constitution. Those values eroded, inevitably, and it is no longer the “central fact” of Indian politics, to use a phrase coined by Jawaharlal Nehru. But it remains a dominant force, and its implosion will leave vacant space that will not be easy to fill.
The paradox is that its opponents might do less damage to the Congress than its sycophants. The culture of obedience aborts proper discussion, for everyone around the table is eager to do just one thing: discover what the leader thinks, or wants, and then find a rationale that takes the participant to the same conclusion. This is not a meeting of minds. This is decision-making in a hall of echoes.
Rahul Gandhi has some way to go before he finds a working strategy: philosophy is passé these days, so it is unfair to ask him to get one. A good way to initiate the process is to use the door. A door is not only an entrance but also an exit. He should keep it open for independent thought, and show the door to sycophants.