Monday, July 7, 2014

PURUSHOTTAM AGARWAL: On the Prime Ministers' many faces // Congress has two choices: revive or act like an NGO

Modification

The PM wants to graduate to a statesman but his old, divisive self keeps coming in the way


All over the world, an element of theatre has always been a part of politics. In contemporary times, 24x7 media coverage has embellished the political theatre with touches of reality television. In our country, Narendra Modi has proved to be a master of using the changing media language to his advantage. He instinctively translates abstract political messages into palpable images, and thus touches the right chords with his audience.
He is well aware that even when he is speaking to the media after casting his vote, he is actually reaching out to millions of TV viewers – live. Bowing at the stairs of the central hall of parliament and breaking down in tears while describing the BJP as his mother – these images mesh perfectly with the messaging style he has consciously adopted over the years.
Let’s be clear: I don’t doubt the genuineness of his tears arising out of gratitude to his party and ideological fellow travelers. In fact, I appreciate the emphasis he placed on the political legacy of the RSS and the erstwhile Bhartiya Jan Sangh. Modi noted that the cherished dream of power has been realised due to the sacrifice put in by “five generations of dedicated workers and their families”. 
At the same time, I do fervently hope that Modi’s tears also contained some feeling for those who lost their lives in Godhra, and in the events thereafter. This is not just a matter of rhetoric, considering that those recently acquitted by the supreme court in the Akshardham terror attack were reportedly asked by the Gujarat police to choose the crime for which they should be charged – Godhra, Akshardham or the assassination of former Gujarat home minister Haren Pandya!

Modi, while delivering his farewell speech in Gujarat assembly, rightly emphasised the importance of institutions for an authentic and robust democratic set-up. He mentioned the CAG in this context, but another important institution he neglected to mention is the election commission, which seemed to have been unduly attacked by Modi supporters during these elections.
During the 2002 post-riot assembly elections in Gujarat, Modi himself had undermined the office of the chief election commissioner by implying that the then CEC, JM Lyngdoh, was being guided by fellow Christian Sonia Gandhi. Respect for institutions is not a matter of one’s convenience. Rather, it indicates the degree of one’s genuine commitment to democracy. How would PM Modi assess the campaigner Modi and CM Modi on this count?

It is due to the heterogeneous nature of the Indian society and polity that Modi has had to ‘modify’ himself – he has tried to project the image of a magnanimous and farsighted leader; hence the welcome conciliatory tone of his post-election speeches.

But one needs to be clear whether his recognition of the achievements of all governments since independence, while speaking at the BJP parliamentary board meet, was a mere platitude or a sober assessment of history. If it was the latter, then will Modi express regret for having repeatedly dismissed, during the course of his campaign, the last 60 years under Congress rule as mere waste?
Similarly, how do the crude references to ‘chicken biryani’ by campaigner Modi conform with the invitation extended to Paskistan prime minister Nawaz Sharif by PM-elect Modi? How does the invitation to the PM of Bangladesh go with the talk of sending all ‘illegal’ Bangladeshis packing, and his words greeted with thunderous applause by crowds?
Many Modi supporters would like to make light of these instances by describing them as necessary election rhetoric, but they forget that rhetoric, besides catering to a certain mindset and audience, also creates its own autonomous force, which ends up demanding its pound of flesh.
Electioneering is bound to be loud and flashy but it cannot be allowed to run amok.  One cannot casually dismiss the struggles of a nascent democracy and its considerable achievements through crowd-pleasing witticisms. There is a sea of difference between criticising the ruling party of the day and dismissing the whole of post-independence history as wasted time.
The media, in its Modi euphoria, has chosen to completely ignore the political import of the sarcasms directed at Modi by Shankarsinh Vaghela during the former’s farewell function organised in the Gujarat assembly. Vaghela was underlining the fissures in the Modi strategy of projecting development as the key issue while keeping his party’s hard-line Hindutva base intact. Vaghela’s sarcasms underline one set of challenges PM Modi has to face in balancing the demands of his core constituency with his ambition of becoming the mascot of the powerful middle class enamoured of commodity fetishism going by the name of development. This idea of ‘development’ was invented and sold by the Congress itself. The Congress gravy train was undone by the perception of all-pervasive corruption in the UPA-2 regime. Will the decisions taken by the supposedly corrupt regime be reversed? Will the coal block allocations be cancelled?
More importantly, will PM Modi, unlike CM Modi, be careful in choosing the targets, timings and tonalities of his attacks in future electioneering? Here, one is unwillingly reminded of another leader convinced of being a man of destiny. Having conducted a vicious and violent hate campaign against a religious community, having realised his dream of a Muslim nation, Jinnah suddenly declared pious intentions of developing Pakistan as a secular state, into a home to all its inhabitants – Muslims and non-Muslims.

Jinnah – Qaid-e-Azam (the great leader) to his admirers – forgot that however ardently one might want to get rid of one’s past, it has a tendency of catching up.  Deeds must match words, even those uttered in made-for-TV choked voices.
Closer in time, two and half decades ago, a now almost-forgotten but astute political observer named Rajendra Mathur, then editor of the Navbharat Times,  had cautioned LK Advani – now estranged mentor of Modi – of the perils of riding the ‘tiger’ of communalism. In the wake of the first rath yatra undertaken by Advani, Mathur had written a signed front-page editorial telling Advani point blank: “You will not be able to control the forces you have unleashed.”
History proved Mathur right in less than two years.
One watches with interest mixed with a degree of anxiety, how history will now unfold for the nation under Prime Minister Modi. 
Even its bitterest critics would hardly have imagined the extent of the humiliation suffered by the Congress in the recent general elections, with the grand old party winning only 44 Lok Sabha seats, less than half of its previous worst tally. This came to pass despite what history will judge as a reasonably decent performance of the UPA-II under extremely trying external and internal circumstances.


In fact, it is slowly dawning that UPA-II was not as bad as projected, with people being asked to prepare themselves for ‘bitter medicine’ instead of the promised ‘acche din’ under the Modi sarkar. Prices show no signs of correction, the issues of black money and corruption have been consigned to the back-burner and women are no safer even in the model land of Gujarat. ‘Modisms’ like making Nepal of Bhutan continue unabated as do skirmishes on the western border with or without biryani. 

So, what went wrong with the Congress’s election campaign and political strategy? Was it simply a communication failure, as sections of the party claim to console themselves? Or a failure to draw the right lessons from the heavy defeats suffered in the assembly elections last year? Rahul Gandhi had promised to learn lessons from the success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in a manner which one “can’t imagine”. 
Unfortunately, the Congress vice- president certainly learnt some lessons, but ones which could very well be imagined going by his past record. During the campaign, his abhorrence for the political class seemed to surpass even that of AAP.  Recall the snazzy poster bearing the smiling face of Rahul Gandhi carrying the legend: ‘Raajneeti nahin Kaajneeti’ (the leader believes not in politics but in work). Coming from an organisation heading into elections – a political exercise – this was an example of naivety at its best. It unwittingly reflected the mindset of Rahul and his advisors who seemed convinced that India’s ‘crude’ and ‘dirty’ politics and political class need to be purified by management priests having earned their Midas touch from the holy lands of Harvard and Wharton.  

Narendra Modi’s campaign also had a whole lot of management and media professionals and their tricks. In fact, his management team performed much better than Rahul’s. This was not because of any inherently better qualities of its own, but for the simple reason that in RSS/Modi/BJP campaign, management and advertising were subordinated to a cogent political ideology and its agenda relevant to these elections. The strategy was simple and effective – a portrait of glittering ‘development’ on the canvas of a tough and muscular political Hindutva.

On the other hand, the idiom adopted by the Congress was reminiscent of  NGO-speak – the idea of empowerment turned into a ‘harmless’  programme, because the party had neither the desire nor the vision to relate the issue of empowerment where it belongs – the dynamics of  politics – ranging from societal to party formations. Divorced from this dynamics, empowerment is nothing but a result of charity whether that is governmental or non-governmental.

Regrettably, the campaign under Rahul unmistakably reflected his team’s contempt for the people. The people were not seen as intelligent human beings and responsible moral agents. They were constructed in the haughty imagination of advisors as pitiable and malleable hordes who can be won over by doles and whose ability to forget can be relied upon infinitely. Rushed addition of Jats to the central OBC list and declaring Jains as a minority group are cases in point. In fact, inclusion of Jains among the religious minorities makes the task of choosing a chairperson of the minority commission easier for the Modi government. Instead of a Muslim or a Christian, a Jain could be appointed to the coveted position. After all, Jains are a notified religious minority, courtesy the ‘fresh thinking’ of the young leaders of the Congress. 

These wise leaders simply forgot that unlike in the US, for example, politics is in the blood of most ‘illiterate’ Indians. Here, people start thinking about political issues and possible choices months, if not years, in advance. Of course, they can’t churn out fashionable jargon nor are they proficient with Microsoft PowerPoint, but they most certainly make their choices not as grateful beneficiaries of charity but as political beings and as demanding citizens of the republic. 

This fundamentally flawed perception about their ‘target group’ (to borrow a management phrase), permeated both the party and the government. Achievements were not projected as part of the political package of the Congress. Failures were not explained in confident political terms. As an example, nothing but absolute political naivety can explain the ethically untenable and politically disastrous bill supposedly drafted to counter communal violence. It treated not an individual citizen but his/her communal identity legally responsible for his/her acts. It was forgotten that the Indian people, simple as they supposedly are, can still see through the perversity of illogic which refuses to acknowledge that the aggressor can belong to a minority community as well. 

The very idea of the national advisory council (NAC) under the chairpersonship of the Congress president was bad, which one hopes will not be followed as precedent by the present or any future government. The ‘division of power’ between the party president and the prime minister could certainly have been put to very positive and smart use, only if the party president had relied upon the traditional method of informal consultations with leading intellectuals and activists instead of going for a formal mechanism dominated by those who have no vested interest in the health and strength of her party. It is a tellingly interesting fact that the luminaries of NAC who tried to dictate the agenda of governance are not to be seen and heard in this hour of the worst-ever rout in the history of the Congress. 

The much-praised personal integrity of Manmohan Singh coupled with his phenomenal capacity of silence and detachment turned his government into an amalgamation of various autonomous bodies, i.e., ministries unconcerned with the fate of the government.  He could put his government at stake for the sake of the nuclear deal, which was admirable, but dared not to take the potentially lucrative political risk of dismissing ministers charged with corruption. The party on its part chose to ignore the simple fact that personal honesty is just the first quality of a leader, not the be all and end all. 

One sometimes wonders if the Congress leadership ever took time off to imagine the impact of its thoroughly unimaginative, purely bureaucratic handling of the Nirbhaya tragedy. Refusing to meet protesting youth, branding them as naxals and anti-national, trying to buy the silence of the victim’s family via gifts and grants – all looked like attempts to somehow manage the situation rather than confronting people’s anger head on, as a leader can and must do. 

In Indian politics, especially for a party like the Congress, there are hardly ever any full stops. The hopes raised by the high-pitch rhetoric of Modi are bound to boomerang on his government, giving the Congress an opportunity of revival. But, before that happens, the Congress will have to ask itself quite honestly whether it wants to revive as Indian National Congress, a major political party; or wants to continue as Indian National Charity, an apolitical NGO under a CEO who wishes to do “work, not politics”.