In a wonderful television series on the great boxing fights, Joe Frazier is asked on his legendary match-ups with Mohammed Ali. “I guess it wasn’t just about boxing, it was personal, we just didn’t like each other,” is Frazier’s candid reply.
What is true of Ali versus Frazier could well be said about politics in this country at the moment. Narendra Modi versus Sonia Gandhi is a battle of political heavyweights that is sharply personal as much as it is a clash of party leaderships.
The washed out monsoon session of Parliament was not just Congress versus BJP tit-for-tat politics: It is also about two leaders engaged in a seemingly mortal combat, who just don’t see eye to eye on any issue and can’t evolve a working relationship as a result. We’ve seen this happen in state assemblies before: Jayalalithaa versus Karunanidhi in Tamil Nadu or Mayawati versus Mulayam in UP or Left versus Mamata in Bengal.
Now, it’s being reflected at the Centre resulting in a deep institutional crisis where Parliament won’t function because the principal Opposition leader and the leader of the house are on a collision course.
Their animosity has a chequered past. Remember Sonia’s infamous ‘Maut ka Saudagar’ (Merchant of Death) remark during the 2007 Gujarat election campaign? By using an ill-advised and controversial epithet, she revived the ghosts of the 2002 riots. Clever politician that he is, Modi immediately appealed to a sense of Gujarati asmita (pride) and scored an easy political victory.
Five years earlier, it was Modi who had described the Congress leader in derogatory terms. The 2002 Gujarat election saw Sonia’s foreign origins being raked up repeatedly — the coarse language used exemplified one of the most bitter and divisive campaigns in this country’s electoral history.
But this isn’t just about name calling: in the heat and dust of electoral battles, politicians do target their rivals. The sense one gets is that the Modi-Sonia tussle has gone well beyond winning and losing elections.
It is now, especially in the case of the Congress leadership, a question of political survival. Modi has on more than one occasion spoken of a Congress Mukt Bharat; he doesn’t want to just defeat the Congress, he wants to ‘eliminate’ it.
At the heart of the Modi game plan to ‘finish’ the ‘Ma-beta’ party is his aversion to the continuance of the Nehru-dynasty — scarcely has the Prime Minister acknowledged Jawaharlal Nehru in any of his speeches even while he extols the achievements of a Patel, a Bose, a Shastri and, of course, the Mahatma.
It is almost as if the Nehruvian legacy must be erased, perhaps a consequence of an RSS background that has always seen Nehru as its principal ideological adversary.
Sonia Gandhi perhaps recognises this, which is why she suddenly seems to have decided to take charge and send out the impression to her party cadres that they must not ‘fear’ Modi. Notice the manner in which she even leapt into the well of the Lok Sabha during the shrill and rather acrimonious debate over the NDA’s links with former IPL chief commissioner Lalit Modi.
At one level, Sonia’s actions are about self-preservation and protecting the family legacy; she wants to pass on the baton to Rahul Gandhi but is aware that Rahul still doesn’t have the political acumen or even internal party support to mount an effective challenge on his own.
At another level, there are ideological fault-lines that are accentuated by the challenge which Modi has thrown to the very basis of the Congress’ existence. Sonia’s idea of India seems shaped by a very basic commitment to Nehruvian secularism — the idea of a multi-faith society where the Congress must ensure that minorities are protected and guaranteed equal citizenship.
In the aftermath of the Gujarat riots, Sonia seemed convinced that Modi didn’t share that belief and actually was a threat to the idea of India. She could reach out to an Atal Bihari Vajpayee because he was seen to be part of the broadly ‘secular’ establishment, someone who was often projected as a statesman in the Nehruvian mould.
Modi, on the other hand, is the quintessential ‘outsider’, the pracharak-politician for whom Golwalkar was an original hero and who refuses to play by the rules set by the traditional Lutyens’ political elite. Which is why in the 2014 elections, for example, he did what few others have attempted — challenged the Gandhi family in its bastion of Amethi by campaigning there and getting Smriti Irani to put up a spirited fight.
It could even be argued, as Modi has apparently suggested at a BJP parliamentary party meeting, that Sonia has never reconciled to his becoming prime minister. Conversely, Modi too, has never overcome his contempt for Sonia’s foreign origins.
The fact is, much water has now flown under the Sabarmati since their first battle in 2002: Modi is the prime minister of a majority government while Sonia is the leader of the largest opposition party.
While Modi has every right to challenge the dynasty, and Sonia can question the prime minister’s “secular” credentials, their mutual lack of respect cannot be allowed to undermine the parliamentary system.
Both Modi and Sonia need to recognise each other as ‘adversaries’, not ‘enemies’, and learn to do business with each other. What stops the prime minister from inviting Sonia for a breakfast meeting to discuss urgent legislation? And why cant the Congress president reciprocate? The country must be placed above individual detestations.
Post-script: A few years ago, we had organised a ceremony to award the best states in the country. Hours before the function, our chief guest, a senior UPA leader, threatened to drop out if Modi was on stage. It took us much cajoling to convince her not to cancel — political ‘untouchability’ is dangerous for the future of our democracy.
(Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author. The views expressed are personal)