When I first set course on my career as a political correspondent with a wire service, the chief reporter at the agency gave me a piece of advice which I then could not quite fathom. But in the two decades since, having lived through perhaps the most politically turbulent times in our country, I realise how true it was.
Briefing me about the travails of political reporting, he said, “If you want to understand the Congress, you have to know India and Indians well. In my experience, there are only two kinds of parties committed to their goals: the Left and the Congress.”
What were these goals? Well, he said, the Left’s goal was obvious but would never be achieved in a century or more in India. “But still they stay committed to their cause and do not sway from their ideal.”
And the Congress? “They are committed only to themselves. But the redeemable thing about them is that they make no bones about it. There are no holier-than-thou sermons, unlike certain other parties (read: the BJP); they know that they seek and want power, they are unashamed about it and are unapologetic about jumping onto bandwagons of whoever they think can help them get there."
In fact, added the man who steered my career for nearly half a decade and to whose understanding of Indian politics I owe a pretty lot myself, the Congress typified the adage that ‘it takes all sorts to make this world’. But ‘world’ should be substituted with ‘India’, he said. “They reflect the Indian character with all its flaws and perfections so well — there are the good, the bad, the ugly. There are the honest and the manipulative, the saints and the charlatans but the latter wear no masks. No other political party in this country will ever be a microcosm of India like the Congress is.”
Earlier, a professor of political science at my university had related to me his observations about then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. “I notice that she never drops anybody from a height, never really throws them to the dogs or plumbs them to the depths. Rather, she lets them down gently, like a cat with a mouse before the kill. Only, here, she lets go, dolce and douce,” he said, bunching his thumb and fingers together, palm downwards, and then slowly lowering his hand to the table before opening his fingers in an apt illustration. “I believe she does this not just to acknowledge the victim’s past contributions to the party or to shield him from open insults, but also to ensure that she can draw on the man’s resources in her hour of need without him feeling she had betrayed him in his.’’
I could not help but recall these gems of political wisdom as a minor controversy raged last week over Sonia Gandhi’s comments about her sense of betrayal vis-à-vis Natwar Singh and his retort, pretending to know more about Indian culture than the rest of us do. I thought my professor was right when I saw, as a cub reporter, how Mrs Gandhi reacted to then Maharashtra Chief Minister A.R. Antulay’s alleged betrayal of her — he had borrowed her name for a trust and compelled sugar barons and other industrialists to pay money into it in return for cement quotas. It took several years after Mrs Gandhi’s death for Antulay to recover from his tarnished image. But through the crisis, whatever may have been her private admonishments of Antulay, I never heard her utter a bad word for him in public. And Antulay is still devoted to Mrs Gandhi, then and Mrs (Sonia) Gandhi now.
Sonia’s handling of Natwar Singh seems truly worthy of Mrs Gandhi. With an oblique denial of Singh’s proximity to her family a year ago and a dignified comment about a sense of betrayal now, I do not believe Sonia has shamed her ma-in-law in any manner: she, too, has let Singh down, gently. However, Singh, it would seem, has less wisdom than Antulay and does not quite understand the Indian (and Congress) mindset as he claims to.
But look at how the Congress handled its crisis and how the BJP has done vis-à-vis Uma Bharti. Last week Bharti was caught on television asking her bodyguards to “shoot that man” — a BJP worker who had disrupted her rally in Madhya Pradesh. But long before Bharti was forced out of the BJP (as Singh has not been out of the Congress), I believe she was used by her party leadership and then abandoned quite shamelessly. “Don’t give her much importance,” my friend Nitin Gadkari once told me at a private dinner party in full hearing of the other guests. “We do not. She is shrill, a maverick and an embarrassment to us all.”
Yet, her shrillness was not one bit embarrassing while Uma was bringing down the Babri Masjid or screaming blue murder at former MP Chief Minister Digvijay Singh, paving the way for the BJP leaders at the Centre and in her home state. She was reprimanded in full public view by L.K. Advani for her remarks against her colleagues while denying her the opportunity to have her own say. I think she was justified in accusing them of giving off-the-record media briefings against her while she herself was left defenceless. She could not have but reacted in the manner she did: I think it is not in the Indian character to be otherwise. The kind of unquestioning discipline that the BJP and Advani expect of others in their party is quite alien to Indian culture, I think. Despite Mahatma Gandhi, turning the other cheek, essentially a Christian concept, does not come easy to most of us, does it?
I was in Hubli covering Uma Bharti’s surrender and arrest in August 2004 when I discovered how the BJP had set her up. Here, too, she had not been fighting a personal battle; it was the BP agenda that she was seeking to propagate. One of her lawyers, appointed by the party itself, told me at the time: “It is all the fault of our leaders at the top. This (Uma’s arrest) need never have happened. Our leaders showed no interest in seeking closure of this case or safeguarding her when she was filing her affidavits before she became Chief Minister.”
As it turned out, a few weeks later another Court dismissed the case against her, but for Uma there was no honourable reinstatement, as there was for Antulay in the Congress. And also for Sharad Pawar, who had said worse things against Indira Gandhi in 1978 but was still readmitted to the party by her son in 1986 and made CM in 1988. Rajiv may not have trusted the Maratha warlord fully but never showed him any disrespect publicly.
I do not quite care for Mr Advani’s politics, but in the past year I have felt very sorry for him: it is my opinion that no one who did as much for his party, taking it from two to 85 seats in parliament, should have been treated so shoddily by his own people. Advani’s stature counted for nothing before a misplaced remark about Mohammad Ali Jinnah which he made in Pakistan. I do not think the RSS appreciated the fact that the BJP may never have it so good again without Advani and AB Vajpayee, who should never have had to appeal to younger party men not to put the older out to pasture.
And yet the ‘foreign’ Sonia was never so badly treated by her own party men even when they believed she was just a daughter-in-law and a widow, respectively, of two former Prime Ministers and one, moreover, who may never deliver to the party what her mother-in-law and husband had done. I am not sure they did not want to similarly abandon her and look elsewhere for a vote-catcher of Indira Gandhi’s proportions. But they did not have the gall for the saffron kind of insult or ingratitude to workers and leaders (look at Bal and Raj Thackeray, and you’ll know what I mean). Now, of course, they stick to her like magnets, zapped that she brought them to power when least expected. They will never make an Advani out of Sonia Gandhi: Congressmen are more in awe of her than the BJP is of him or Vajpayee. Bharatiya sanskriti? So who’s more Indian?