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Rahul Gandhi makes the case for social peace as a public good in India

The Congress is likely to persist with the view that peace can, at its best, unlock the country’s energies or at the least ensure that no more damage is done to the social fabric. This message can resonate.

opinion Updated: Sep 22, 2017 15:09 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times, New Delhi
Rahul Gandhi,Rahul Gandhi in US,BJP Narendra Modi
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi in a group photo with students of Princeton University in New Jersey on September 20. (PTI)

The BJP has reacted to Rahul Gandhi’s tour of the United States as if the Congress leader is a volatile cleric in exile threatening revolution at home. In a manner completely at odds with the dominance it enjoys, BJP ministers and spokespersons were deployed last week to target Gandhi following his criticism of the Narendra Modi government at the University of California, Berkeley. Gandhi was called a failed dynast and castigated for allegedly demeaning the country abroad. He was called irrelevant and his remarks during the trip continue to be dissected on Twitter.

The BJP’s motivations for targeting Gandhi are not hard to divine. The party defends Modi stoutly at all times and seeks to reinforce the view that the PM’s record and motivations are not up for questioning. A party with monopolistic drives like the BJP also recognises that a political brand that competes with Modi cannot be allowed to flourish. Hence the “BJP machine” which Gandhi characterised as “1,000 guys sitting on computers” devoted primarily to criticising him.

Gandhi has evidently decided to challenge the narrative and used the US tour as an effective branding exercise, ahead of reported plans to become the Congress president. The tour is perhaps an important milestone in his career as Gandhi was able to fulfil one key political objective -- which was to demonstrate to his party, supporters and the middle class that his own comfort levels with engaging the public on policy questions have vastly improved. The liberal intelligentsia has despaired about this aspect of his politics and his apparent unwillingness to engage in the cut and thrust of combat in political life – especially when Modi’s strength in rhetoric is so obvious.

Gandhi was obviously showcasing his views in more polite (and gently probing) university settings but demonstrated his grasp on several issues and had a fairly wonkish perspective on certain questions. He spoke of the crisis of blue collar work the world over, the mismatch between the inability to “produce jobs at scale” and public institutions “not firing properly”, the failure of institutions (like courts and schools) to maintain monopolies of information while seeking to respond to public demand, the excessive centralisation of power in India, the lack of interesting discussions in Parliament because the MPs do not themselves make laws, the need to take democracy to the roots in order for systems to be more responsive. He argued that the distinction between manufacturing and services no longer holds given the pace of technological change and thus education needed to be conceptually reworked. Agriculture is a critical area that needed help, big business was important but small and medium enterprises needed more policy attention.

Gandhi also used the platforms to underline the distinction between the Congress and the BJP. The central issue in India, in his view, is the problem of polarisation. Violence and hatred is a distraction from the urgent task of job creation at hand. The Congress lost its vision around 2012 as a certain arrogance had crept into the party, where it stopped having conversations about the future. The country now needs a vision where everyone can see their place in it, including millions of tribals and Muslims. That vision needs be crafted through conversations. Gandhi had some fairly caustic observations on the BJP and returned time and again to the theme of polarisation, peace and harmony and, in Berkeley, pointed to non-violence as the method in which India could rise together (not divided against itself).

Gandhi and the Congress are likely to hone and reiterate this socially inclusive message in the months ahead. Will it work? A lot of factors work against Gandhi. His relative youth and half-Italian parentage for one, relevant as they are in an ageist political culture that is sensitive to polarising rhetoric about personal identity. Whether Gandhi is up for more combat in a confrontational, often ugly, political climate also remains to be seen. The Congress has no major stronghold state in the country beyond Punjab and Karnataka, and questions remain about the party’s capacity to reap popular disaffection with its organisational weaknesses and its inability to resolve tensions between senior leaders and the younger set. The party also has an awkward relationship with social movements across the country that makes it difficult for it to harness discontent. Congress leaders may, nonetheless, be tempted to see in Rahul Gandhi’s emergence a VP Singh moment when one leader took on another at the height of his power. That is not an option now, as the opposition landscape is a lot more fragmented with no indication that it can coalesce around the Congress leader.

But what Rahul Gandhi has on his side is the potential strength of the message – that his party promises social peace as a public good in itself which India is currently missing. The Congress is likely to persist with the view that peace can, at its best, unlock the country’s energies or at the least ensure that no more damage is done to the social fabric. This message can resonate. A section of the urban middle class is tiring of the violent energies seen since 2014 and may end up valuing that possibility more than is evident now. Dalits, Muslims and farmers reeling under the economic effects of changed cattle slaughter rules may also respond to the Congress’ messaging. Communities directly affected by the ideological outlook of central governments can, in theory, wonder about the utility of regional parties in national elections.

These are all speculations at the moment. The BJP political machine remains formidable and will be tough to beat. But what Gandhi’s US trip suggests is his willingness to take his place in the opposition eco-system – an event that offers the potential of rallying social forces that have an interest in his success. The student elections in Delhi University show that the Congress is still seen as a vehicle for achieving political ambitions i.e. people still want to fight under the party’s banner even when it appears finished. This indicates that while the BJP is good at getting its caste arithmetic right it is not within its gift to please all. India’s complicated social structure, its massive jobs crisis and the BJP’s tendency to overreach ideologically afford opportunities for Rahul Gandhi to evolve as a politician. He is not on the road to being prime minister yet but is taking steps to create possibilities for himself.

Twitter: @SushilAaron

View expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Sep 22, 2017 14:23 IST