Rahul Gandhi finds his way into this column after a long absence for two reasons. The first because the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Rafale deal last week brought back memories of his childish campaign filled with reckless accusations. The second reason is that I have it on good authority that Rahul will return soon as president of our oldest political party. I hear that when he is done with his spiritual holidays and whenever he thinks that his batteries are fully charged, he will return. Sadly, nothing else will change. The people who advised him to attack Narendra Modi where he was least vulnerable continue to surround him. And, the heir to the mighty Dynasty continues to flaunt his political heritage in that same entitled way.
In recent days, he has been relatively silent in public. But, the task of reminding India of the political birthright the Gandhi siblings believe they inherited, appears to have been taken over by his sister. On Jawaharlal Nehru’s birth anniversary, she tweeted, “My favourite story about my great-grandfather is the one about when as PM, he returned from work at 3 am to find his bodyguard exhausted and asleep on his bed. He covered him with a blanket and slept on an adjacent chair.” Were there no other beds in Teen Murti House? When are Nehru’s heirs going to realise that instead of silly anecdotes they need to remind young Indians of Nehru’s enormous political contribution? He managed to keep liberal democracy alive in India in a time when despots and military dictators ruled everywhere in our neighbourhood.
Nehru’s economic policies may have taken us down the wrong road but it says something for him that not even ‘rightist’ Mr Modi has been able to step away from the socialist road. What he has stepped away from is Nehru’s political legacy, which was his deep commitment to the fundamental principles of democracy. Modi, as I have discovered the hard way, despises dissidence and, without it, democracy immediately becomes an illiberal thing. This has become frighteningly evident since he won re-election. As has an arrogant triumphalism.
While the Prime Minister was away in Brazil, it was left to his ministers to comment on the Supreme Court’s judgment on Rafale. And, they came across as bullies competing for Modi’s attention. The worst performance came from Ravi Shankar Prasad, a man I have always thought of as decent and humble. He appeared on national television to demand in menacing tones that Rahul ‘must apologise to the people of India.’ The same words could have been said without menace and would have sounded fine. But, he chose to sound like a bully reminding ordinary Indians that the man who called himself the ‘pradhan sevak (first servant)’ could be turning into a demagogue. There are those who have said in recent days that he was always a demagogue and I was the one who did not see this. But, I continue to believe that Modi won a second term because ordinary Indians did not see him as a demagogue either.
He won a second term for other reasons as well, of which, in my view, an important one was the immature and very shrill campaign that his main opponent ran. On the day that the Supreme Court declared that they saw no hanky-panky in the Rafale deal, some news channels ran old clips of Rahul’s election speeches. These included the one in which he declared that even the Supreme Court had accepted that the country’s ‘chowkidar’ was a thief. He has apologised for this lie and so has been let off with a warning, but it was a stupid lie that worked against him and not Modi. On top of this, he reduced political discourse to endlessly chanting ‘chowkidar chor hai’ and endlessly repeating that the Prime Minister had ‘stolen’ Rs 30,000 crore from this deal and ‘put it in Anil Ambani’s pocket’. Not even illiterate voters believed that more than half of the contract’s money could have been ‘stolen’. Nor did they believe that Modi was personally corrupt.
It is since he became prime minister a second time that weaknesses have begun to show from behind the bluster and braggadocio, and if the Congress wants to become a credible opposition party, it needs to focus on these. The biggest chink in Modi’s invincibility is his failure to revive economic growth. This has begun to manifest itself on the ground in the failure to create jobs. The other weakness evident even to observers who watch India from distant lands is his paranoia about dissidence. India is beginning to be seen as an ‘illiberal’ democracy. So the best way for the Congress party to revive its fortunes will be to stand up for Nehru’s real political legacy: liberal democracy. This is more important now than ever before.
The article appeared in print under the title 'Rahul beyond Rafale'