Priyanka Gandhi's maiden speech shows political sagacity as Congress leader attempts to shift focus away from jingoism

Suhit K Sen
In her speech on Tuesday, Priyanka showed a great deal of political sagacity as she hit all the right notes

Newly-minted Congress general secretary Priyanka Gandhi Vadra made her maiden public speech at, from all accounts, a huge rally in Gandhinagar, following the first Congress Working Committee meeting in Gujarat €" Prime Minister Narendra Modi's 'home turf', as the media is wont to put it €" in about half a century.

In her speech on Tuesday, Priyanka showed a great deal of political sagacity as she hit all the right notes. She urged members of the audience not to allow themselves to be diverted from focusing on the real issues, by irrelevancies. What she was, in effect, saying was that the people should focus on governance issues related to the economy instead of allowing the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to mask its failures, especially as they relate to promises made before this regime came to power in 2014, by scripting a decoy narrative with jingoistic postures at its heart.

She also re-framed the idea of patriotism to take it away from the muscular (and dangerous) designs of the BJP and the Hindu Right. "Nothing can be more patriotic today than being aware. Your awareness is a weapon. With this weapon, you don't hurt anybody but empower yourself," Priyanka said. Although the referents were unmistakable, the general tenor of the formulation is powerful and sophisticated, paradoxically, in its simplicity. The ideas that Priyanka espoused lie at the heart of liberalism and liberal, constitutional, electoral democracy.

Rephrased, it tells the citizen (and, by extension, the citizenry) that they can realise their rights and the rights of the 'national community' by calling out regimes. And to do that they have to take informed decisions on whether warmongering to win elections is what is important or whether, in the present context, the current regime must be held to its promises, must be forced to abide by constitutionality and constitutional morality, and must be prevented from rending the weave of the nation's social and political life by its incessant sectarianism, its support for those elements who take it upon themselves to violently assert their primacy by reason of their numbers in its attempt to inscribe at the heart of the political project of what we may be pleased to call 'nation-building' the abhorrent and obscurantist idea of a Hindu Rashtra. This is the race to the bottom that justifies the BJP's existence, embodied in a competitive theocratic drive that seeks to bracket India with precisely those nations it sets up as the antithesis of this nation and its 'fundamental values'.

It would be naïve to believe that Priyanka's formulation is not embedded in the Congress' own political project and its compulsions and exigencies. After all, the Congress is also a political party, not an association of constructive workers. But this fact does not detract from the power and legitimacy of the idea. It does not negate the necessity to ask the current regime, as Priyanka did, where the promised jobs went along with the Rs 15 lakh in every bank account. Her philippic was coincidentally all the more apt because it was delivered on a day that figures released by the Central Statistical Office showed that compared to January last year, the first month of this year showed a drastic decline in the growth of industrial production. It was also lower than the figures for December 2018. The current inflation figures, too, are not encouraging, though, as yet, far from alarming. So much for the BJP's development spiel and its propaganda about Modi being the anthropomorphic representation of growth, prosperity and, let us not for a moment forget, opportunity.

The Congress' political location, whatever one may make of it, does not negate, as well, Priyanka's implicit critique of the BJP's politicisation of the Pulwama attack and the Balakot counterstrike as warmongering jingoism used both as a tool of electoral mobilisation and a smokescreen to mask the government's failures on many fronts.

In contrast to the Congress general secretary's percipient commentary, whether accidental or not, the prime minister's blog on the anniversary of the Dandi Salt March, embracing Mohandas Gandhi, Vallabhbhai Patel and the history of the Indian nationalist movement did seem to be a rather blunt instrument.

Modi's initial premise was that Gandhi did not believe in inequality and the caste system. That is a questionable assumption in the first place as anyone acquainted with his debate with BR Ambedkar will know. But even if the proposition is taken as true, it is the vacuous repetition of a conventional formula. "Sadly, the anti-thesis of Gandhian thought is the Congress culture," Modi wrote in his blog, "Sadly, the Congress has never hesitated from dividing society. The worst caste riots and anti-Dalit massacres happened under Congress rule."

Quite apart from the fact that Modi's actions hardly betray much dolefulness and the difficulties readers may experience in comprehending what the phrase 'anti-Dalit massacres' really means, these comments are a bit rich (if not extravagantly opulent), coming from a man who presided over something approaching genocide as the Chief Minister of Gujarat in the wake of the Godhra massacre. Cutting to the present, the same august personage helms in oracular fashion a regime that is easily the most anti-Dalit dispensation in recent memory: Witness the unceasing attacks on Dalit rights and livelihoods and physical existence. One presumes there is a reason why the country witnessed some of the 'worst' violence in decades during the Bharat Bandh called by Dalit groups on 2 April, 2018.

As for the issue of 'dividing society', we need to do a quick review, since it comes from a man belonging to a party and heading a government bent on wielding the jackhammer to widen every possible fissure in Indian society and whose ideological training has been in the academies of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), one of the most sectarian organisations in the country. At the core of the belief system constructed by the RSS and internalised by the quarters of the Hindu Right and its denizens, preeminent among whom is the prime minister himself, is the idea of majoritarian primacy. The RSS doesn't only seek to relegate all religious minorities to the status of second-class citizens, allowed to remain in India, that is Bharat, on pain of admitting that they are culturally, well, basically Hindus, it also seeks to inaugurate an order based on a social and political imperium that is fundamentally Brahmanical. In it the integration of Dalits and other marginalised people is through unabashed dominance.

Modi also wrote in his blog that Gandhi spoke about 'staying away from excess wealth', but 'all that Congress has done is to fill their bank accounts'. Can I hear you laugh so hard that you are on the point of falling off your chair? Thought so. Coming from a prime minister representing a party that has a war chest bigger than those of all other major parties taken together, swollen by contributions from corporate donors, this would have been funny. It isn't because this is a corrupt regime of unabashed crony capitalism, witness the Rafale deal, which can project a squeaky clean image only because it practices opacity on a Byzantine scale.

With the elections upon us, it is the duty of citizen-voters to reflect. They will in their own fashion, one presumes. If such reflection begins to lay the foundations of a more responsible, representative and responsive political-administrative order, periodic electoral exercises might, in the near future, start to make some more sense.

Also See: Days after voicing displeasure with BJP, Apna Dal chief Ashish Singh Patel says meeting with Amit Shah 'positive'

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