Parliamentary elections are round the corner and one question which troubles every one’s mind is — will Modi be back as the prime minister?
Five years ago this time, it was certain that the Congress was losing and Modi would be the prime minister. But the same can’t be said about 2019. Now Modi is in the saddle and the Congress is the challenger. If there is a definite slide in Modi’s popularity, Rahul Gandhi is also not beyond question.
Stakes are high for both. If defeat can herald the beginning of the end for Modi, Rahul is also on an equally weak wicket. In a fast changing world, Rahul cannot sit idle. For him, at stake is not the future of the Congress but the future of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. It is assumed that the Nehru-Gandhi tag keeps the Congress afloat, it is the glue which keeps the party united despite several factions. If the Congress loses, the dynasty will be faced with existential crisis. The RSS will love to have a weakened Congress without the Nehru-Gandhi family. Disintegration of the family is their ultimate goal.
It is not an accident of history that Modi, even before he became the prime minister, has been severely attacking the country’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru. The date October 29, 2013 is significant. Modi was the prime ministerial candidate. The occasion was the inauguration of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel Smruti Smarak, a museum dedicated to the memory of Sardar Patel in Ahmedabad. Modi, in the presence of then prime minister Manmohan Singh, launched a blistering attack on Nehru.
“Instead of Nehru, if Patel was made the prime minister, the destiny of the country would have been different. Every Indian still regrets this twist of history,” Modi had said. Manmohan was taken aback. He gently snubbed Modi, saying, “Sardar Patel was secular to the core and had deep faith in the integrity of India.” This was Manmohan’s way of questioning the credentials of Modi and the RSS. Modi remained unfazed. His tirade continued.
Four-and-a-half-years later, on February 7 this year, while replying in Parliament on the motion of thanks to the President, Modi blamed Nehru for the Partition of India. He also said that had Patel been made the first prime minister of India, all of Kashmir would have been India’s.
The resurrection of Patel vis-à-vis Nehru is not new. It has a deeper design. Patel was a Congress man. He remained loyal to Gandhi and the Congress. Nehru was the choice of Gandhi as his successor and also as the prime minister, though the party was in favour of Patel. Patel did not question nor did he rebel.
After Gandhi’s death, he publicly said that Nehru was his leader. It is a different matter that both the leaders had difference of opinions on many issues, including Kashmir and China. But what endeared the RSS was Patel’s attitude towards Muslims. Patel was of the opinion that after Partition it was the responsibility of Muslims to remove doubts and misgiving entertained by the large section of the people about their loyalty to the country, whereas Nehru believed it was incumbent upon the majority community to ensure the safety of the minority. The RSS found Patel’s position close to its heart and blamed Nehru for the appeasement of Muslims.
The RSS’s idea of nationalism and nation-building has no place for Muslims. Its aim is to create Hindu Rashtra. The RSS did not succeed in its grand design after Partition as it had to compete with Nehru’s idea of India. It is in this context it has to be understood that the attack on Nehru is an attack to demolish the secular edifice constructed by Nehru.
Nehru was the towering figure. The RSS was too small then. After his demise, his daughter Indira Gandhi continued with his legacy. She was a strong leader and secular to the core. But her son was no match to her guile, and that helped the RSS find an opportunity to spread its wings and create a parallel narrative. After Rajiv Gandhi’s death, the RSS imagined the demise of the Congress party but Sonia’s presence belied their hope. She gave a new lease of life to the Congress. Now she is old and ill. She has passed the baton to her son. India has changed in the last decade or so. The new India is more enthused by the ‘new’ narrative. 2014 elections had created a new ‘normal’. The Congress was never so weak in its history.
Nehru, Indira and Rajiv operated in a different ecosystem. Opposition was too weak to pose a challenge. And within the Congress, their status was unassailable. But by late 1990s, the BJP had emerged as a serious threat to the Congress hegemony. Sonia’s leadership was openly challenged within the party and outside too. She was mercurial enough to fight back. Now the situation has changed. With the emergence of Modi, the RSS has successfully replaced the Congress hegemony. The BJP is the dominant political force and Hindutva is the hegemonic ideology.
The Congress under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi is extremely vulnerable. Sonia could redeem herself and so did the dynasty in 2004. The victory in 2004 ensured the continuity of the dynasty. The defeat of the BJP was a new lease of life to the Congress and to the Nehru-Gandhi family. The family is in a dire situation again. Rahul today is faced with a Herculean task. Losing two consecutive elections will put a serious question mark about the longevity of the family.
The Nehru-Gandhi family could remain on top for the last 71 years because it could win elections for the party, because it had the goodwill of the people, because it was the blind cheque for every Congress leader’s victory in elections. If it can’t win elections, then why is it needed?
Politics is ruthless. In 2014, Rahul was pitted against the most powerful adversary faced by the Nehru-Gandhi family ever. The party had the worst performance ever in its history. In 1977, the Congress lost and Indira Gandhi had to face the revolt. She was made of different mettle. She engineered defection within the Janata Party, displaced Morarji and, riding on the elephant, returned to power with thumping majority.
Similarly, Rajiv also faced rebellion in the ranks, even when he was in power, but the government led by VP Singh had too many fault lines. In 1991, when he was killed, he was on his way back to power. Similarly, Sonia’s rise to the helm of affairs was not easy. Sharad Pawar, PA Sangma and Tariq Anwar confronted her and broke the party. Since the Congress formed the government in 2004 and then again in 2009, she survived. But at a time when there are serious question marks about his leadership, faced with the might of the most organised ideological force and a charismatic leader blessed with unprecedented money power and knack for the abuse of official machinery, if Rahul falters again, road ahead for him will be very, very difficult.
So, for his own survival and for the survival of the dynasty, Rahul has to change the narrative, he has to sell a dream, galvanise party cadre and stitch new alliances. For him, it is not important to become the prime minister. What is important is if he can lead to the defeat of Modi. If he thinks that age is on his side and he can wait another five years, he is flogging a wrong horse.
In 2019, India will test his leadership and also that of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The RSS knows that it can’t realise the construction of Hindu Rashtra as long as the Nehru-Gandhi family is relevant in Indian politics. The Nehru-Gandhi family is the thread which connects India’s present with the past, carries forward the legacy of the freedom struggle and represents the civilisational consensus. As long as that consensus is alive, the RSS will not succeed in its endeavour. So, the severe attack on Nehru, the creation of myth around Patel, portrayal of the Congress as corrupt and depiction of Rahul as good-for-nothing-dynast are the strings of the same narrative which wants to replace the consensus and make India a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. The battle is tough, but not impossible. The question is, can he do it?
(The author is a former AAP leader and a veteran journalist. Views are personal.)