Pandering to those who misused the name of religion for divisive purposes led to India’s partition. That warning from history ought to be heeded by Congress leaders.
The fissure between Narasimha Rao and Sonia Gandhi ensured the defeat of the Congress Party in 1996 and the emergence of the BJP as the principal national party. There had till then been a psychological barrier against a BJP Prime Minister amongst many voters, but this got removed when President Shankar Dayal Sharma swore in A.B. Vajpayee as Prime Minister, albeit for two weeks. Three years later, the Indian military’s performance at Kargil ensured the victory of Vajpayee. However, he refused to approve a covert operation masterminded by Pramod Mahajan to split the Congress, a show of magnanimity that cost him his chair two years later. In 2014, it was an unequal contest between the unpopularity of Sonia Gandhi and the popularity of Narendra Modi, with Manmohan Singh not even in the political frame. The UPA-era PM ought to have stepped aside soon after his multiple bypass surgery, but he continued in office despite his health not being up to the strain involved in being Prime Minister of a democracy of 1.2 billion citizens. Given his health, it is no wonder that Manmohan Singh’s second innings was a disappointment. Had he left in the glow of the 2009 Lok Sabha triumph caused by his still good name, Manmohan Singh’s place in history would have shone rather than become smudged by scams that he had no power to prevent.
In the case of Rahul Gandhi, despite his refusal to demonstrate his administrative abilities by assuming ministerial office during the UPA period, another opportunity to prove his talents presented itself in 2014. Had Rahul rather than Mallikarjun Kharge taken over as the Leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in the Lok Sabha, it would have been the Nehru scion constantly challenging Prime Minister Modi in the Lok Sabha. Instead, the only challenges Rahul made were in miscellaneous fora across the country, some scarcely worthy of the presence of a genuine national leader. His consistent passing of the baton of responsibility to others weakened the perception that Rahul was the primary challenger to Modi. Had the newly anointed AICC President declared early in 2018 that he was not in the race for the Prime Ministership in 2019, it would have helped Congress’ prospects, given his lack of practical experience in governance. Instead, it was made clear to the voters that Rahul would be PM, were Congress to win enough seats. When it came to choosing between PM Modi and a future PM Rahul, the overwhelming mandate was in favour of the former. Among the consequences of Rahul’s perceived eagerness for the Prime Ministership (not by 2024 it in 2019 itself) was the defeat of the Congress Party at the hands of the BJP in almost all the contests in which they were the principal contenders. Now once again, by resigning from the AICC Presidentship, Rahul Gandhi has added to the BJP’s leadership advantage. It is a commentary on the sentimentalism of many voters in India (especially in the north and the south more than in the east and west of the country) that effectively the most popular substitute for Rahul Gandhi is Priyanka rather than someone outside the Nehru clan.
Despite being reticent during the UPA days, after the 2014 Lok Sabha polls, Rahul Gandhi adopted several stances that are in tune with 21st century needs. These included his backing for the de-criminalisation of gay relationships and the need to do away with criminal defamation. Should Rahul campaign for more transparency in government and in the need to legislatively expand personal and civil liberties and nudge the Congress Party to press for such changes in Parliament, he may do more good than he has in his former office. Worryingly, Rahul Gandhi seems to believe that Indira Gandhi’s economics is the way towards the social justice only fast growth can ensure, when the fact is that many of the distortions still present in the system owe their origins to Indiranomics. Rahul needs to take seriously his own experience in both India and abroad, that show the need for systems that transfer power to the individual rather than to the state, and which expand rather than constrict the boundaries of personal and societal freedoms. Rahul has yet to accept that “Nehruvian secularism” has promoted communalism rather than kept it at bay. He ought to have leapt to the defense of TMC MP Nusrat Jahan when she was attacked by the Wahabbi establishment. As Prime Minister, it was Rajiv Gandhi’s surrender to the Wahabbis over Shah Bano that began his descent into political purgatory. Rahul Gandhi needs to show he is aware of the dangers posed by all—repeat all—forms of religious intolerance.
The India of 2019 calls for backing only those having a modern, moderate mindset. The sooner this gets actioned on, the better for the country. Those genuinely secular need to support Nusrat Jahan in her defense of an India where people are free to express their devotion to the Almighty in varied ways rather than in the restrictive way Zaira Wasim now favours. This despite the fact that Wasim’s movies portrayed her as a young woman of moral courage and self-confidence, qualities unlikely to lead to disappointment in the afterlife. Nusrat’s traducers, who claim to speak on behalf of the Almighty, are themselves guilty of blasphemy, for claiming to know in advance as to who will go to hell and who to heaven in the afterlife. According to them, that of course depends on the food eaten, the rituals followed and the dress worn. Pandering to such individuals, who misused the name of religion to sow division in the 1920s and 1930s, led to the partition of 1947. That warning from history ought to be heeded rather than remain ignored in practice by the Congress Party leadership, particularly Rahul Gandhi.