Rahul Gandhi, once derided as ‘pappu’ (simpleton or idiot) by the mega propaganda machinery of the governing BJP, has not just come into his own as the leader of the Congress – one of the world’s oldest and largest political parties – but has also been growing from strength to strength.
Like his mother and unlike his more effervescent sister, the Gandhi scion is visibly shy by nature and not very comfortable under the scorching glare of the media spotlight.
Having seen at a tender age his father and grandmother pay the ultimate price for their politics, he didn’t exactly look forward to the rough and tumble of volatile Indian politics, let alone seek the leadership mantle of the grand old party, which is synonymous with the nation’s long quest for freedom.
Rahul’s interaction with the public, especially the Indian diaspora, and his speeches during the recent visits to Germany and the UK not only bear testament to his metamorphosis into a mature, responsible leader, but also reveal him as someone who has developed a vision of his own and is acutely conscious of the grave threats facing the nation.
For someone seen as the ultimate reluctant politician, he has come a long way. Like the perpetually self-doubting protagonist of Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, Rahul has grappled with his own existential dilemmas, not to mention the doubts and downright derision that he has had to face in politics, including within his own party.
It has been an extraordinary journey of self-discovery and finding his own distinct voice for the Congress chief in the cacophony of corrupt, cutthroat politics and obsequious, sniggering vultures of the paid media in ‘Modi-fied’ times.
More importantly, Rahul has consciously positioned himself and the Congress as the advocates of religious tolerance, social justice, and an inclusive democracy.
In doing so, he may be walking in the footsteps of his mother who pitched the United Progressive Alliance as a coalition of progressive and democratic forces that looks out for vulnerable, dispossessed sections. She picked up Dr Manmohan Singh, the self-effacing architect of India’s economic liberalisation and rise as the world’s fastest growing economy, to lead the government for two terms.
Singh, born on the Pakistani side of Punjab, happens to be a Sikh – a religious minority that suffered appalling atrocities during the carnage that broke out in Delhi and elsewhere in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination on October 31, 1984, claiming more than 3,000 Sikh lives.
Many senior Congress leaders and later ministers under Rajiv Gandhi are said to have rallied the bloodthirsty mobs during the carnage. Just as senior BJP, RSS and VHP leaders and ministers in the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet rallied the gangs of killers in the 2002 pogrom targeting Muslims.
By picking up the soft-spoken, Urdu-loving Sardar for the top job, Sonia sought to offer a healing touch to the alienated Sikh community. However, by valiantly taking on the extremists who have virtually hijacked all democratic institutions, and calling them out for their role in crimes against Indian democracy, including in the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi and the relentless hate campaign targeting minorities – not to mention the ongoing lynchings and terrorisation of Muslims, Dalits and tribals – Rahul has gone where no Congress leader, including his mother and grandmother, ever dared to.
“It’s very dangerous in the 21st century to exclude people,” he said in Hamburg, Germany, pointing out how the BJP government has been systematically excluding minorities, Dalits and tribals from the development narrative. “If you do not give people a vision in the 21st century, somebody else will. And that’s the real risk of excluding a large number of people from the development process.”
He attributed the growing incidents of lynchings and mob attacks against Muslims and other vulnerable groups to the massive unemployment spawned by a disastrous demonetisation and a botched-up goods and services tax (GST), which is a bit farfetched and factually incorrect as the hate attacks started right after Modi swept to power. His very ascent to power has been seen by the saffron faithful as the green signal to run amok. No wonder they have no fear in proudly boasting about their bloodcurdling antics on the national TV, especially when senior ministers are falling over themselves to honour them.
Another interesting takeaway from Rahul’s Hamburg talk was his reference to the rise of Isis, warning that if you deliberately exclude and isolate people, just as Iraq’s Sunni minority had been after the 2003 US invasion, you risk creating a threat as serious as the black flag-waving terror army.
The new Iraqi government anointed by the US brought in a law that excluded Sunni tribes from the political process and government jobs. “It seemed like a very innocuous decision at that time. But it resulted in a large number of people joining [an] insurgency that fought the US and caused massive casualties,” Rahul said, calling for India to learn from the mistakes made elsewhere. Predictably, the saffron spinmeisters and trolls jumped on the Isis reference to skewer the Congress leader for “bringing a bad name” to the country.
Another comparison – that of the RSS, the BJP’s mother ship, with the Muslim Brotherhood – has also not gone down well with the media. Frankly, if anyone should be upset over Rahul’s comments drawing parallels between the RSS and the Muslim Brotherhood, it should be the latter. For unlike the RSS, they believe in parliamentary democracy and free and fair elections.
Again, unlike the RSS, they don’t impart arms training or daily military training to millions of young and impressionable cadres, preparing them for the coming war on voiceless minorities. Also, they didn’t preside over organised religious riots and pogroms against minorities, as the Hindu Right has all these years.
That said, right now it is not the future of the Middle East or the Congress president’s understanding of the Muslim world that we need to worry about.
As Rahul and every other Indian concerned about the wellbeing of his/her country has been desperately warning, what is at stake is the very future of India. Even as the markets rise and rise on Modi’s watch, the country has been in free fall in terms of peace, security, and rule of law – a fact that is being increasingly reported and commented about in the international media.
And it is heartening to note that, unlike some in his party, he doesn’t subscribe to the idea that soft-pedalling Hindutva or a soft Hindutva is the way forward and the shortest route to return to power.
He doesn’t shy away from confronting the forces that are bent on destroying everything that has been painstakingly built over the past seven decades and speaking up for the persecuted minorities like Muslims who have been systematically vilified and victimised by the current order.
As Professor Apoorvanand argues, invoking Gandhi in his heart-warming piece in the Indian Express: “A simple principle of statecraft to remember – minority rights are the foundation of a democracy. Always stand for the rights of the minorities because majorities tend to hegemonise the political, social and cultural space of a nation. It is good that even when an imaginary Hindu fear has paralysed the Indian political mind and Muslims are being invisiblised, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are returning to their Gandhian roots, even if their steps are yet not that firm. When in doubt, stand with the persecuted and the minorities. Do not fall into the trap of false equivalence”.
The writer is an independent writer and former newspaper editor.