A GAND­HIAN PARA­DOX

India Today - - BYWORD -

The Nehru-gand­his seem to have a soft spot for grand­fa­thers. When Ra­jiv Gandhi posed for IN­DIA TO­DAY at the launch of his pub­lic ca­reer to es­tab­lish a pub­lic im­age, he ig­nored Jawa­har­lal Nehru’s trade­mark red rose on a khad­dar sher­wani, and slung a Kash­miri shawl over the shoul­der in the man­ner of Moti­lal Nehru, the aes­thete bar­ris­ter who for­swore a lu­cra­tive prac­tice and elite life­style to be­come a Gand­hian ex­actly 92 years ago.

When Rahul Gandhi launched his first independent-re­spon­si­bil­ity cam­paign on Novem­ber 14, at Phulpur, for Ut­tar Pradesh, he re­vived Jawa­har­lal Nehru rather than Ra­jiv Gandhi. Jawa­har­lal was born on Novem­ber 14, 1889; and Phulpur was his con­stituency in the first gen­eral elec­tions. Novem­ber 14 is also cel­e­brated as Chil­dren’s Day.

If Ra­jiv’s pref­er­ence was iconic, Rahul’s choice is po­lit­i­cal. His elec­toral per­sona is be­ing shaped. The foun­da­tion re­mains true to char­ac­ter: an edgy on-and-off stub­ble and rolled-up kurta sleeves de­signed to swoop up cam­puses and cricket fans. This is lay­ered by a patina of left-of-cen­tre rhetoric aimed at the poor who are be­gin­ning to feel a bit ripped off by the trickle-down the­ory that is the stand­ing ra­tio­nale for eco­nomic re­forms, which were en­vis­aged, with min­i­mum fuss, by Ra­jiv Gandhi, but have be­come syn­ony­mous with P.V. Narasimha Rao and Dr Man­mo­han Singh. In the Rahul cal­cu­lus, eter­nal youth plus dy­nas­tic charisma plus poverty pol­i­tics equals hun­dred-plus seats in Ut­tar Pradesh.

Nehru be­came a so­cial­ist long be­fore he had to fight an elec­tion. Rahul Gandhi’s speech­writ­ers tend to­wards Amer­i­can Ivy League aca­demic glam­our for in­tel­lec­tual in­spi­ra­tion. Here is some­thing they could use the next time Rahul Gandhi goes to Phulpur. His grand­fa­ther was elected pres­i­dent of the Congress for the first time in De­cem­ber 1929, at the La­hore ses­sion, which, un­der his pres­sure, adopted the his­toric Purna Swaraj (full free­dom, rather than mere do­min­ion rule) res­o­lu­tion. Dis­cussing his con­vic­tions, Nehru told del­e­gates: “I must frankly con­fess that I am a so­cial­ist and a repub­li­can and no believer in kings and princes, or in the or­der which pro­duces the modern kings of in­dus­try, who have greater power over the for­tunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose meth­ods are as preda­tory as those of the old feu­dal aris­toc­racy.”

Dur­ing his first cam­paign, for the 1937 elec­tions, Nehru was as­sertive enough—or brash, as his crit­ics might put it—to claim that the so­cial­ism he had in­jected had vis­i­bly strength­ened Congress. He said in Mum­bai on May 20, 1936, “If the Congress has grown stronger, it is be­cause I raised the is­sue of so­cial­ism.” It was at the very least an au­da­cious as­ser­tion in the shadow of a Ma­hatma who had con­verted Congress from a lawyers’ fo­rum into a mass move­ment. Gandhi knew the art of the gen­tle re­buke. He told the 1942 AICC ses­sion, af­ter the Quit In­dia res­o­lu­tion, “In Jawa­har­lal’s scheme of free In­dia, no priv­i­leges or priv­i­leged classes have a place. Jawa­har­lal con­sid­ers all prop­erty to be state-owned. He wants planned econ­omy… He likes to fly, I don’t. I have kept a place for the princes and the ze­mindars in the In­dia that I en­vis­age.”

Gandhi wanted his heir to un­der­stand him, just as he sought to un­der­stand his heir, but that so­cial­ist gulf was never bridged. Nehru got his Plan­ning Com­mis­sion in free In­dia, but the Ma­hatma was more per­cep­tive. The princes and ze­mindars are still with us, not to men­tion modern kings of in­dus­try, quite a few of them in Congress, pos­si­bly queue­ing up to pol­ish Rahul’s Nehru­vian sen­tences. Such are the para­doxes of pol­i­tics.

If a creed has to work, it must carry the weight of con­vic­tion, not just the frip­pery of an elec­toral tac­tic. Is Rahul Gandhi in­dulging in rit­ual ap­pease­ment, or is he seed­ing the cli­mate for eco­nomic poli­cies that he will im­ple­ment when he be­comes prime min­is­ter? Has he thought through a sim­ple propo­si­tion: so­cial jus­tice is es­sen­tial to so­cial sta­bil­ity, but what pre­cisely does it mean in 2011 and 2012? Surely it can­not mean what it did in 1929 and 1937. How do you rec­on­cile the needs of the im­pov­er­ished with the de­mands of an ex­pand­ing mid­dle class? The rel­e­vance of any idea is de­ter­mined by ob­jec­tive re­al­ity. In­dia is no longer a colony; it is still cursed with poverty but not crushed by famine and help­less­ness.

Rahul Gandhi’s slo­gan for UP is a cu­ri­ous de­fen­sive feint dis­guised as an ag­gres­sive jab: Hum jawab denge. It is the sort of phrase that looks more con­vinc­ing in an ad­ver­tis­ing agency than a vil­lage teashop. Is it a sub­lim­i­nal plea by a new leader, ea­ger to an­swer ques­tions that no one has yet asked? Maybe we could be­gin with a sim­ple one: has Rahul Gandhi thought through a phi­los­o­phy for the fu­ture? Rahul Gandhi likes to fly, but to where?

SAU­RABH Singh/www.in­di­a­to­day­im­ages.com

In the Rahul cal­cu­lus, eter­nal youth plus dy­nas­tic charisma plus poverty pol­i­tics equals hun­dred

plus seats in Ut­tar Pradesh.

by M.J. AK­BAR

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