The media is full of debates on the recent speeches and discussion of Rahul Gandhi in different forums in United Kingdom. Opinions are divided, which is not surprising, with the Congress party and all opposition parties on one side and the BJP and its allies on the other. Political verbal duals will go on for some more days and then die a natural death as is their wont. But what is important is how the nation views the contents of Mr Gandhi’s speeches, comments and answers to questions addressed to him. Will his interactions in the UK, with different groups and institutions, increase his stature and credibility with the voters or will his beleaguered party suffer further?
The rural voters in India are generally politically savvy but their preferences and allegiances are channelized and constrained by many local factors like caste, faith, tradition, fear of the powerful and what their local politicians or village elders convey to them. The arrival of the BJP in the last decade has changed this to some extent. The party has been aggressive on the ground by making its presence felt in villages and smaller towns. It has used social media and internet connectivity effectively to spread awareness of their leadership, the party and the work that their government does. This has helped the BJP to influence some rural voters to its advantage, both directly and by taking their local village leadership in confidence. Today, no other national party can match the recall and connect that the BJP and Mr Narendra Modi have built with the people across the country.
The urban and semi urban voters exercise their voting preferences more independently since they do not face the constraints that the rural voters do. They are more educated with a better understanding of both internal and external governance issues that drive a voter’s political preference. They have greater access to media, including social media, and tend to form their own opinions. For most, their affiliations to political parties are minimal. However, there are exceptions among urban voters too. Traditional political loyalties, communal or regional interests do come to the forefront for some.
The impact of what Mr Gandhi said in the UK in different forums will certainly be felt more on the urban and semi urban voters than the rural ones. Barring die-hard Congress supporters, most will view what he said in the UK on democracy, minorities, inequalities, dissent, freedom, national institutions among other things as wrong – both in form and spirit. If he had said the same within his own country, it would not have been seen in the same vein as the opposition is expected to make noise on such issues, right or wrong notwithstanding. There are two subjects that stand out in the list of topics covered by Mr Gandhi. First is democracy, and the second is his reference to persecution of minorities with Sikhs in particular. For greater impact, he singled out a Sikh gentleman in the audience while doing so. The former was a blow at the democratic credentials of the country and the latter to the pluralistic nature of the Indian society.
Mr Gandhi will do well to remember that the Congress party had a lien on Indian democracy for nearly four decades after 1947 since it was the only pan India party. It enjoyed a legacy carried forward from pre-independence days and a momentum derived from the independence movement. It was fortunate that it could govern the way it wanted which was not always democratic. In absence of an all-prevailing media, the public was unaware of many fundamental errors that successive governments made over the years. The list includes some serious democratic lapses. Both, legacy and momentum, come with a shelf life. Deft organisations and their leaderships continually reinvent and recharge themselves to remain relevant. This is where the Congress failed from the late seventies. By the turn of the century, its organisational structure had weakened, its monopoly reduced and its third and fourth generation dynastic leaderships were under scrutiny. In the meantime, other parties like the BJP and some regional parties had grown in stature to pose challenges to its hegemony. That is why today the Congress is struggling to remain relevant, not only at the national level but in the states too.
All this does not seem to interest Mr Gandhi and the current Congress think tank. They firmly believe that only a Gandhi scion can lead the party and therefore the country. If they win elections then democracy is safe, otherwise it is under threat. For them, their party has no constructive role to play if it sits on the opposition benches since their birth right is to occupy the treasury benches. Has the nation not witnessed this in the last ten years? Has the Congress part done well by the country as an opposition and adhered to basic democratic values? It is a shame that the grand old party has failed to galvanise and play a leadership role in developing a viable opposition which is a crying need of the country today.
The Congress has hardly ever practiced democracy within the party. The party president must come from within the Gandhi – Nehru family. He or she has the liberty of nominating the members of the working committee. This practice has been going on for decades. The current President, who is supposedly elected, is a nominee of the first family. It is well known that he was thrust into the chair since Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s health did not allow her to hold the position and Mr Rahul Gandhi was unwilling to shoulder the responsibility. It is indeed ironical that the leader of a party with such undemocratic credentials even talks of democracy.
Instead of addressing these important questions, Mr Gandhi chose to blame the BJP for destroying the concept of opposition in the parliament and murdering democracy. In any democratic nation where the ruling party has a comfortable majority and boasts of a strong leadership and the opposition is fragmented, devoid of a creditable leadership and fails to play its constructive role, the latter will be marginalised. In such a situation, the ruling party will appear autocratic. The only way for the opposition to overcome this is to be constructive in their criticism or recommendations in the interest of the nation. That is how they can force the ruling party to listen to their voice. Unfortunately, the only raga that the current opposition plays is to implore the voters to remove the ruling party and its leader without offering any alternative roadmap. In this quest, they do not shy away from shamelessly seeking assistance from other nations as well, including those that are hostile and do not wish India well.
The Congress has the dubious distinction of using Article 356 of the constitution to dismiss elected state governments over seventy times during their six decades of rule. Mrs Indira Gandhi alone accounted for fifty such instances while she was the Prime Minster for sixteen years. She also had the dubious record of imposing an emergency in 1975 which effectively killed democracy in the country. Freedoms of all kinds were the biggest casualties during this period and scores of opposition politicians were imprisoned. These were the times when democracy was under threat in the country but the Congress party will never admit it.
In more recent times UPA 1 & UPA 2 led by the Congress won two elections between 2004 and 2009. These ten years marked a new high of corruption in the higher echelons of the government. There were two parallel power centres in operation – one in the Prime Minister’s office and the other in the office of the President of the Congress party defying all democratic norms. Even the welfare schemes meant for the poor became means to siphon off public funds while the government remained a mute spectator. The result was that the nation voted the BJP, led by Mr Modi, to power in 2014 and then again in 2019 with resounding wins.
In comparison, under Mr Modi, Article 356 has never been used in the last ten years. There have been scores of fair and successful state, municipal and panchayat elections across the country during this period. Many regional parties have expanded their footprint beyond their states in the last few years. The Aam Aadmi Party has the distinction of becoming a national party in just eleven years. The quantum of anti-government propaganda, criticism and voices against the duly elected government that do the rounds today, with near impunity, has never been seen earlier in the country. Most welfare schemes are being administered with a high degree of efficiency by ensuring direct connectivity with the beneficiaries. If all this does not make India a thriving democracy in the last ten years, then one wonders what will.
If the BJP led government is indeed dictatorial and sounding death knell of democracy, history shows that the voters are mature enough and know what to do in the best traditions of a vibrant democracy. The people’s verdict against Congress in 1977 and 2014 prove this. It may be prudent for all those who concur with Mr Gandhi’s views to wait for 2024 which is just a year away. Till then, if they truly believe in democracy, they must honour the present verdict of the people. After all, democracy is all about people and not a few privileged leaders.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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