Kanhaiya, Modi, and the nature of opposition
A pattern appears to have evolved in the Parliament with Rahul Gandhi sticking to his post-sabbatical practice of breathing fire and Narendra Modi making a sober, if occasionally sarcastic, response befitting his age and stature. Last Thursday, Modi’s derision was more acidic than ever when he hinted that Rahul had grown in years but not in wisdom. It was a jibe which recalled Winston Churchill’s somewhat more sophisticated dig about Clement Attlee being a modest man with much to be modest about.
However, if the Congress has quietly gulped the virtual insult, the reason is that the heir apparent’s diatribes have begun to sound rehearsed, an impression which was confirmed by the fact that Rahul has begun to look rather too frequently at a written script. He doesn’t quite read from it as his mother does, but in a country used to its leaders making extempore speeches, a prepared discourse does not have the same effect as an impromptu delivery.
The Congress vice-president also has to realise that more than anger, it is humour and mockery which draw cheers. No one demonstrated such oratorical aptitude more than Kanhaiya Kumar, the Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) student leader, whose speech at the campus following his release from jail has overshadowed what was said in the Parliament.
Kanhaiya is likely to prove to be a more dangerous opponent of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the near future than almost all the other present-day opposition politicians since he reflects Arvind Kejriwal’s chutzpah without the latter’s baggage of a querulous nature and a less than shining record in governance.
Modi may have also played into his hands by avoiding all the controversies which have put his government on the back foot. Among them is the use of the charge of sedition as a political tool, as the JNU student union president has alleged. The Prime Minister’s reference to the “inferiority complex” of the mother-and-son duo of the Congress, which makes them keep the bright youngsters in the party in the shade, and the party’s disruptive tactics, may be the essence of routine politics.
But these issues have been in the air for quite some time. It is the unrest in universities like JNU, Hyderabad, and Jadavpur, which have hit the headlines in recent weeks along with the renewed “hate speeches” of saffron hardliners which have been seen as the BJP’s preparatory exercise for the coming round of elections.
It may have been expected, therefore, that along with seeking the opposition’s cooperation in the passage of pro-reform bills such as the one on goods and services, the Prime Minister will also air his views on campus “politics”, especially when the RSS-affiliate, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) is as much involved in such activity as the Leftist outfits.
His intervention was also needed in dousing the tension aroused by the speeches of Union Minister of State Ram Shankar Katheria, which showed how Hindu communalism continues to simmer within the BJP. In this context, what is strange is the promptness with which Union Home Minister Rajnath Singh gave a clean chit to Katheria although he had left no stones unturned to snare Kanhaiya in the sedition charge. His efforts have now been nullified by the high court. It is worth recalling that such charges have also been filed against Rahul, Sitaram Yechury, Kejriwal, and others.
It is Modi’s inability to deal with blatant biases of this nature in favour of the culpable saffronites which have led to criticism from the US government and the Western media and academics, as at the time when “intolerance” of the present dispensation was being talked about.
Now that the Parliament is at last functioning, presumably because the Congress - especially Sonia and Rahul - have realised that they were only harming themselves and their party by stalling the House, Modi should take the opportunity to admonish the saffron hotheads. If he is unwilling or unable to do so, Kanhaiya’s charge that every tactical and strategic move of the Hindutva camp is manipulated by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) will begin to ring true.
It is not without reason that the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat, has chosen this moment to say that everyone should be encouraged to chant “Bharat Mata Ki Jai”, a favourite slogan of the ABVP and the saffron camp. Evidently, the RSS does want the focus to shift from the “anti-nationalism” of the faculty and students in the “dens” of extremism in JNU and Hyderabad, as several BJP ministers have alleged.
There is little doubt that Modi is the only BJP leader who will be listened to, for the collapse of the sedition charge against Kanhaiya has eroded the credibility of the likes of Rajnath Singh and Smriti Irani. The latter is also involved in a privilege motion for having misled the Parliament.
The confrontation between the former chaiwallah and the student from a poor family in Bihar will be widely watched inside and outside the country.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are strictly personal.)