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Rahul on uncharted waters

Explaining the disjunction between Rahul Gandhi’s views on the ordinance on convicted legislators and the government’s decision to come to their rescue, External Affairs minister Salman Khurshid underlined the need for parties sometimes to choose between ‘pragmatism’ and ‘principles’.

In the Congress’s case, the tilt towards the former, for which is a more appropriate word is blatant cynicism, has always been pronounced. As a result, ethical considerations have generally fallen by the wayside, besmirching the party’s image.

This propensity of the Congress for skullduggery was highlighted by Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi. When Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister, he had the shining image of a knight who would strike down the thickets of opportunism and corruption which had the Congress in its grip.

His 1985 speech in Mumbai on the occasion of the party’s centenary was noted for his diatribe against the powers brokers, who had converted ‘a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy’.
Unfortunately, only two years later, his embroilment in the Bofors howitzer scandal tarnished his reputation and led to the party’s defeat in 1989. One can only hope that Rahul does not represent a false dawn of this nature.

The fear remains because the power brokers haven’t gone away. As Rahul pointed out earlier in the year, the Congress as well as most other parties are run by small groups of two or three people who have a stranglehold on the organizations.

It is possible that one reason why a party like the Congress loses touch with the common man is because of the intense focus of these ‘self-perpetuating cliques’ - in Rajiv Gandhi’s words – on their own partisan interests. What is more, their emphasis on self-preservation is behind their imperviousness to popular sentiments. The ordinance was one example of this lofty disdain for public opinion.

Although the growing criminalisation of politics has become a gravely disturbing feature of Indian politics, the feudal oligarchies have turned a blind eye to it because the mafia dons masquerading in political garb constitute bases of the power structure of the Congress and other parties.

It is probably the feedback about the popular disenchantment with the cosseting of politicians with a criminal background which led to Rahul Gandhi’s outburst against the ordinance.

Notwithstanding the nervousness it has caused in the Congress, his unequivocal condemnation of the ordinance has brought him closer to the public mood than ever before. Before that, he was something of a distant figure, whose spending of nights in Dalit villages was seen as an exercise in slumming by someone reared in luxury. That perception remains.

At the same time, his strongly-worded expression of dissent over the government’s policy – at least in one respect – shows that he has come to realise, like his father, that the only way for the Congress to recover lost ground is to move closer to the people by respecting, and not ignoring, their feelings.

If this is not a one-shot affair, then the heir-apparent has embarked on an arduous course. In a way, his battle will recall Indira Gandhi’s clashes with the ‘reactionary’ Syndicate comprising crusty, old-style Congressmen steeped in the belief that they knew what was better for the country than the people themselves.

Considering, however, that Indira herself developed the same conviction, especially when she imposed the Emergency to administer a ‘shock’ to the country, Rahul will have to be careful to avoid the same path.

What is more, he, too, carries a baggage of sorts, which will not be easy to discard. One of them is the Bofors scandal, which still resonates in the country as a reference to it by Narendra Modi in one of his election speeches showed.

If an ordinance ostensibly in favour of convicted MPs and MLAs was a betrayal of the popular mandate, so was the government’s decision to unfreeze the London bank account of Ottavio Quattrocchi, a former friend of the Nehru-Gandhi family, whose name was associated with the illegal Bofors transactions. And so is the decision to seek an amendment of the Right to Information Act to keep political parties out of its purview.

It has also to be remembered that Sonia Gandhi is among those who supported the ordinance, presumably because it was drafted to save Lalu Prasad Yadav from disqualification in the fodder scam case. Sonia Gandhi was also instrumental in persuading the government to include caste enumeration in the census operations after a gap of 80 years since this regressive step was favoured by the Yadav trio of Lalu Prasad, Mulayam Singh and Sharad Yadav.

It isn’t only lending a helping hand to mafia dons which distances the Congress from the average person, but also steps which use ‘caste and religion’, as Rajiv Gandhi said, to trap the ‘living body of the Congress in (a) net of avarice’.

After Rajiv Gandhi lost his lustre as Mr Clean, his finance minister at the time, VP Singh, broke away from the Congress to emerge as Mr Cleaner. But, he was done in by the challenge posed by Devi Lal, the rath yatra of LK Advani and Singh’s own Mandal misadventure. Rahul has to remember these lapses of his predecessors.
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