Ceding the nationalist space

Politics of shoot and scoot makes Rahul a poor replica of Arvind Kejriwal

A large section of the media might be pretty happy to have cornered the government with the controversy related to anti-national activities. The Congress is itching to back the privilege motion being brought against HRD Minister Smriti Irani in the House by the opposition parties led by the CPM. In our own limited space, we may feel content at having controlled “the forces of fascism”.

The media always felt that way for nearly 13 years that Narendra Modi ruled Gujarat as Chief Minister from October 2001 to May 2014. However, every time elections were held, Modi came out with flying colours. How did this happen? The Congress failed to wrest power from Narendra Modi, despite earning a respectable vote share every time. It had lost because it ceded the nationalist space completely to the BJP.

Whatever the intellectuals and academia have to say about the JNU crisis at present, I would not be surprised if, at the husting, the BJP emerges stronger than its rivals. The Indian Republic is the product of a long drawn freedom struggle, a movement which was not bereft of nationalist jingoism. There is also no doubt that religious resuscitation and cultural renaissance played a huge role in making the freedom struggle mass-based and widespread.

Even left-leaning historians like Sumit Sarkar accept the role of Durga Puja Pandals in Bengal and Ganpati Mandaps in Maharashtra as events that galvanised activities against the imperialist forces. These two festivals played a major role in mass mobilisation and spreading the message against the British occupation.

Those adamant on portraying Durga as an Aryan beauty out to entice the native Asuras should also not forget that less than a century back, the motif of Durga was used to depict the Indian nation and Mahishasur symbolised the imperial forces. It was from worshipping Durga that Kiran Chandra Banerjee, Bankim Chandra Chatterjee, and Abanindranath Tagore got their inspiration to depict Bharat Mata.

Bipin Chandra Pal had no qualms using Hindu philosophical traditions and rituals to idealise Bharat Mata. Thus, an assault on such sentiments would certainly invite the wrath of people in general. No wonder the HRD Minister used the pamphlet by a fringe group to the hilt to win a following among the Indian middle class, consisting largely of the Hindu majority.

This is not to say that the Congress or the mainstream Left parties at any point had dishonoured goddess Durga. But in his rush to stand alongside fringe groups on the JNU campus, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has put the onus of defending Durga’s honour unnecessarily on the party. There must have been a good reason for West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee to maintain a safe distance from the whole JNU controversy.

In fact, the scholarly address by Trinamool Congress MP Sugata Bose on nationalism was quite a lesson on why he supported freedom of expression “by young students who may be inspired by Marx as well as Ambedkar”, pointing that he does so despite not being a communist. Bose is a historian and former Professor at Tufts and Harvard University. Another scholarly address came from Biju Janata Dal’s Tathagata Sathapathy. Both managed to convey that in the battle between the Left and Right they could play the arbitrator.

On the other hand, the Congress has come out looking firm with the (ultra) Left and more dangerously anti-Hindu from the whole controversy. This is bad as this could mean ceding the nationalist space completely to the BJP. The Congress leadership must understand, if BJP leaders rake up the Mahishasur Diwas issue, it helps them consolidate their position with their vote bank. If Rahul Gandhi goes and stands with the supporters of Afzal Guru, it harms the Congress and shreds its appeal among the larger Indian masses.

The challenge for the Congress party is to put the government on the mat on issues of development, in asking questions about “ache din”, and not allowing them the escape route of identity politics. The Congress must realise after the defeat in 1999, the party rebuilt itself brick-by-brick. It should do the same now. There are no short-cuts as Sonia Gandhi had found out in the 1990s when Mulayam Singh Yadav refused to support her as Prime Minister. The party should allow the NDA government to function and let it commit mistakes.

However, the Congress vice-president so far has not shown that he has the stomach to wage a long and tiresome political battle with Narendra Modi-led NDA. The politics of shoot and scoot, which he has borrowed from Aam Aadmi Party, makes him a poor replica of Arvind Kejriwal. And when the original is available to take on Narendra Modi on a daily basis, where is the space for a replica?

Rahul Gandhi is practising what can be best termed as pulp politics. His political appearances are all oriented towards catching television cameras. He must realise that the role which his mother wants for him play is that of a public leader and not a television personality. A public leader must have a vision which is targeted at a much larger following than merely a television audience. Appearance on television can at best supplement Gandhi’s public following, but it certainly cannot be the sole route for public connect.

(The author is President Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and Consulting Editor, Millennium Post. The views expressed are strictly personal.)
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