CHENNAI: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi's pensive letter posted on Twitter recently to explain in some detail why he was giving up the party presidentship, accepting responsibility for the party's defeat in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, is more than a testament of faith in the idea of a secular India.
It was a splendid, spirited campaign he spearheaded. Despite the Gandhi-Nehru legacy tag being more a liability than an endearment in a polarizing political scenario and amid a no-holds barred recent poll campaign, Rahul Gandhi's deep disappointment and despondency now is largely understandable.
Anybody reading his letter would make out that while he is very keen on the Congress party's pan-Indian revival with all the liberal values post-Independent modern India has been acknowledged for in the World's stage, not just the South, where the party has picked up most of its 52 Lok Sabha seats this time, he is equally firm that his privileged position in the party does not hurt it.
While he has mentioned some of the deeper reasons for the party's latest defeat, Rahul has stressed that the Congress party "must radically transform itself", not just in terms of accountability at various levels, but in defending the myriad voices of the Indian people which are sought to be crushed today. "India will always be a symphony of voices and that is the true essence of Bharat Mata," he says.
And since no enduring change comes out without pain, Rahul Gandhi wants to take the next step of "sacrificing power", in seeking to negate the "Indian habit of the powerful clinging to power". And without this renunciation, the idea of India that Congress has stood for cannot be reclaimed, in fighting a "deeper ideological battle" against the BJP, is the crux of his position.
In political praxis, this is not a new position either, as our freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi, had seen several political stalwarts inspired by his idea of renunciation for the larger public good. The 'will to power, Independence and freedom' with the intentionality of a spiritually elevating saint confers on the leaders of a movement a greater credibility at any point of time; so much so people found it hard even in Gandhi to separate the saint from the politician.
Self-interest was so rigorously channelized, influenced by austere multiple religious traditions in the case of Mahatma Gandhi. Articulation of the basics of Indian public interest, by principally the Congress at that time, in the deeply colonial exploitative setting, had a certain crystal clarity for all the other contradictions and divisions in an awakening India. It included the idea of an inclusive, pluralistic and open society with diverse religions, languages and cultures, even as there was enough human suffering to forge a common bond.
After the May 23 Lok Sabha results, senior party leaders, scholars and analysts have already laid bare the reasons for the BJP's astounding return to power this time under the leadership of Mr. Narendra Modi. And some of them have deconstructed the weaknesses that ate into the dominant Indian paradigm, so to say in the post-Nehruvian decades, even going to the extent of suggesting that the Congress leadership in its secular zeal, ignored "cultural" factors altogether.
And so the slow and steady assault on secular values by political forces which later crystallized into the BJP in the early 1980s', and consolidated by the Ram temple movement, is seen as a quasi-naturalistic backlash with profound cultural implications that the Congress' narrative failed to read. Some analysts have even decried that this happened despite the 'Shilanyas' ceremony at Ayodhya having been allowed under Rajiv Gandhi's regime, to be read with the Shah Bhano case.
This sort of mutual recrimination only tends to obfuscate the underlying reality and Rahul Gandhi's letter now in a sense points to the futility of such an exercise. The age-old virtues of 'love', 'courage' and 'fidelity' are significantly what Rahul Gandhi has stressed in his letter. "I have no hatred or anger towards the BJP," he makes clear, indicative of the classical Indian position of tolerance, acceptance. In fact, his parting word to the youth at the end of an amazing interaction with students of Stella Maris College in Chennai, during the poll campaign, was "love".
Even as Rahul Gandhi wants to make a fresh beginning in restructuring and rejuvenating the Congress as a natural, many-sided voices of India, the remarkable insights from a seminal paper by the eminent Indian sociologist Prof Dipankar Gupta, published recently after the general elections in the Economic and Political Weekly, should help us understand the totality of the situation better, as the issue is just not about leadership change.
Historically, all great religions have always influenced each other. They should be seen as multiple traffic corridors in the great passageway of humanity. In this great Internet of spiritual congregation, Confucianism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, Zoroastrianism and Sikhism, to name some, all play a part.
But what Prof Dipankar Gupta has called attention to in this path-breaking paper, 'Caste and Electoral Outcomes - Misreading Hierarchy and the Illusion of Numbers' (EPW, June 2019), is not to become "captive to an exotic frame of mind". It puts the onus of everything on caste and caste arithmetic, notwithstanding that India "is probably the most stratified society in the world."
Prof Dipankar Gupta has rightly cautioned about the pitfalls of a distorted understanding of the relationship between caste and politics. Significantly, he sees "Narendra Modi's unequivocal victory in 2019, as actually a repeat of his 2017 Uttar Pradesh (UP) performance more than the 2014 general elections."
Questioning the long-accepted notion, that within the caste hierarchy of 'Chatur Varna', proximate castes affiliate easily to generate a winning arithmetical formula, Dipankar Gupta has shown it is a fallacious notion.
While he cites mostly examples from UP and Bihar, what he has said is equally true of Tamil Nadu, insofar as in this just concluded election where a combination of relatively better off OBC castes and groups did not help the AIADMK-BJP led alliance.
Caste is not dead, but to harp just on 'caste arithmetic' is to misread 'caste' itself, Dipankar Gupta has beautifully argued. "The fundamental property of caste, as Celestine Bougle once elegantly put it is that of 'mutual repulsion'," writes Prof Gupta. Even where upper caste norms are oppressive, it is a rivalry-tinged compliance, not plain obedience. Further, every caste sub-group making its own modification in every ritual is another dimension of intra-caste one-upmanship.
One can glean from Prof Dipankar Gupta's rigorously presented paper that in a sense it brings another great Indian sociologist late Dr M N Srinivas's 'Sanskritization' among OBCs' and Tribals debate to a fuller circle. In the post-Mandal era, there has been a silent and radical transformation in the way the once-rigid caste hierarchy has got loosened, though not fully torn apart, he shows. In the Hindi-speaking heartland of UP and Bihar in particular, the swinging electoral fortunes post-year 2000, this dynamics has been playing out vigorously.
Thanks to the policy of reservation, the economic and social empowerment of however small an OBC group post-Mandal, it has allowed for possibility of seizing new opportunities and a new thinly-enjoined transcendence, a 'great escape' from dehumanizing poverty. In a long chain of developments over decades, there are several reasons for it since Congress began dismantling the Zamindari system.
However, what is of utmost sociological significance in this huge rat race for better standards of living is the new use for 'caste identity' and 'caste pride', pushing aside the 'old elite'. Prof Gupta shows that "different castes' today can come together politically, "for urban jobs or rural markets". Implicitly, there is a domain of "secularized economic and social world" as he puts it, which is an objective reference point for all caste groups in a flux, and enabling new political alliances to emerge.
This is what makes the domain of the 'secular' even more important and relevant today, though Prof Gupta does not put it so explicitly. So no institutional structure can be 'completely captured' in that sense, an anxiety that Rahul Gandhi has expressed in his letter. There is still space and time for tweaking Rahul's advocacy....