Opinion Columnists 10 May 2019 Dead or living: Whos ...
Patralekha Chatterjee focuses on development issues in India and emerging economies. She can be reached at patralekha.chatterjee@gmail.com

Dead or living: Whose report are we seeking?

Published May 10, 2019, 7:39 am IST
Updated May 10, 2019, 7:39 am IST
The dead have featured prominently in the current political discourse and stump speeches.
Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi
 Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi

Who is accountable for what has happened or not happened since the 2014 general election? Whose report card should be up for public scrutiny? Should questions to, and about the dead, take precedence over questions to and about those in power?

Ordinarily, these are questions which would be of interest only to those preoccupied with planchets and ouija board sessions and summoning of dead spirits. But these are extraordinary times and as the campaign nears the finish line, these questions are now pivotal to the ongoing poll discourse.


Addressing a recent rally at Pratapgarh, UP, Prime Minister Narendra Modi claimed former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, father of Congress president Rahul Gandhi, died as “Bhrashtachari No. 1” (Corrupt No. 1). Since then, the Opposition and country’s vocal commentariat have been jousting with spokespersons of the ruling BJP and Mr Modi’s phalanx of admirers about the propriety of using such words to describe a former Prime Minister who was assassinated. There has been a lot of talk about the sheer grossness of taking potshots at the dead who can’t hit back. Opposed to this point of view is the question whether distasteful remarks targeted at Mr Modi did not merit a counter.


As I see it, the issue right now is not chiefly about civility or manners, though these matter a lot. Much as we hate to be bombarded with abusive speech 24/7 , it is glaringly obvious that neither PM Modi nor any of the others in his party who have been ceaselessly focusing on the alleged misdeeds of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi — killed by a LTTE woman suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur, Tamil Nadu, on May 21, 1991 — is bothered what his political opponents, critics in the commentariat or the genteel crowd think. It is equally obvious that the main aim now is to rile up and stoke passions of the BJP’s core support base. Led by Mr Modi, BJP campaigners are mentioning Rajiv Gandhi repeatedly to remind voters in Punjab about the 1984 riots and voters in Bhopal about the gas leak from the Union Carbide factory. These are areas that have not voted yet.


As for the corruption charge, it is important to remember that the Delhi high court had exonerated Rajiv Gandhi in the Bofors case during the Atal Behari Vajpayee era. Still, if it is going to be a no-holds-barred campaign encompassing the past as much as the present, let us go the whole hog. Let us discuss threadbare the unanswered questions on the Bofors deal and the ongoing Rafale controversy, the shameful 1984 anti-Sikh riots under the watch of the Congress and the heinous 2002 riots in Gujarat when Mr Modi was the state’s chief minister. Shall we go back to every assassination in independent India, starting with the killing of Mahatma Gandhi?


In a flourishing democracy, there are no taboo topics, nor issues that can’t be discussed. In the United States, there is continuing public fascination about John F. Kennedy and his death. Conspiracy theories still swirl around the Kennedy assassination though the then President was fatally shot by former US Marine Lee Harvey Oswald on November 22, 1963 – over 55 years ago.

It’s perfectly legit for academics and analysts to examine the good deeds and misdeeds of leaders past and present, but since this has entered the election campaign, we can ask questions about accountability in the recent as well as distant past. But when we vote, we have to ask, who will shape our future? Is it the dead or those elected to govern us for the next five years?


Having travelled to small towns and villages in northern India in recent weeks, it is clear to me that people are worried about the problems of the immediate past — farmers’ distress, job crisis, lingering aftereffects of the 2016 demonetisation — and anxious about the immediate future. Many among the minorities, especially Muslims, live in a state of insecurity and fear in the wake of lynchings in the name of protecting the cow. What aggravates the situation is the public support the cow vigilantes sometimes get from those in power.


This is not to say that those opposing the BJP are all angels – clearly, many are not – but this election is clearly about Narendra Modi and the good, bad and ugly part of his party’s governance record. That is inevitable as he has been heading India’s federal government for the last five years. Instead, the BJP appears to want voters to constantly think about what went wrong during the Rajiv Gandhi era, nearly 30 years ago, or during the administration of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first PM.

The primary debate is not about good manners versus bad manners, though as an Indian citizen, I must say the constant drip-drip of foul speech is injurious to health. The primary issue is about demanding accountability of those who were elected and tasked to govern this country. What Nehru did or did not do on national security matters is of less concern than the seeming intelligence failure that contributed to the Pulwama terror attack in which over 40 CRPF personnel were killed as recently as February.


The dead have featured prominently in the current political discourse and stump speeches. Nehru died in 1964. But he lives on in the social media with Nehru-baiting emerging as one of the most popular pastimes of the rabid among the BJP supporters. The other day, a BJP spokesperson also made Mahatma Gandhi a poll issue by observing during a TV panel discussion that “rural Indians” believe that Congress president Rahul Gandhi is the Mahatma’s grandson.

One wonders which “rural Indians” he had spoken to. The farmers in distress? Those reeling under drought? Or was there an assumption on his part that “rural Indians” — the majority of people in this country — are incredibly ignorant?


Human beings are fallible. So are governments. Mistakes happen despite the best efforts. The most meticulously crafted plans go awry. The important thing is not to duck the inconvenient questions. The important thing is to stay focused on the present because we, the people, live in the present and look towards the future. With just a few days left before the elections draw to a close, one needs to remain focused on the here and now and questions should be asked of the living: those who are in power and those who aspire to be in power.