Millions of Indians are probably hoping that the Lakhimpur Khera carnage in Yogi Adityanath-run Uttar Pradesh will do for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra what the 1977 massacre in Bihar’s Belchi village of eight Dalits and three Sonar (goldsmith) villagers did for her grandmother, Indira Gandhi. While this is a legitimate expectation, India’s real need is for “a responsible government and a sensitive police” force that applies the law equally to all citizens, as the Supreme Court told the Uttar Pradesh authorities the other day.
To expect the Congress, the grand old party of the freedom movement, to fulfil this role is like expecting Air India once again to reign as the monarch of the skies. But astute businessman that he is, Ratan Tata would not have agreed to pay Rs 18,000 crores with an attached string of conditions if he had not been completely sanguine about the outcome. A reinvigorated Congress Party free of indecision and what many see as the grey eminence of Rajiv Gandhi’s Italian-born widow seems to be the best choice for several reasons. The Congress image remains central to India’s polity; it is identified in the popular mind with the idea of a secular modern India; and despite its current leadership problems, it still has at least 19.5 per cent of the vote.
Not that 52 years of Congress rule (including by Morarji Desai and the four technically non-Congress Prime Ministers after him) before Atal Behari Vajpayee became Prime Minister saw the blossoming of an idyllic welfare state. But at least there were checks and balances on the exercise of official authority and the semblance of a democratic dispensation. The Supreme Court did not repeatedly have to intervene to ensure that governance respected constitutional restraints. Political power was subject to the vigorous scrutiny of a functioning Parliament. India’s top leaders were not driven by an almost megalomaniacal thirst for personal publicity. The media was relatively independent.
The social decline has been marked since then. India has slipped down the international corruption perception index. The plethora of “senas” seeking to impose arbitrary restrictions on multiple forms of human intercourse is matched only by the abundance of “jihads”, which is the shorthand for any offence that can be pinned on Muslims.
The latest is the “marks jihad” or the condemnation of Muslim students doing well in their school-leaving examinations. Both are reflected in the latest threat by a Hindu “holy man” to drown himself if India is not declared a Hindu rashtra, and Muslims and Christians stripped of the citizenship.
This exclusiveness, which goes against the grain of the universalism of the Sanatan Dharma, or eternal faith, is undermining the secular state that the Constitution upholds. It seeks to pinpoint 200 million Muslims and 24 million Christians as the enemies of 970 million Hindus. If it remains unchecked, the bias could well extend to 20 million Sikhs, eight million Buddhists and 84 million Scheduled Tribe members unless they allow themselves to be assimilated in Hindu orthodoxy. It was this intolerance that drove Dr B.R. Ambedkar to Buddhism and Jogendranath Mandal to become one of Pakistan’s 96 founders.
Intolerance underlies much of the civil strife that holds back India’s economic progress. By influencing policy decisions like the abrogation of Articles 370 and 35A, the bifurcation of Jammu and Kashmir and the demotion of the two residual entities to Union territory status, it also incurs hostility abroad. Not just the predictable Pakistani and Chinese criticism but also the suspicions of distant Muslim countries like Turkey and West Asia’s emirates and republics.
Hindu India is emerging as more and more a friendless nation at war with itself and obliged to fall back for support internationally on the United States. India’s founding fathers would have found it repellent.
With or without Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, the Congress alone cannot correct the distortions arising from this massive mismanagement. But 21 other Opposition parties, including the Trinamul Congress, Telugu Desam Party, Aam Aadmi Party, Nationalist Congress Party and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam can provide additional pressure. There is no dearth of individual talent either. From the veteran Farooq Abdullah to the firebrand Kanhaiya Kumar, and including seasoned administrators like Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and N. Chandrababu Naidu, India has plenty of potential Prime Ministers-in-waiting.
Indian democracy needs a viable Opposition. In the famous words of the British jurist, Lord Acton, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely”. Although his supremacy was unquestioned, Jawaharlal Nehru understood this only too well: His “We Want No Caesars” article, published anonymously in the Modern Review in 1937, warned against dictatorship.
Pandit Nehru’s mandate was personal. The institutional, ideological and populist power that today’s leaders draw on can be easily transformed into mass hysteria by continuing to pander to grassroots loyalties, whipping up basic passions and inventing scapegoats.
First, the Opposition must decide on a strategy for the coming Uttar Pradesh Assembly election. It’s all right for the Congress to contest all 403 Assembly seats on its own without allying with any other group, but the party should remember that it boasts of an absolute majority in only Punjab and Chhattisgarh. It may be the senior partner in Rajasthan but has been reduced to the role of junior partner in Maharashtra and Jharkhand. Nor can the Congress forget Rahul Gandhi’s stunning defeat at the hands of Smriti Irani in 2019 in the Nehru-Gandhi stronghold of Amethi. The disaffection of a young leader of ability and integrity like Sachin Pilot, the defection of a vote mobiliser like Jyotiraditya Scindia, and the bitterness of a traditional loyalist like Patiala’s former maharaja Amarinder Singh should prompt Mrs Sonia Gandhi to consider the fallout of her stewardship of the Congress as its interim president.
Reports suggest that although Ms Vadra is willing to lead the campaign in Uttar Pradesh, she has not yet decided whether or not she will be the chief ministerial candidate. With the UP election just a few months away and the Lok Sabha polls less than three years away, such dithering is an unaffordable luxury. Presumably, she is waiting for Mama’s “inner voice”. If she wants to heed the country’s call and head a winning Congress, she must first show herself to be her own mistress. Not tied to anyone’s apron strings....