Opinion Op Ed 23 Dec 2017 Cabbages & Kings ...
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Cabbages & Kings: Can Rahul, Cong learn from Blair?

Published Dec 23, 2017, 12:53 am IST
Updated Dec 23, 2017, 12:53 am IST
Rahul Gandhi
 Rahul Gandhi

“I think, therefore I am!”
“I am, therefore I think”
“Religion is the opiate of the masses”
Marx (19th century)
“Opiates are the religion of the masses”
Bachchoo (21st century)

Before last week’s results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, an Indian TV channel asked me to stand by in London to comment on the results as they came through on Monday. By stand by they actually meant sit in front of a computer and switch Skype on.  Skype is, I am well aware, one of the easiest ether-age applications for the millions to use, but I always find it fiddly. I never know which symbols on the screen to activate, especially since Indian Standard Time is four-and-a-half hours ahead of Greenwich Mean Time, which meant waking up at 5.30 am, sobering up with a cup of tea or two for the TV appearance and waiting for the Skyped screen to show signs of life.  At first the broadcasters asked me to consider the fate of secularism after this election but they then changed their minds and asked me whether Rahul Gandhi had anything to learn from Tony Blair’s alteration of the fortunes of Britain’s Labour Party.

Mr Blair was elected to the leadership of the Labour Party in the early Nineties and set about attempting to reverse its seeming unelectability. The ruling Tory party, in power since 1979, at first under Margaret Thatcher and then under her successor John Major, made much of the fact that Labour was controlled by the trade unions and was dedicated to fighting Capitalism and would, if it won an election, turn Britain into a pseudo-Communist state.  This Tory allegation was not contradicted by “Clause 4” of Labour’s constitution, introduced in 1918 into the then 12-year-old party by Sidney Webb, the dedicated socialist. He formulated it as the aim of (and I paraphrase) “owning the means of production and distribution... and controlling the heights of the economy for the benefit of those who toil by hand and brain.” It was not as if the common voter read the Labour constitution before elections and decided that this was one aim too far and a declaration to nationalise and ruin everything. Nor is it true that the British voter is as paranoid about the term “communism” as the voters of the US. Indeed, very many leaders, including Mr Blair, have openly embraced their own version of “socialism” and won elections. 

What Mr Blair thought he needed was a grand gesture to attack this notion of a hidden Stalinist hand. He announced the abolition, through a vote of the party’s democratic mechanism, of Clause 4 and announced the renaming of his party as New Labour. His manifesto promised several other polices: against crime, for education, the liberalisation of banking control, but any Labour leader would have had similar stuff. But getting rid of Clause 4 was his version of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” or the Brexiteers’ “Take Back Control”.  There followed the 1997 election. Years later Mr Major told the story of election night on the radio. He said he was in 10 Downing Street as the results of the election became clear in the early hours of the morning as he and his staff and Cabinet colleagues watched the reports on TV. When, about 3 am it became clear that he had decisively lost his majority, he asked his aides to get the No. 10 switchboard to call Labour headquarters. He wanted to do the sporting thing and acknowledge defeat. 

In a few minutes the switchboard called back and when Mr Major picked it up the operator said: “Mr Major, the Prime Minister is returning your call!”  Mr Blair’s strategy kept the party in power for three terms.  Can Mr Gandhi and the Congress learn anything from this reversal? Is there any commanding principle they can abandon to win the hearts, minds and votes of the electorate — something that will tip the balance and reinstate the Congress in government? There has been an abolishing-of-Clause 4 moment in Indian politics. It wasn’t the Congress Party’s strategic move, but rather the BJP’s repudiation of India’s secularism. This clear and reprehensible move swayed a minority of the electorate and assisted the BJP’s assent to power. Elements of the BJP have subsequently challenged the inclusion of the secular principle in the Indian Constitution.

Mr Gandhi’s advisers obviously told him to visit temples in Gujarat. He did diligently. The BJP accused him of trying to steal their Hindutva avatar, but that was just mockery. Mr Gandhi’s advisers should have realised that Hindutva is not religion and has nothing to do with praying at temples — it’s a political reaction to the events of history and its supposed victims.  Just as the Tories used the existence of Clause 4 as a jibe that Labour were Commies and Stalinists, the spokesmen of the BJP have often used Congress’ persistence in appointing dynastic leaders as evidence of its undemocratic, feudal inheritance. If the Nehru-Gandhi family’s guaranteed accession to the leadership is Congress’ Achilles heel, it can’t be dealt with as Mr Blair did with Clause 4. 

Mr Gandhi is not likely to abolish himself.  He should rather, with all the other promises he can make to the broad and varied electorate, such as spreading the benefits of our rampant capitalism and growth and stopping the wealth of a tiny minority flowing abroad, tackle the main moral question.  This would, in the first instance, amount to introducing a version of Clause 4. The nation has invented very ingenuous corrupt ways to swindle the exchequer and politicians have turned a blind eye. That ingenuity can surely be applied to defeat itself?  The moral innovation the Congress Party is called upon to introduce is a vigorous reassertion of secular India with the will and force to enforce it. Then only will it be possible for the switchboard in Lok Kalyan Marg to say  “Mr Modi, the Prime Minister is on the line and has returned your call.”



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