By Aijaz Zaka Syed
The 2014 could well be the dumbest and most defining General Election in India’s history. While the level of political discourse and campaigning has already hit rock bottom, stakes for the country and its future have never been higher. This even before polls have formally been announced. One shudders to think what awaits the nation, whose cup of woes already brimmeth over, in weeks and months ahead.
Given what happened in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh and now these mysterious and rather convenient explosions ahead of Narendra Modi’s rally in Patna and the subsequent war of words between the Congress and BJP, it’s clear it isn’t going to be pretty.
Everyone caught in between is going to feel the heat. Right now, it is the Muslims who are once again being thrown around like the perpetual political football that they are.
One has never seen such bitterness and capriciousness in Indian politics before. It only goes to underscore the desperation of the stakeholders. After squandering precious time and repeated opportunities of projecting a leadership face to succeed the unmitigated disaster that Dr Manmohan Singh has turned out to be in his second coming, the Congress seems to have suddenly realized that it has no strategy or leadership in place to tackle the gathering storm.
The response of India’s oldest political party to the challenge mounted by Modi and his increasingly mean, personal attacks on the prime minister and party leadership has been juvenile. Despite its best efforts to avoid reducing this election to a Rahul-Modi personality contest, the party has managed to do precisely that.
And now that the Gandhi scion has finally begun opening up and holding forth, one begins to appreciate why the party has all these years shied away from pitching him for the top job or so jealously protected him from all public and media interaction.
Remember his recent storming of a press conference to trash the controversial ordinance being brought by his own party as ‘complete nonsense’? Apparently, the Prince is bit of a loose cannon. So these days most of the poor Congress politicians’ time is spent defending or explaining what the vice-president said or meant, rather than take on the BJP.
One had initially found Rahul’s casual, chatty approach to public speaking, with his crumpled kurta sleeves irreverently folded, rather charming. A refreshing change from the long-winded, frothing-at-the-mouth whining that our politicians are used to.
The talk about his veggie travails as a young boy growing up in the arms of his late father and grandmother–both prime ministers and assassinated in tragic circumstances—added to the personal touch.
Some thought it was rather ill-timed though considering the skyrocketing prices of everyday essentials like onions. He recalled Indira Gandhi’s assassination by “his friends” to drive home the message that what could lead to politics of hate and expediency.
In the same context, the young Gandhi ‘revealed’ about Pakistan’s ISI preying on Indian Muslims thanks to the BJP’s communal politics, leaving his own party bewildered and Muslims outraged. Rahul might have said it out of sympathy for Muslims and genuine concern for the nation.
Whatever the explanation, he couldn’t have come up with greater insult to Muslims. Having lived with the slur of being “responsible for the Partition” all these years, the suggestion that they look to Pakistan for help or emotional support is the ultimate affront to the nearly 200-million strong community.
As Nai Duniya Editor Shahid Siddiqui points out, even in places where Muslims suffered worst religious violence in the thousands of riots in decades after Independence, they never entertained the idea of ever leaving the land of their ancestors.
But then what’s new? Whether it is the Congress or the BJP or any other party for that matter, everyone seems to have these strange notions of India’s largest minority nearly seven decade after Independence. Some of the credit for this must go to Muslim politicians who have failed to articulate the genuine concerns and aspirations of the people they claim to represent.
All said and done though, Rahul’s naivety and political immaturity and the inefficiency and failures of PM Singh are far less dangerous than what is being thrust in our faces, day in and day out, on television screens as the alternative and the ultimate hope for the nation.
Look at the plain bellicosity and belligerence in the speeches and campaigning of BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The unabashed hunger and desperation for power is almost overwhelming, repeatedly reminding one of the creature portrayed in Yeats’ dark and disturbing poem, Second Coming.
Here is a man in a tearing hurry. Modi has tasted blood. You cannot blame him given the demoralization and utter listlessness in the opposite camp. He cannot hide his sense of entitlement and impatience to get to his final destination. From white lies to brazen distortion of reality, everything is fair game on the road to Delhi.
Look at the farce being enacted over Sardar Patel, India’s first Home Minister, known for his hardline image and apparently soft corner for Hindutva. He played a critical role in integrating 565 princely states into Indian union—some at gunpoint as had been done in Hyderabad’s case. Recent revelations by independent researchers in international media about the extent of casualties and widespread human rights abuses that the Operation Polo in 1948 witnessed are mindboggling.
At a function where Prime Minister Singh dedicated a memorial to the late leader from Gujarat this week, Modi had the temerity to suggest that Patel, and not Nehru, should have become the first prime minister.
This is something that even the most ardent admirers of Patel on the Right haven’t dared to come up with. Frankly, whatever Patel’s strengths as a no-nonsense administrator, he was no match to Nehru’s charisma as a popular leader and global statesman. He openly and repeatedly questioned Indian Muslims’ loyalty in years after Independence.
With his liberal outlook and temperament, Nehru was best suited to lead a diverse nation of competing identities. This is perhaps why Gandhi chose him over Patel and everyone else as the man to lead India after Independence. For all his flaws–and there were many–no one can ignore the fact that it is Nehru’s leadership and his secular, humanistic vision that shaped the nation’s outlook and direction in the defining years and has helped it weather many an existential crisis.
This is why this attempt by Modi and his fellow travelers to create a new national rift by pitting one iconic leader against another is so dangerous. More ironic is the fact that the Hindutva brotherhood is trying to appropriate and hijack the legacy of someone who held the RSS directly responsible for Gandhi’s assassination and religious strife in the country, recommending a permanent ban on the organization.
But then usurping Patel’s legacy is the least of India’s concerns. It’s like a minor traffic offense considering far more serious feats that Modi and the Sangh can take credit for. Is this the ‘change’ that India is looking to vote for in 2014? I hope not.
*Aijaz Zaka Syed is a commentator on the Middle East and South Asia affairs. Email: [email protected]