Sunil Sethi

Journalist in Delhi

The mystery of the missing Gandhis

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Column published in Business Standard, September 26, 2014

A parliamentary democracy without a vigorous political opposition is rather like a prancing circus lion with the lion tamer gone missing. The animal can get away with anything. Well, almost. Visiting Chinese President Xi Jinping and his large delegation must have derived some amusement, and great comfort, from the absence of any voices of disagreement in India’s great democratic road show. With the Dalai Lama oozing the milk of human kindness, it was left to a group of Students for Free Tibet volunteers to climb Metro pillars and tall buildings, and unfurl banners proclaiming “Free Tibet Now” along the official route. Posing as electricians in uniform they combined stealth with risk to stage their protest before being carted off to police lock-ups.

The main political opposition was virtually invisible, and had little to contribute. Congress President Sonia Gandhi, Vice-president Rahul Gandhi and a few worthies, including Manmohan Singh, trooped in 15 minutes late at the Chinese leader’s hotel for a short photo op and desultory chat. The latecoming was on account of Sonia Gandhi’s delayed return from an overseas trip, reportedly for a medical check-up. Rahul Gandhi had been abroad during the flood disaster in Kashmir; it hasn’t struck him since his return to go to the ravaged state in a show of solidarity for its besieged people or his ally and friend, Omar Abdullah. He has neither comment nor critique on the Chinese visit, though a good deal can be said, and no response to Bilawal Bhutto’s preposterous remarks. (The subcontinent’s two famous shehzadas had broken bread together on Mr Bhutto’s India visit in 2012.) Mr Gandhi has no plans to head off to Kolkata either, though realpolitik would dictate this as a key moment to rally the Congress troops against its capricious former partner, Mamata Banerjee, engulfed by the Saradha scandal. On the contrary, according to some reports, he may have gone to attend the F1 race in Singapore.
Before the by-elections this month, Congress party spokespersons sniffily announced that by convention, the party’s top leadership never campaigned for by-polls. How hopelessly wrong and utterly out of touch with history they are! Indira Gandhi slogged relentlessly to win back every inch of lost ground in her darkest days of defeat. In August 1977, a few months after the Congress’ decisive election rout, she rode to Belchhi in Bihar, scene of dreadful Dalit killings, atop an elephant. Access to the village was blocked by waist-deep water and slushy roads: an elephant was her only option. In those pre-TV days, the stark symbolism of a woman riding an elephant imprinted itself on the nation. The following summer she drove thousands of miles across Uttar Pradesh to campaign for Mohsina Kidwai in the Azamgarh by-election; it was a victory that marked the turning point in her triumphant return to power. “I fight best when my back is against the wall,” she famously said.

Her political heirs are oblivious to family history and have no fire left to lead from the front. The party’s encouraging by-election results came not because, but in spite of, Sonia Gandhi’s and Rahul Gandhi’s participation. In Rajasthan, it was the youthfully energetic Sachin Pilot’s shrewd candidate selection and hard work that produced the best results (three out of four Assembly seats). But such are the mysterious inner dynamics of a dynasty-driven party that there are rumours that Mr Pilot, who heads the party in the state, may be brought back to Delhi as general secretary. Were the missing Gandhis to show signs of going for the jugular there might just be a chance of improving the Congress’ bleak prospects in the upcoming state elections. There was a hint of desperation when its senior general secretary, Digvijaya Singh, said in Business Standard last week that his entreaties to Rahul Gandhi to “speak up” had fallen on deaf ears. “[Rahul] Gandhi must come on social media … in an age of strong media presence … when technology … has put a smartphone in every pocket, you cannot ignore it.”

Reduced to 44 members in the Lok Sabha, the Congress’ role as Parliament’s lion tamer looks even more uncertain. If it is denied the status of official opposition, it will lose its say in making constitutional appointments, such as the lokpal or the chief vigilance commissioner. Effectively, this leaves Narendra Modi as the unchecked king of India’s political jungle. His might is unquestioned as he prances from Tokyo to New York, while the Gandhis, in defeat, continue to behave as if they are still the ruling party.

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