Rahul Gandhi at Chatham House in London, March 6, 2023
WHERE IS RAHUL GANDHI? The question arises because while the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is attacking him left and right, both in Parliament and outside, he is nowhere to be seen. In fact, the popular phrase seems to be the ‘ruckus in the parliament’, when it comes to the ongoing political fracas. Or, as some might prefer to call it, farce.
No one is going to ask, “What did he do?” Or given his penchant
for faux pas, “What did he say? This time.” This time, the instrumental
adverb would be where rather than what. For it is not what he said as much as where he said it that has drawn so much flak.
But that still doesn’t answer the question where he, that is, Rahul, is. The obvious answer would be, out of India. Typical of him? For Rahul is known to scoot off to more salubrious climes— after shooting his mouth off—when the going in India gets too hot for his comfort. In this case, it was arguably a well-deserved break after his gruelling 150-day Bharat Jodo Yatra. Going by his social media timeline, he left for the UK on February 28. He also sported a new look, with a trimmed beard as opposed to his fully grown and somewhat unkempt facial bush. But then, cynics might sneer—do you mean Rahul’s Bharat Jodo Yatra had to culminate in Vilayat instead of Bharat?
The trip was supposed to be for a week. But going by his absence in Parliament, it probably got extended, what with his multiple speaking engagements. At Cambridge University, his alma mater, Chatham House, and elsewhere, ending with his meeting with select UK parliamentarians, guests, and members of the overseas Congress in the Grand Committee Room of the British parliament of Commons. But the initial question can be answered definitively now. For, as this column went to press, it was reliably learnt that Rahul was back in India on March 15, 2023.
The Ides of March, one might sigh! That ominous date 2,067 years back when Julius Caesar was assassinated in the Forum and the destiny of Rome changed forever. Without being quite as dramatic—or dreadful—one might ponder if Rahul’s, if not India’s, destiny is about to change too. Because never in recent memory, his Bharat Jodo Yatra included, has he attracted so much attention as over the last couple of days. He would never have dreamt that a few stray remarks in our erstwhile colonial rulers’ capital would raise the hackles of the treasury benches much more than any of his other actions or antics in the past.
Without question, BJP brought out its A-team—Defence Minister Rajnath Singh in Lok Sabha and Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal in Rajya Sabha—to attack him inside Parliament on March 14, followed by Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur and Women and Child Development Minister Smriti Irani both inside and outside Parliament on March 15. Such inordinate notice is not without its ironies. After investing so much time, energy, and resources in painting Rahul as ‘Pappu’, a person, or better princeling, of little consequence, why the sudden reversal, with BJP’s top guns firing all cylinders blazing? Did BJP undo itself and its own political strategy by proving him to be a person of consequence after all?
If so, Rahul Gandhi must be smirking with pleasure. At last, he gets if not to be taken seriously by India’s political class, then at the very least as a serious enough threat by BJP for them to bring the business of Parliament to a halt and go on every TV channel in the country to attack him. Even better, to demand an apology from him. It is as if an apology from Rahul Gandhi has become the most important issue of concern for the ruling party. It has become a matter of national importance even.
If Rahul can criticise the ruling party, surely BJP can also demand an apology from him. Absolutely. But can it do so at the expense of the people of India, whom it claims to represent by virtue of its majority? Especially, when every minute of time in parliament costs the exchequer crores of rupees
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Of course, Rahul will not apologise. The more he is attacked, the more attention he gets, and the more opportunity his party supporters to back him, and to reiterate his criticism of the government. Suddenly, quite by chance, has he stumbled upon BJP’s sensitive spot? Criticism on foreign soil? Consequently, has he, at last, been catapulted to being the only opposition leader who dares attack not just BJP but Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself? Has BJP’s super-sensitivity to criticism, especially on foreign soil, and its tremendous commitment to promoting and safeguarding Modi’s overseas image, inadvertently shown Rahul the weak link in his enemy’s iron-clad armour?
On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the ruling party’s condemnation of Rahul is just another diversionary tactic to prevent the House from debating matters of more serious import. MK Gandhi, citing Carlyle, called the British parliament a “talking shop”. Have we made it worse in India, bringing it down to the level of a fish market? What with members of the treasury and opposition benches disregarding the dignity of both Houses, rushing into the well of the House, throwing papers in the air or at each other, and so on? What does such misconduct speak of the self-esteem of Indian democracy?
Or is that the idea after all? To make Parliament irrelevant so that the government in power can do pretty much what it wants without being questioned too often or too closely? Have street politics and campaigning, which BJP excels at as it does in managing the narrative, now invaded Parliament itself? If both India and the UK are truly free countries, why can’t Rahul say what he wants, however inappropriate or undiplomatic it might be, both in India and abroad?
If BJP wants to assert that India is a vibrant and diverse democracy, why or how should it try to control, monitor, or cancel what it does not agree with?
Contrarily, if Rahul can criticise the ruling party, surely BJP can also demand an apology from him? Absolutely. But can it do so at the expense of the people of India, whom it claims to represent by virtue of its majority? Especially, when every minute of time in Parliament costs the exchequer crores of rupees. With 35 Bills pending, should BJP make its own anti-Rahul agenda override all other parliamentary priorities?
The fact of the matter is that most of the top brass of BJP and the Rahul faction of Congress present a polarity and extremism that is bad for our democracy. Democracy, especially of the parliamentary variety, demands both a ruling party and a viable opposition. Both have a responsible role to play. BJP, by trying to negate, demean, and even cancel every form of opposition, seems to be telling the people of India that it is the only one fit to govern this country. I would call this nothing less than China envy, the idea that only one party will rule India. This model, I dare say, is bound to fail. Even right now, about half the states and Union territories have non-BJP parties elected to power.
What is the way forward? The obvious answer is that BJP must give up its “Congress-mukt Bharat”, or for that matter, any other party mukt idea of Bharat. Let the people decide. Likewise, Rahul and his cronies must learn to live with the fact that Modi has been elected to lead the country not once, but twice. What is more, his party led by him is likely to be elected a third time unless the will of the people changes drastically in next year’s General Election.
And yes, democracy is much more than just free and fair elections. It implies a free press, law enforcement institutions relatively free from political interference, respect for diversity and differing points of view, equal treatment of all citizens regardless of religion, caste, community, linguistic affiliation, or ethnicity, and, perhaps most importantly, freedom from fear. Only an empowered, if not enlightened praja or citizenry can ensure this, not an omnipotent ruling dispensation, regardless of how well-intentioned or nationalistic it claims to be.
Before closing, let me underscore that I have not even asked, let alone bothered to cite, what Rahul Gandhi actually said. Why? The answer is simple. It is there in the public domain for all of us to check out and make up our own minds. Not to be led or misled as the case may be by the political partisans on this matter. They are ranged on both sides of the barbed wire fence which, like a dangerous internal border, seems just now to divide the ruling party from the opposition inside the very boundaries of India that is Bharat. The people of India must not be caught in the trenches between the crossfire.