Sense and absence

Does it matter that there was no tribal or Muslim on the dais when the Congress celebrated its 125th anniversary? Or that the history of the party has now been co-opted into the history of the Nehru-Gandhi family, with token homage to Mahatma Gandhi and throwaway references to titans of the first two decades of our nation-building process?
The second has become, in truth, an irritation to commentators rather than voters. Those who support the Congress have already conflated the party with the family, a process that began during Indira Gandhi’s time and has matured during Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. So has the party structure. The Congress voter believes that the two  Gandhis do the best that they can for the poor, which is at least better than the rest. And the party identifies the family with something other leaders have not been able to provide: electoral success. Lal Bahadur Shastri did not live long enough to translate his sturdy promise into Lok Sabha seats. And while Narasimha Rao may have, in his own estimation, saved the nation from economic ruin he could not save the Congress from political ruin. The family is safe anchor for those Congressmen who want to be in power for 20 years or the end of their lives, whichever comes quicker.

But the first has to be a problem. There is of course always an element of tokenism in any high-table seating arrangement, but those tokens have value, which is why they are preserved. Sonia Gandhi, Dr Manmohan Singh, Pranab Mukherjee, Sheila Dikshit and Motilal Vora were natural claimants, although it did not go without notice that there are three Brahmins in the group. The presence of A K Antony had nothing to do with either Kerala or his Christian faith; it was proof that Sonia Gandhi holds him in high esteem. J P Aggarwal sat there as host, but Mukul Wasnik was given space because of his community, marking this pleasant and decent person as the Dalit face of the future. Rahul Gandhi did not sit on the dais, presumably because he was away on holiday. It was a politically sensible holiday, for he still has a slightly nebulous status, party-wise: he is certainly not a member of the audience, but not quite the equal of Manmohan-Pranab-Dikshit-Antony group. Absence can have its uses.

But not every time. The absence of a tribal or a Muslim was not out of choice. The ranking Muslim Cabinet minister is Ghulam Nabi Azad, a Kashmiri. Muslims of the Gangetic belt, from Hardwar and Saharanpur to Kolkata via Patna do not identify with him; and this is where the bulk of the faithful live. The absence of tribals is an even bigger problem, for one of the main reasons for the growth of Naxalites in the tribal belt is their conviction that they have been marginalised by the larger political formations. Unable to offer a face of its own, the Congress was forced to co-opt Babulal Marandi in the Jharkhand elections. It did well, but would have done better if it had built its indigenous tribal leadership.
While the home ministry might launch its armed offensive against Naxalites, sensible politics demands a parallel dialogue with the communities that constitute the strength of this opposition. There are no Congress leaders who can play this role. Muslims are quiet now, but if passions do rise over job quotas Congress will face the same difficulty with its strongest vote base.

Complacency is never a good idea, and the BJP has sent a signal that it just might be getting its act together. Its new leader Nitin Gadkari has sent two interesting signals. He invoked Deen Dayal Upadhyay’s concern for the last man in the queue, a reversal of the impression that the party could not look beyond the first man in the queue. The second is a collage: he served chicken at a reception at party headquarters; he used a line from a Hindi film song at a press conference; and, in his individual capacity, he is a bit overweight. While weight and temperament are not necessarily correlated, it is generally true that men who eat more than they should are also tolerant of human indulgence. Think the laughing Buddha. Think Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, who wanted men about him who were fat and was wary of yon Cassius with his lean and hungry look. A chap who can chow down with the best, and listens to film music is unlikely to be rigid, although the jury must remain out on this question till the end of this year.
There will be many battles in the decade ahead, some fierce, others lukewarm. But while we are engrossed in the high drama of the Naxalite revolt, economic upturn-downturn, minority-poverty definitions, watch out for the subliminal conflict between Rahul Gandhi’s fashionable stubble and Gadkari’s film song quotations. “Chodon kal ki baatein” (forget yesterday), said Gadkari at the press conference, which was fine: but does he have a “nai kahani” (new story) for the “naya daur” (new age)?

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