National Interest: My Sardar vs yours

And why is the Congress complaining? When the only icons it cares about are all in one family.

In this season of competitive absurdity it is tough to say which one is more ridiculous. The Congress claim that the legacy of Sardar Patel is too holy to be exploited for electoral purposes, or the BJP's literal giganticism in building a statue of the Iron Man in, what else, iron, and almost two and a half times the size of the Statue of Liberty. One thing, however, is common between them. Both have locked horns on the legacies of the past instead of a promise of the future, even as the 2014 campaign is just beginning.

The Congress are pastmasters at exploiting the residual trust, affection and nostalgia that vast numbers of Indians have for the past generations of their leaders. If anything, under Sonia Gandhi they had done a bit of a course correction. They talked of the present and the future and won two elections. But Sonia has now yielded the leadership to Rahul. He is bringing the party back to the basics. It is invoking memories of and loyalties to the leaders of its earlier generations. But with one important qualification: the only leaders they invoke are direct members of the Dynasty mother, father, grandmother, great grandfather, even great great grandfather (Motilal Nehru). This leads to three obvious questions.

One, how wise is it to hark back to a distant past when you have been the incumbent for a decade? How prudent is it to leap backwards in time almost two decades (the last time the dynasty directly won power was in December 1984, under Rajiv)? This is a digression, but even here, it is significant how little you hear of Rajiv Gandhi in this campaign. The backward leap, therefore, is almost a quarter century. The party has a real brains trust: in its in-house Kautilyas as well as in its high-powered computers. So it must have thought this strategy through carefully.

But, for a simple analyst and also ultimately a voter like this writer, it is difficult to understand the party going around the country reminding people of how awful their fate is, when the same party has ruled them, directly or indirectly, for almost 56 years out of 67. To return to our basic argument, here is question number two: it may be useful to take your voters back to your party's great leaders of the past. But why confine yourself only to the members of one family? And third, if you dump all the others, including Patel, how can you object to another party invoking his name instead? Giants of history can't be trademarked. Why is this some kind of partisan political exploitation of a great leader of the past, but using Nehru and Indira's name is fine?

Over the past two decades, the Congress has worked systematically to rewrite history as if the only leaders who mattered in its own, and India's, past were the Nehru-Gandhis. Nothing would have embarrassed Nehru more. Whatever his differences with his contemporaries, Patel, Netaji and even, at a stretch, Ambedkar, he had kept it within entirely democratic and liberal parameters, giving them all space and respect. In the post-1980s India, this has changed. Almost no new landmark has been named by a Congress government after a leader other than from the dynasty. Hyderabad's new cricket stadium and Mumbai's new sea link have both been named after Rajiv Gandhi, missing an opportunity to honour some other greats from these states. We know nobody in Congress would name anything after Narasimha Rao. But why not honour the memory of another figure from Andhra Pradesh, your own Channa Reddy or even NTR after all, even his daughter (Purandeswari) is a member of your coalition and a Central minister. This when both the airports in Hyderabad, old and new, are named after Rajiv Gandhi as well (only the domestic part of the old airport was named after NTR under the NDA, when Chandrababu Naidu was chief minister). And in Mumbai, why miss the chance of underlining the "fact" that Sardar Patel was yours too and naming the sea link after him instead? Or even Ambedkar who, like NTR, was not from the Congress, but has a legacy everybody competes for. Or Y.B. Chavan, arguably the greatest Maratha leader on the national stage ever.

Babu Jagjivan Ram was the Congress party's last great Dalit leader. We know that he had a bitter parting after the Emergency, but the party hasn't had a Dalit leader of that stature before or after. His daughter is the Lok Sabha speaker and is sometimes even mentioned among possible prime ministerial nominees in the capital's frequent whispers. But you will never hear a Congress leader today remembering Babuji, forget seeking votes in his name. So can you complain tomorrow if the BJP does so?

The BJP's problem is simpler, and more genuine. It has an insufficiently long past and an inadequate political history to find leaders from its own pantheon. Shyama Prasad Mookerjee, Deendayal Upadhyaya were very important leaders but very few outside the small circle of the saffron faithful know anything about them. And its two most important and if you may be forgiven for using that expression, iconic leaders, Vajpayee and Advani, are still around. The party, therefore, has a real problem. It is fine if it goes into the really distant past. Then it has Lord Ram, Krishna, Shiva and then, relatively more recent, Rana Pratap and Chhatrapati Shivaji. The Congress doesn't even complain, but the voters want some more contemporary names. That is why the BJP has no choice but to borrow and steal from the Congress.

It could argue, however, that history, and its greats, cannot be divided on partisan basis. Also, that it is not borrowing or stealing but only honouring those the Congress has forgotten. Sardar Patel was only the first Congress great to be adopted by the RSS and Jana Sangh, which had built an entire conspiratorial demonology around Nehru. As his principled rival in his party and government, Patel was chosen as a natural, posthumous "defector" by the Sangh ideologues. Lal Bahadur Shastri was the second. He paid rich compliments to the RSS during the 1965 war and was immediately hailed as a favoured nationalist, while Nehru was sent no thank-you card for doing even more during the 1962 war. Go to YouTube and watch the speeches of Baba Ramdev, Anna Hazare and then the footage of RSS rallies and exhibitions. Shastri has pride of place there, in voice and posters. Will you also now accuse the BJP of exploiting a truly great Indian like Shastri for partisan politics? Particularly when you had dumped him long ago?

The Sangh Parivar has indeed been unabashed in stealing some of its rival's legacy. The hailing of Indira Gandhi as Durga was clever and I have sometimes thought that I may just live long enough to see her also installed in the RSS iconography. If our politics follows the same pattern, with the Congress purging all but the Dynasty from its memory and the BJP happy to borrow, you might even see a similar "floor-crossing" for Manmohan Singh in decades to come. And why not Narasimha Rao as well. Although the Congress would then say, we always told you so.

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