Wednesday, Sep 04, 2002
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By Harish Khare
AS A society we have developed civilisational habits of creating and respecting taboos as ways of coping with collective pains. The same habits have now crept into our political domain. We have created any number of taboos. For example, Atal Behari Vajpayee's health. It is deemed outright bad taste for anyone to mention that the Prime Minister's poor health is a definite distraction from the task of coherent governance. Or, Lal Krishna Advani's failure as an administrator. No one is permitted to argue that this self-appointed political legatee of Sardar Patel has besmirched the Iron Man's legacy. Or, now, no one is to be allowed to talk of Sonia Gandhi's foreignness. The immediate impulse is to discern motives behind the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister's sudden resurrection of an issue that everyone pretended had long ago been "settled".
Nothing is "settled" in a democratic polity. The "foreigner" issue was first raised in 1999 when the Congress went before the nation with Ms. Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate; the country, instead, chose to prefer Mr. Vajpayee and the Congress ended up harvesting its lowest ever Lok Sabha tally. After this rebuff, the rest of the polity rightly regarded the "foreigner" issue as one that had to be sorted out within the Congress. And, the Congress swept it under the carpet; but like the proverbial dirt it stayed there, it did not go away.
Now when a Jayalalithaa decides to point out to the dirt, the professional dynasty-applauders are out in hordes, in defence of Ms. Gandhi. That is their dharma and they must perform it. But even outside this charmed circle of genuflecting Congressmen, there are many others who have felt unsettled by Ms. Jayalalithaa's onslaught; more so because, after all, Ms. Gandhi has indeed mobilised her party as a united and coherent voice against the state-sponsored barbarism that was witnessed recently in Gujarat. So many individuals who otherwise do not care for the Congress have rallied around her because the need to repulse the Narendra Modi onslaught was so self-evident and so urgent that there was no time to factor in Ms. Gandhi's flaws and limitations, including her all-too-obvious foreignness.
Even beyond this immediate urgency of rolling back the Gujarat-type experiment in officially-instigated violence, there are the larger considerations of decency and civilised behaviour that no democratic polity can ignore. The "Sonia the foreigner issue" does imply a category of insider and outsider. After all, in a plural and multicultural society like ours who is going to determine who is "us" and who is "them". And what would be the criterion for determining a citizen's qualification to be treated as one of us? Dress? Language? Accent? Deshbhakti? Or, religion? Every decent Indian felt revolted when a Narendra Modi calumniated a "James Michael Lyngdoh" as a lesser citizen and as a less than worthy constitutional functionary. If India has to travel on the path of inclusiveness and egalitarianism, then we will have to resist and reject artificial categories of "insiders" and "outsiders".
Nonetheless, even a constitutional sanction for this inclusiveness does not ipso facto "settle" the emotional issue whether a country of one billion people ought to be saddled with a "foreign born" Prime Minister whose only qualification for the job seems to be her perspicacious decision to marry a Prime Minister's son. The Congressmen may insist it is their business who they want as their president; but, the citizens do have a right to want to know everything about someone who has allowed herself to be convinced that membership by marriage into a particular family entitles her to rule this country. In this age of transparency and relentless scrutiny, no leader can feel exempt from uncomfortable questions about his past connections and choices. It is no use lamenting the culture of personalised attacks against Ms. Gandhi; it was the Congress that initiated this habit of denigrating its leader's political rivals as "Jai Chands" and "Mir Jaffars".
What is nonetheless gratifying is the fact that there is a deep disquiet within the Congress over Ms. Gandhi's questionable acceptability as the prime ministerial candidate. In private, all senior Congress leaders barring a handful of current courtiers agree that Ms. Gandhi does not have what it takes to be a leader in a country that is addicted to mass politics. None of them is under any illusion that she is there as party president because she is the most loved leader; each one of them knows how undesirable tactics and tacticians were used to acquire a stranglehold on the party apparatus. Moreover, four years is a long enough period for almost all senior Congress leaders to see for themselves that Ms. Gandhi lacks leadership qualities of competence, compassion, commitment and communication; her "foreignness" not only accentuates but also overshadows this leadership disability profile.
Some Congress leaders even sincerely insist that Ms. Gandhi herself knows that she would not be acceptable as the Prime Minister; this is one of those self-deluding myths we Indians are so good at inventing. None of these Congress leaders dare publicly suggest that she should take herself out of the prime ministerial sweepstakes. Then, there are those perennially convenient questions: who else is acceptable? Which other Congress leader can hold the party together? Indispensability and infallibility of the dynasty are part of the Congress hymnbook. Claims and demands made in the name of the dynasty have always taken precedence over national interests and the party's collective well-being.
But what may thus remain a taboo within the Congress will not necessarily inhibit the party's rivals. In fact, those who are bent upon imposing their majoritarian project on this country may prefer to have a soft target like Ms. Gandhi, whose nationalistic credentials would always sound a bit laboured and whose foreignness easily lends itself to be caricatured. The balance of political opportunities would continue to favour the Sangh Parivar as long as the Congress remains a prisoner of Ms. Gandhi's intrinsically flawed leadership.
Whatever may be Ms. Jayalalithaa's motives and compulsions in resurrecting the "Sonia Gandhi the foreigner" issue, there is no denying that very many wholesome and secular voices have felt helpless in the face of the all-too-inadequate leadership provided by Ms. Gandhi against the bumbling and bungling NDA arrangement. Had the Congress been led by someone more articulate, more self-assured than Ms. Gandhi, that leader would have gone to town over Mr. Advani's administrative stupidities and extra-constitutional ambitions. The BJP-led Government is simply begging to be kicked out of public affection but the Congress is stuck with the non-performing assets of its leader.
The Congress and its leaders are perfectly entitled to go on insisting that Ms. Gandhi would be their prime ministerial mascot; and then it will be up to the voters to decide, as they did in 1999. A voter votes as much for a candidate because he may prefer his party or leader as because he does not want the other party's candidate or its leader. But the nation elects more than a Prime Minister because a Prime Minister is not someone who just occupies an office. One can be a Deve Gowda or an I. K. Gujral, and no one except the SPG would notice the Prime Minister. A Prime Minister has to be a leader who knows, understands, breathes the nation; one who can move the nation, make its citizens dream dreams, incite them to a higher collective purpose, inspire them to discover the depth of their own goodness, innovation and moral anchorage. The Congressmen should be grateful to Ms. Jayalalithaa that she has provided them one more opportunity to evaluate the assets and liabilities of their leader.
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