Sharad Pawar, perhaps the wiliest old fox of Indian politics, says he has “not seen so much bitterness” in the house. In aTimes of India interview, he adds that when politicians at the highest level make personal attacks, the atmosphere will be embittered. His views, made in the context of the complete washout of the monsoon session, thanks to aggressive disruptions instigated by Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, and which finally resulted in the sharp and personalised counter-attack by Sushma Swaraj on the Gandhi family yesterday (12 August), beg the question: why is Indian politics so personal and bitter today?
There are actually two answers to this question, but before we come to that let us be clear that the bitterness is usually not about actual policies pursued by a party in power. It is also not about corruption, though that may cause a ruckus. Caste and religion do provide some sparks of bitterness, but this animosity usually plays out in the political arena, seldom resulting in personal attacks on leaders.
There are two reasons why personalised attacks have become so common in recent years. One is generic; the other is specific to one party.
First, all parties – barring the Left and BJP – are run like family businesses or personal fiefs. This automatically lends itself to personal attacks even if the differences are about policy. Thus M Karunanidhi and J Jayalalithaa are not only political rivals, but personal enemies. Mulayam Singh and Mayawati are not only caste warriors, but personal foes. Till Narendra Modi became a threat to everybody, Nitish “Chandan” Kumar was a bitter antagonist to Lalu “Bhujang” Prasad, as Modi evocatively reminded his audience at Gaya a few days ago. The generic cause of personal bitterness lies in the dynastic or individual-based party structures in India – outside the BJP and Left.
The second – and specific – reason relates to the Gandhi family. Personal poison has hit national politics today because the main national party of yesterday, the Congress, has become the long-term personal property of one family. Barring a brief period from 1991-1996, this family has always run the Congress party. The family feels threatened by the rise of another national party whose leader is not a dynast, and this poses a potent threat to the idea of dynasties being inevitable in Indian politics.
The rise of Modi’s BJP is a direct threat to the Gandhi family’s control of the Congress because it challenges the idea of the party as family property. Modi’s unexpected rise, despite the forces ranged against him, demonstrate a simple point: that talented individuals can rise from nowhere to become No 1. Just as in business the Narayana Murthys and Sachin Bansals have challenged the hegemony of family-based businesses, in politics, Modi is the disrupter of family-based politics.
It is no surprise that Modi’s tactics and strategies are now being copied by ambitious politicians everywhere – from Arvind Kejriwal, who abandoned his Aam Aadmi avatar to become AAP’s sole face, to Nitish Kumar, and even Akhilesh Yadav in UP. All these leaders have realised that the people are looking for new leaders who can solve problems. Family-based parties are fine, as long as they seem to provide talented leaders with new ideas for India. At one point, even Kanshi Ram and Mayawati provided that new idea. This is exactly what the Congress party’s First Family is afraid of – that talent will trump political inheritance at some point.
If one were to look back at recent events, it is obvious that it is not the Congress party, but Sonia Gandhi and Rahul who have been at the forefront of aggressive behaviour in parliament and outside. Yesterday, even taciturn Sonia rushed to the well of the house, showing her true nature. The disruptions during Sushma Swaraj’s speech were often instigated by Sonia herself, and the sharp personal attacks – whether on Modi or Swaraj – were made by Rahul.
The Sonia-Rahul effort to disrupt parliament is driven by two fears – that if they do not lead the chaos, their party’s most ambitious leaders could revolt and break off to form their own regional outfits (as Sharad Pawar and Mamata Banerjee did in the past). It should be more than obvious to anyone that young leaders like Jyotiraditya Scindia and Sachin Pilot are any day more capable than Rahul Gandhi, and the only thing holding them back is the reality that the Congress is currently Gandhi family property, and no one is allowed to outshine them.
The second fear of the Gandhi family is narrow and personal: they suspect that sooner or later, the real estate capers of Robert Vadra and Sonia and Rahul themselves (as evidenced in the National Herald property grab) will make them legally and politically vulnerable.
The “maa-beta” aggression is probably intended as a pre-emptive strike, so that in case the legal situation turns against them, they can claim political vendetta. Rahul Gandhi has already been muttering darkly about vendetta politics.
If Narendra Modi wants to ensure that future sessions of parliament are not washed out, he has rework his slogan of “Congress-mukt Bharat.” What India needs is a Gandhi-mukt Congress. His focus must be on strengthening the non-family leaders inside Congress and the non-Congress parties, so that over time the Congress party becomes more regionalised and hence more amenable to rational politics. The Congress has a rightful place in Indian politics; the same cannot be said of the Gandhi family’s place in the Congress, leave alone national politics.
Despite fighting a bitter battle in Bengal, Modi and Mamata Banerjee have found a way to work together. Despite calling Sharad Pawar’s NCP a “naturally corrupt party,” Modi and Pawar are more then willing to schmooze when needed.
Compromise in national and regional politics is possible as long as parties and leaders are able to work out their long-term interests and do deals. The reason why no deal is really possible with the Congress is the Gandhi family whose interests may not be coterminus with even Congress interests. The Congress exists for the Gandhi family rather than the other way round.
Modi would be doing India a big service if he works unceasingly to free the Congress party from the Gandhi family by encouraging the younger leaders to strike out on their own. Sushma Swaraj’s highly personalised attack on Sonia and Rahul is a good beginning.