Gandhi Versus Gandhi


Super Mod
Mar 24, 2009
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Continuity for change. Sounds paradoxical, but that may well be the message that India's electorate wants every one of us in the chattering and political classes to hear.

That seeming paradox becomes a clear statement if you reflect a moment on how an old man and a young man, working together yet separately, crafted a spectacular victory for the United Progressive Alliance, led by the Congress party, in the just-concluded general election. It becomes clearer, starkly so, if you contrast the public personalities and political approaches of two Gandhis in the recent fray, Rahul and Varun. The stage of their contest was one state, Uttar Pradesh, but their sharply contrasting characters and styles encapsulated what was going on in the national mind as we voted our preferences.

Obviously at one level, the verdict was for continuity. The Indian people chose not to change the cockpit crew at a time of high expectations soaring ever higher in the midst of severe economic and security turbulence. Manmohan Singh is that greybeard commander who quietly, and without bravado, guides those expectations towards potential fulfilment, warning all the while that it will be a long and difficult journey. He is the man who began a process of change in economic direction when he was finance minister nearly two decades ago; and he was prime minister during the last five years when India's economy, during much of the tenure, grew at around 9 per cent and the nation began to reach out to the world as an aspiring global player.

The changes in our worldview necessary to achieve that aspiration were once again initiated by the good doctor, who firmly concluded a deal with the United States that enabled India to circumvent an international sanctions regime and rejoin the world community as a full member. Today, as a leading participant of the G-20 and a key player in the global fight against terrorism, India's status in the world as a power that must be included in any consultation over global crises is established, though it remains way behind China in projecting power perceptions as well as in economic achievement.

So, why change the crew in mid-flight? Change is happening and fast, even as we know that we have eons to go in our search for prosperity and peace. Continuing the journey with a steady hand in charge of our collective destiny is what we need, said the electorate.

But it was the contest in UP between the two Gandhi cousins that delivered an equally significant message. Varun was all saffron flame and brimstone; Rahul was mostly modesty and patience. Varun fired up crowds with hate-talk that even his party, the BJP, found disconcerting; Rahul, in consultation with key advisers, chose a go-it-alone campaign strategy that made his party whoop in delight when the results came in.

Varun, though young, projects a mindset of an old India, in which people define their identities in ethnic, caste and community colours; hatred, suspicion and settling old scores come naturally to them. Rahul is more about getting on with the job, keeping a goal in steady focus and tolerating, even celebrating, differences; as a result, the Congress ended up with much more support, a lot of it apparently from minorities who had sailed away to other ports, while the BJP, which was expected to do relatively well, stayed where it was five years ago.

OK, it wasn't just Varun and Rahul who determined the outcome in UP. But, in a sense, their respective mindsets symbolised the contrasting ideological positions that contested for mastery over the soul of India. In Varun's view, the majority must first define its group identity, keep the 'other' separate from 'us', and then build a muscular nation in which a monolithic majority rules, perhaps benevolently as in Ram's time, to make this country rise to a shining peak of success. Rahul, on the other hand, seems thoughtfully confused about any singular identity of a majority community which can resurrect Ram Rajya in this day and age. In this view, all citizens in a secular nation belong to a minority of one kind or the other; only Indians constitute a collective, widely diverse, majority. It's a salad bowl. Don't risk trying to make it a melting pot of steely identity.

Rahul's view we don't know whether he is conscious of it triumphed. Varun's view, by contrast, should send the BJP into a huddle now that it has a chance to reflect seriously on its future. There is a wide space for a truly conservative party in India, not a culturally regressive one but one that has come to terms with modernity. It can have a free-market orientation while it advocates slowing the pace of change and building up an exceptional Indian identity. In its present form, the BJP will find it hard to survive politically.

Unless it changes its worldview in tune with the times, it will face the fate of the communists, euphemistically called the Left in this country. Communism hasn't survived as a debatable doctrine in any other serious democracy. Social democracy, on the other hand, not only survives, it has gained ground as a progressive, modern, market-friendly alternative to the exhortations of extreme free-market ideologues, who believe the state has no role to play in development other than to protect property and fight wars. There's a need in India for such a liberal democratic space too.

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