The Congress spokesperson Janardan Dwivedi who is now at the centre of an intra-Congress controversy was only partially right when he suggested that Narendra Modi’s BJP was better able to connect with people’s sense of Indian-ness than his own party. While this assertion can also be taken to imply that Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi was perceived to be rootless and, by implication, less of an authentic Indian, the Congress’ apparent detachment from Indian moorings can’t be pinned on an individual alone.
Towards the final stages of the general election campaign, when the Congress’ position seemed quite hopeless, Rahul had called for a debate on the ‘idea of India’. The idea wasn’t original and he was merely echoing the agonised outpourings of ‘secular’ intellectuals who were expressing their sense of foreboding at a possible Modi victory in the editorial pages of English-language publications. In any case, at a time when the quality of governance and leadership were the key issues, it made absolutely no sense to posit an abstruse intellectual theme as an election issue. The ‘idea of India’ debate was a complete non-starter and the only people who took it seriously were a handful that wouldn’t have voted for the BJP in any case—whether Modi was the leader or L.K. Advani or even Atal Behari Vajpayee.
It is unfair to put words in the mouth of Dwivedi who, in any case, is having a hard time explaining his apparent show of disloyalty. However, it is entirely possible that Dwivedi—an old-style, Hindi-belt, Brahmin Congressman—may have had the Gandhi family’s ruinous flirtations with Left-inclined, cosmopolitan intellectuals in mind when he spoke about the Congress’ perceived detachment from India.
Over the past 10 years, and more specifically in the UPA Government’s second term in office, the Congress based its entire political appeal to the electorate on three themes. First, there was frenzied bid, first through the MNREGA and subsequently with the Right to Education Act and the Land Acquisition Act, to make entitlements at the centre of the political discourse. This Left social democratic and NGO-centric approach was the party’s 21st century variant of Indira Gandhi’s garibi hatao slogan that won elections but left the economy seriously under-performing.
The Congress failed to factor in the socio-economic shifts that had taken place after P.V. Narasimha Rao begand dismantling the over-regulated raj. In the process it failed to gauge the rising aspirations of an impatient youth and the restlessness of the middle classes that yearned for a prosperous India.
Secondly, by signalling that minorities had first claim on state resources—one of Manmohan Singh’s few overstatements—the party created a roadblock between the national identity and Hindu identity. After the Ayodhya movement, there were signs of an emerging gulf between the Congress’ self-image and those who consciously saw their Hinduness as an attribute of Indian nationhood. Rao tried hard to narrow the gap but Sonia Gandhi and her son increased it further. In cultural terms, this overdose of minorityism left the Congress detached from the central flow of Indian nationalism which is undeniably governed by a loose and unstated Hindu ethos.
Finally, in proffering a modernist and secular sense of nationhood—something that its favoured intellectuals passionately professed—the Congress tried to build an artificial construct that can best be equated with post-War Germany’s ‘constitutional patriotism.’ In war-ravaged Germany, trying hard to unburden itself of the grotesque legacy of Hitler and traces of an even earlier militarism, an adherance to the Constitution was seen as both expedient and necessary. Coupled with its enthusiastic endorsement of the European Union project, constitutional patriotism implied extricating the nationalist ‘virus’ from the bloodstream of the German people. It is interesting that the sudden promotion of the Constitution as the defining symbol of modern India began shortly after the Ayodhya movement had resurrected the forgotten doctrine of Hindutva. India’s alarmed secular intelligentsia, fearful of the nationalist drift which they equated with fascism, turned to the only available de-Nazification approach they were aware of.
The Constitution is a document of utmost significance in India, not least because it has endured for six decades with its basic character—the Preamble apart—broadly intact. The Supreme Court’s rulings had, in addition, insulated the basic freedoms from politically-inspired truncation. Today, there is a coss-party consensus over the need to uphold the Constitution—in his general election campaign Modi described it as his ‘holy book’. Yet, at the end of the day, the Constitution is a set of rules that governs India’s democratic process. It sets out the basic architecture, the façade, of governance but allows ample scope for internal modifications as and when necessary.
What the Constitution does not do and cannot do is establish the emotional basis of Indian nationhood. All viable nation-states are, to use the evocative expression of a historian, “imagined communities.” There is no one “idea of India”. India is an aggregation of a sense of belonging that is partly a consequence of history, partly shared cultures including beliefs in sacredness and partly a faith in the institutions of the state (including the Constititution). To try and establish a shared hierarchy of attachments is difficult and counter-productive. Yet, Indian nationhood would be woefully incomplete if all the elements that help shape India’s mentalities are not accommodated.
At one time the Congress was the great banyan tree that accommodated all the trends under its shade. Today, it is on the verge of transforming itself into a bonsai plant that is tailored to cosmopolitanand (by implication) less rooted sensibilities. It is for this reason, as even some Congress stalwarts are beginning to recognise, the Modi era signals a departure.
The 65th anniversay of the Republic is important not because the US President will be in India to celebrate the occasion. After a long period of drift, India has begun reclaiming itself.
Sunday Pioneer, January 24, 2015