Expert Speak India Matters
Published on Feb 10, 2016
How nature abhors a vacuum

Desperate to overturn and deride the Congress legacy, the BJP under PM Modi chose a designated path of appropriation of Congress icons. This in turn unleashed a revision of Nehruvian ideals and his idea of India. JFK said that history is a relentless master, it has no present, only the past rushing into the future. To try to hold fast is to be swept aside, he added. So when Modi disdainfully attempted to revise history by appropriating Congress icons sequentially, it was a path fraught with enormous risk. Modi chose the Congress icons carefully and systematically, for he looked for leaders who had got lost in the din of the Nehru-Gandhi clutter. It was a brave decision. Chip away at Congress icons, only the ones who had been dwarfed by the larger than life imagery and projected personas of the Nehru-Gandhi years. So, start with fellow Gujarati - Sardar Patel - whose contribution to the unification of India cannot be questioned or challenged for most part. During his tenure as Gujarat CM, Modi began this process of subliminally and surreptitiously taking control of Congress icons. By the time, he came to power in May, 2014, he was doing it openly. Despite having no ideological leanings to these Congress icons, he hijacked them one by one.

And since appropriating Sardar Patel, he has systematically done the same to Mahatma Gandhi, Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Netaji Subhas Bose, Dr B. R. Ambedkar and even Sarvodaya leader Jaiprakash Narayan. One would like to believe that all these tall leaders have been given their due place in the pantheon of Indian political leadership, and while that maybe true, it is an exercise to emasculate the current Congress party leadership for being insular and egotistical. The Congress' blinkered and myopic view of history is also responsible for this appropriation for it has been partisan in its understanding of its own icons. It has focused too much on the 'familia' and chosen to ignore how the Grand Old Party itself toiled arduously for Indian freedom. With the Congress guilty of not adequately boosting its freedom movement icons, Modi very smartly sneaked in and wrapped them up one after the other. It is to Modi's credit and to the detriment of the Congress leadership that Modi operated like a stealth bomber under their very nose. Out of sight is out of mind and Modi has brought these men and women back to national mind space.

This insularity practiced by the Congress in recent times cost it electorally and worked to Modi's advantage. Now as India lurches from one election to another and hustings beckon once again in four important states (perhaps a fifth as well for J & K appears to be headed for snap polls) - Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Kerala and Assam. It is incumbent in two of the four and doesn't have a chance in TN and WB. The aggregation of the Hindu vote behind Modi and not the BJP led to a decisive mandate being secured by Modi. Of the four states that will go to the polls - Assam has 34 per cent Muslim vote, West Bengal over 27 per cent and Kerala 26 per cent. Over time, the Congress became the messiah of the minority community, but this too has seen major fragmentation with new players vying for the vote banks. So the Congress appropriation of the Muslim vote too has seen erosion and consequent consolidation of the Hindu vote against it. The Delhi and Bihar polls however, give it hope that is not lost. These polls have shown that the BJP has got its top of the pyramid and bottom of the pyramid calculus completely wrong. In fact, Bihar's caste calculus saw it get a bloody nose. Consolidation of all hues of anti Modi and BJP forces is the only way forward for the Congress in the short to medium term. A rainbow alliance where it is a fringe player tying up with more powerful actors to survive till it identifies its new DNA of socio-economic and political expediency.

From Teachers Day (S Radhakrishnan) to Swach Bharat Abhiyan (Mahatma Gandhi) from Constitution Day (B R Ambedkar) to Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana (Jaiprakash Narayan), from Jai Jawan Jai Kisan and aggressively celebrating 50th anniversary of the 1965 War (Lal Bahadur Shastri) to declassification of Bose files (Subhas Bose), this selective selection of Congress icons is deliberate and is an instrumentality to hurt the Congress psyche. Brutalised by this attack, Congress has tried hitting back at the Congress, not looking at itself in the mirror for ignoring the achievements of her own icons. The only disconcerting part in this narrative of appropriation is whitewashing the Nehruvian years. This can be done only at your own peril, for Nehru and his legacy simply cannot be ignored. Nor can Mrs Indira Gandhi's contribution be ignored. You can revile her, but you cannot ignore her contribution to Indian history. Here is lady who decapitated Pakistan and created a new nation, detonated a nuclear device when you were nothing but a third world country, swallowed Sikkim whole without batting an eyelid, and then threw everything away by declaring emergency, and she deserves her place in Indian history.

From the right, Modi has traversed through this appropriation process to the centre of India's political space. It is clear minded and his posthumous appropriation of the myth of Subhas Bose's death is a classic example of plugging and playing into hearts and minds of pan-Bengali nationalism in a year when there are elections in the state. On his 119th birth anniversary, he released 100 files of no real consequence, but chose to announce that every month a cache of 25 more files will be released through a website.

Modi's chosen path of appropriation is a well thought out plan to occupy centrist space, but since nature abhors a vacuum, the Congress is equally guilty of vacating that space to the Prime Minister by ignoring other tall leaders within its fold. The PM has chosen to risk failure by walking down this road and this is a lesson for the inward looking Congress to unfetter itself from its recent dogmatic history. Its experiment in diarchy allowed malfeasance to breed within its innards till became malignant. Reclaiming its centrist position by articulating its avowed politics in a pro active manner is the way forward for the Congress in its quest to rebuild its shattered reputation. For Modi too, he has to revert to his development and growth objectives and provide succour to Indians with implementable and time bound policies. Otherwise, the clock is ticking.

The author is a senior journalist and commentator based in New Delhi.

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Ritika Prasad

Ritika Prasad

Ritika Prasad Student Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS)

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