The ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) response to Congress president Rahul Gandhi’s comments on the state of the Indian nation is more revealing than the comments themselves. Gandhi’s comments, made in Germany and the United Kingdom, are fairly commonplace, while the BJP’s responses betray the stock ideological pathologies of the party.
To sum up as briefly as possible, the Congress president, like the eponymous ‘girl’ in Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy, kicked the hornet’s nest in Hamburg on Wednesday by making an important point: that exclusion and marginalisation often force people to reject the system and act outside of it to redress their grievances. To use a not particularly felicitous cliché, they take the law into their own hands.
By way of elaboration, Gandhi pointed to the exclusionary policies forced on Iraq by the United States, which led to the growth of the Islamic State in Syria. He went on to say that exclusionary regimes ran the risk of creating insurgencies that become monstrous and expressed disquiet at the BJP government’s policy of excluding many groups of people, ‘tribals, poor farmers, lower caste people and minorities’, from the development process.
In London, on Friday, he compared the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist group which originated in Egypt and is banned as a terrorist organisation in a number of countries. Gandhi was making a specific point: that the RSS was trying to change the consensus that undergirded India and capture the country’s institutions. The specific point of the comparison was that both organisations believed that ‘one ideology should run through every single institution’ and crush all other ideas.
The BJP’s reaction to both speeches, inimitably articulated by party spokesman Sambit Patra, was mainly hysterical and over the top. In response to the Hamburg speech, Patra said Gandhi had tried to justify terrorism and denigrated the minorities by suggesting that they would ‘sell their soul to an alternative idea of IS’ if there weren’t enough jobs for them. In response to the London speech, Patra asked a series of questions that could be treated as purely rhetorical: Was Gandhi a contract killer hired to kill the idea of India? Was India governed by a terrorist organisation? Elaborating on the second question, he wondered how the RSS could destroy institutions and concluded that Gandhi had used the RSS as a proxy for the BJP.
The main point Gandhi made at Hamburg may have been a trifle simplistic. That can, however, be forgiven because Gandhi is a politician who was making a political speech; he wasn’t presenting a paper at an academic conference. The substance of what he said was, however, quite unexceptionable; it has been made in many contexts by learned dons, political commentators and other practitioners of power: which was that exclusion breeds resentment and creates alienation in many forms.
In fact, that is a pretty stock explanation for the violence in India’s public life, in which Bharat, marginalised in many ways by India, exacts its revenge by rejecting and attacking the latter’s liberal paradigms.
As far as the London speech goes, Gandhi may not have been very diplomatic in his choice of comparison, but the point he made is completely valid both for the RSS and its ideological and political front, the BJP. Both these organisations cleave to and practise a majoritarian and exclusivist ideology on which their politics is based. This ideology is, moreover, centred on a fundamentalist reading of the history of the sub-continent and the substance of the ‘Hindu’ religion and promotes an obscurantist version of the ‘idea of India’.
We can now address Patra’s points, which are also those of the BJP, since he is the party spokesman. To dispose of a detail first, Patra’s rhetorical question about how the RSS can destroy institutions, since it does not make appointments to positions in them, can charitably be called disingenuous. Those not so charitable-minded could call it risible. The RSS does, in fact, make appointments to all key institutions – through the BJP. The fiction that the former is a ‘cultural’ organisation that has only the most tenuous of links to its political front does not deserve serious rebuttal.
More important is the seamless conflation, practised by practically all BJP leaders of note, of the nation with the BJP and the Sangh parivar. Thus, someone who criticises the RSS becomes a contract killer hired to assassinate the ‘idea of India’.
Thus, too, a comparison between the RSS-BJP and the Muslim Brotherhood is construed as ‘denigration’ of and insult to the country.
As a matter of fact, there are innumerable ‘ideas’ of India as historians of ‘subaltern’ India demonstrated in the 1980s. Fortunately, despite the fact that the BJP is in power, the Sangh's idea of India, with its majoritarian, authoritarian overtones, is not the dominant one. Many would like to think that the more expansive idea of India, associated with India’s first prime minister, is still most salient.
Let us not get into a comparison, before we end, between the tenor of Gandhi’s speeches and Patra’s responses, though they do say a lot. Let us end by reflecting on the business of what one is allowed to say about the affairs of one’s country within its borders and what is proscribed when one is outside the country.
Gandhi was taking on the main political opponent of his party, one which routinely ‘denigrates’ its political opponents at home and abroad. There is no reason why the Congress president should not excoriate the RSS in London, just as there is no reason why the prime minister should not take potshots at the Congress when he is in Canada, Germany or China.
There is an issue, in the latter case, of being mindful of the dignity of high office. But that should apply anywhere. Election speeches can be made, and opponents oratorically crucified, without plumbing the depths.
Updated Date: Aug 25, 2018 17:30 PM