Given the discussion occasioned by Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the University of California, Berkeley on Tuesday – a rare instance of a member of the Gandhi family deigning to address their subjects directly – it may be apposite to offer an account of the proceedings as witnessed by a bystander. The people in attendance were given a chance to ask questions via comment cards. Since mine, for understandable reasons, was not selected, I am grateful for this opportunity to ask it again.
Gandhi began by declaring his affiliation, and of his party, with the idea of ahimsa, or non-violence, as explicated by Mohandas Gandhi. Somewhat mystifyingly, he described as the “basis” of non-violence the Indian principle of “ideas having people” rather than the reverse, which he finds prevalent in the West. Thus, we were told, the only means to overcome a person “infected” with a bad idea was love and compassion, not violence. Only a little later, however, we learned that the supposed success of his party’s efforts in Kashmir – in which he was secretly involved for nine years – was based on “denying space” to anti-India ideas. Should the philosophy of ahimsa be judged by euphemisms of love and compassion given what the Congress has done to people who have questioned, during its rule, the party’s idea of India?
The claim to ahimsa was just one instance of Gandhi’s frighteningly cynical disdain for the truths of which most Indians are aware. In a similar vein, we heard the Partition impersonally described as “the bloodiest migration in human history” rather than a catastrophe in which the Congress leadership was deeply implicated, against the wishes of the Mahatma. For his party and his ancestors, Gandhi claimed the successes of increasing food production, literacy and education, and computerisation. He did not, however, acknowledge the failures of the policies his party imposed on the country, of which Indians are, again, all too aware. The blame for the distortion in agricultural production, manifest in the suicide by hundreds of thousands of farmers, and the continuing failure of educational and healthcare systems cannot be laid entirely at the Congress’s door. But no acknowledgement was made of any mistakes or errors other than a sense of “arrogance” that had crept into the party before the last election in 2014.
Indeed, a cavalier disregard for his subjects’ faculty of thought marked the tenor of Gandhi’s discourse. Thus, we were astonished to learn from him that the Congress deserved credit for both the nationalisation of banks in 1969 and the liberalisation of the economy in 1991. I can only liken this to demanding gratitude for both the virtuous suffering of demonetisation and the kindly gift of remonetisation – a pitch of shamelessness not yet achieved even by the spin doctors of the current Bharatiya Janata Party regime.
Bundle of contradictions
Although Gandhi laudably emphasised the necessity of job-creation, he offered no clue as to how his party might achieve it. In one breath we were told about the importance of small and medium enterprises, which in his vision would be seamlessly linked to the global economy, and in the next we were informed that India would “be the best” at doing heart surgeries because of patient volumes. More ominously, Gandhi told us that an even more important asset than such skills in the global marketplace of healthcare would be India’s genetic diversity. Unless he envisages the government claiming copyright on the DNA of every citizen – or perhaps we are to each peddle our DNA in online marketplaces – it is difficult to imagine how our genes would lift us out of poverty. Having mocked the “western academics” who warned of India’s failure in the years after independence, Gandhi then made precisely the same threat of the country’s collapse, if his party were not restored to its rightful place at India’s helm.
So much for what was said. Now reflect on what Gandhi could not bring himself to say. Missing from his discourse was the question of India’s rapidly-degrading environment, which is making life increasingly unliveable for all but the elites. How will the competing claims for economic growth and environmental protection and restoration be adjudicated in the context of a warming planet? On the alienation of Kashmiris and other peoples from the Indian republic – a failure of the idea of India for which the Congress must bear the blame – Gandhi sanguinely reduced political grievances to economic issues.
Reminded of his party’s shameful record of protecting the perpetrators of the 1984 ant-Sikh riots, Gandhi assured us that no one loves the Sikh community more than him. But the small crowd of elderly Sikh men tearfully shouting themselves hoarse in the drizzle outside the auditorium where Gandhi was speaking, each of whom must bear the scars of the day a big tree fell, surely did not want his love. For them, perhaps, and for people in Kashmir and the North East on whom the Congress regime inflicted the violence Gandhi smugly decried, a start might be made with an institutional admission of guilt, a public act of soul-searching, and the identification of perpetrators.
Gandhi alluded in passing to the process of institutional reform in the Congress – which appears to be proceeding with just the speed and efficiency for which the party has come to be recognised – even as he declared his readiness for the top job. Such glibness would be less infuriating if the country were not on fire. It is troubling that, even as he earnestly advocated decentralisation of power in governance, he brazenly joked that dynasty was a way of life in India. No amount of comfort with contradiction, sadly characteristic of the Congress, can resolve the brutal opposition between the practice of democracy and the rule of one family. “We want no Caesars,” Nehru wrote, anonymously, against himself in 1937. How shall we communicate to his descendants how much less India needs Caligulas or Neros? That no one should be indispensable at a moment of national crisis is a fundamental truth that the Congress, in its current state, is no longer capable of grasping. But, as the common lament that nightly floats to the country’s skies has it, surely in this land of 1.3 billion souls, there are thousands of thoughtful and wise persons waiting to revitalise the party of Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru.
For all that, then, only one question remains worth asking of Gandhi, a question from which he should no longer be shielded: when, for the love of country and party, will you step down?
Abhishek Kaicker teaches Indian history at the University of California, Berkeley.