This was published today in the Pioneer. Comments and criticism welcome as always.
By deftly using state power to promote the party’s first family, the Congress has created a unique political ecosystem. The media has collaborated.
The Uttar Pradesh Assembly election has seen the media beaming footage of the Nehru-Gandhi family’s adventures in deception. Those who still harbour illusions about the media’s neutrality need to look at the Assembly election coverage. So why does the media stand so steadfastly by the Congress? And why does it portray the only other national party in nothing but the worst hues? It’s not as if the NDA didn’t cultivate this same media when it was in power. Equally, it’s nobody’s contention that the NDA was an assemblage of saints.
It helps to cultivate some historical sense to find out the answer to these questions. Let’s start with a recent instance.
Ms Mamata Banerjee’s decision to rename Indira Bhawan as Nazrul Bhawan is a measure of her political acumen. The way outraged Congress workers instantly took to the streets simply proves that her decision was bang on the target. Some angry responses from Congress leaders are telling:
Says West Bengal State Congress leader Arunavo Ghosh: “How can you rename a building which has historic importance? It is just like renaming Taj Mahal as Rabindra Mahal.”
Thunders Congress MP Deepa Dasmunshi: “Congress activists are emotional about that building as it is the same building where Mrs Indira Gandhi had stayed for a few days. This is a strategy to erase everything associated with the Congress tradition.”
The implicit assumption with these two worthies, like everybody else in that party, is that Congress’s tradition is equal to India’s political tradition. This isn’t merely a slugfest between two political parties. It’s almost a textbook illustration of the power of symbolism in building, nurturing and sustaining political parties. The same Congress that now accuses Ms Banerjee of erasing “everything associated with the Congress tradition (sic)” did exactly the same to the BJP once it came to power in 2004. A telling example is the Golden Quadrilateral.
When the Congress came to power in 2004, only 20 per cent of work on the Golden Quadrilateral was incomplete. But one of the first things it did was to inaugurate the just-completed Delhi-Jaipur expressway and prominently affix Ms Sonia Gandhi’s and Mr Manmohan Singh’s names to the ceremony. What that symbolises need not be elaborated.
Then there was the question of the incomplete highways. What did the Congress do? It did nothing. Vast stretches of the Golden Quadrilateral in various sectors remained dug up: Mounds of excavated earth remained heaped by the wayside. Some stretches were virtual deathtraps at night for about seven long years. Finally, in 2012, the NHAI “declared” that the Golden Quadrilateral was complete.
Perhaps the worthies in the Congress reckoned that seven years was sufficient time for people to forget that Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the original architect of networking all of India by laying world-class highways. It makes sense because now when you travel on that highway all you see are massive hoardings of Ms Gandhi, Mr Singh and Mr Rahul Gandhi extolling the virtues of safe driving and the other heart-warming things. Public memory is also symbolism.
Like in art, symbolism cannot work in a vacuum. In the context of politics, it needs a well-carved out ecosystem to germinate, grow, and thrive. For the Congress, this ecosystem was created by Jawaharlal Nehru who was an extremely shrewd politician. He was certainly not creative or original enough to coin any sort of symbolism on his own. However, he compensated these defects with astute shrewdness.
This quality helped him create a vast political ecosystem with himself as its core. He kept weak and subservient men around him and had nary an alternative power centre, both within the party and Government. He not only appropriated Gandhi but refashioned the freedom struggle to mean that his Congress was the one that liberated India from the British. He placated the influential lobby of the Gandhians by creating places for them in the Government and academia. Besides, he already had the mantle of being Bapu’s ‘chosen inheritor’.
Nehru used his 17 uninterrupted years in power to carefully nurture this ecosystem and it reaped a harvest beyond anybody’s wildest imagination. The first of the symbolisms slowly began to emerge. Roads, parks, airports, schools, colleges, bus terminals, and awards were named after him. People who wrote about Nehru’s in glowing terms were rewarded according to their merit and ability — this in turn spawned a micro-specialisation branch in the genre of biographical literature.
His daughter took this template to newer heights. Apart from getting roads and buildings and parks and hospitals named after her, it was during her tenure that the Jawaharlal Nehru University was set up for the advancement of everything that’s wrong with India today. The walls of Government offices and police stations now had an extra photo.
Next, Rajiv Gandhi topped the list of having roads, airports, ports, national parks, sports festivals, hospitals, foundations, research institutions, State-funded projects, awards, scholarships, and fellowships named after him.
Every single instance cited so far is symbolism in some form. What this symbolism has achieved is this: Look anywhere in India, you simply cannot escape the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s presence. The fact that this monumental, 60-plus years of continuing deceit perpetuated by one family on the entire nation’s psyche is nothing but the work of sheer genius. The fact that it was done right under our noses and seemingly with our consent is the icing.
It is this ecosystem that continually creates and sustains small-scale industries and gigantic corporations of every hue and persuasion devoted to manufacturing praise, support, and defence of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Which is why the media didn’t become Congress-friendly after 2004: It was an organic growth and fruition made possible by this ecosystem.
The power of such an ecosystem is that the ones at the top don’t really need to seek out people to support and/or defend it. A Sanjiv Bhatt will volunteer his services risking everything he has. Alleged historians write hagiographies praising the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and spew venom at its opponents. It is this ecosystem which sets the tone of political discourse.