New Pioneer Oped: For the Congress, what Matters Most is Symbolism

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.


9 comments for “New Pioneer Oped: For the Congress, what Matters Most is Symbolism

  1. Amit
    April 15, 2012 at 9:01 PM

    “This is an issue that has affected me for a lot of years. Why didn’t opposition parties in the states (and in the centre from 1998 to 2004) not undo this ecosystem. if the NDA / BJP ever comes back to power, and if it does not do something about renaming everything named after the Nehru-Gandhi family, I will not vote the BJP (of I will press the “None of the above” when it becomes reality).”

    For a very simple reason – as long as these issues are alive and relevant, there’s a chance for BJP to use them as a plank during elections and come to power. Besides, a party in power has to be careful about re-naming institutions, because if they can re-name when in power, the opposition can do the same when it comes to power.

  2. nash
    April 15, 2012 at 1:04 PM

    to Rajarshi

    I assume you are living in india.Some years back the great leaders of this country took a decision and had a tryst with the destiny.In that tryst of destiny a new idea was born and that was SECULARISM.The Secularism here is simple, to equal the excellence of all that this land created to the lowest common factor,or never to give the headlines at all.One more thing you should be in less in number category to avail this BEYOND MEANS facility.The more in number category are just waking up here and there and still do not match the numbers of less in number category.Hence the Symbolism of Taj which represents all that is sad and depressing gets the due which it does not deserve.

  3. Rajarshi
    April 14, 2012 at 7:27 PM

    Speaking of symbolism can anyone please tell me why the Taj Mahal has attained such a hallowed status? Over the years it has become a representation of India. Intellectuals have completely ignored the brilliant architectutre of Indian temples and have proclaimed the mausoleum to be the pinnacel of Indian art. The Taj is nothing but an ostentatious display of vanity. Naive and gullible people consider it to be a symbol of love but of course they are either ignorant or delusional, thousands of labourers must have been exploited and subjugated to erect this monument of eternal ‘love’. Bollywood and other media sources should stop perpetuating false notions.

  4. February 29, 2012 at 3:29 PM

    This is an issue that has affected me for a lot of years. Why didn’t opposition parties in the states (and in the centre from 1998 to 2004) not undo this ecosystem. if the NDA / BJP ever comes back to power, and if it does not do something about renaming everything named after the Nehru-Gandhi family, I will not vote the BJP (of I will press the “None of the above” when it becomes reality).

    This is an issue that deserves a full-fledged ministry and a full-fledged budget! And the BJP better do something about it if it wants to become a serious political party.

  5. Jayesh
    February 23, 2012 at 9:42 PM

    @Itachi, that was great observation..

  6. Rete
    February 23, 2012 at 7:41 AM

    haha I liked Itachi’s observation.. Modi’s pic, in every single newspaper or website, makes him look as though he is plotting how best to massacre people. I dont understand why. Does the man never smile?

  7. ItAcHi
    February 21, 2012 at 2:16 PM

    Another thing is how the media plays with our subconscious mind … By a careful choice of words, a certain image is built progressively in our need of explicit feet licking or worshipping (incindentally recently a tamil congress MP said he would always remain by Sonia ji’s feet-literally) but a gentle procedure which ensures that the mention of the first family generates feelings of affection/awe/respect in the common Indian mind, while all the detractors generate feelings of uneasiness. A pic of priyanka pinching sonia’s cheek was displayed recently in the media in a sufficiently big size – affectionate, cute,likeable – nowhere does a pic of modi in a light mood come-everytime its about yet another sob story of riot and denied justice, with a snapshot of modi looking ominous.

  8. DD
    February 21, 2012 at 1:41 PM

    Great post!
    Congress has used these images to sustain their position in the minds of the populace.Through visual imagery and by adding their names to innumerable government projects they have impinged the public consciousness, as the supreme redeemers of this country.Even a person devoid of any political knowledge is well versed in the grand endevours of this great dynasty.They have ceased to be a party; they are running a parallel system in itself, flouting the law at every opportunity.

  9. Jay
    February 21, 2012 at 1:40 PM

    As always…a great blogpost bandhu!

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