In Bhitti, his autobiography, Dr. S.L Bhyrappa narrates an eyewitness account of a series of rallies held in Delhi during the infamous Syndicate vs Indicate episode towards the end of the 1960s. These rallies had but a singular aim: to show the “Syndicate” that Mrs. Gandhi enjoyed a massive and popular support. Dr. Bhyrappa recounts how different groups and unions and associations—the Shoemakers, Association, the Garlic Sellers’ Association, the Hawkers’ Association, the Daily Wage Labourers’ Association, and so on—used to take out massive rallies almost every day. Sometimes, multiple rallies were taken out on the same day, and all such rallies inevitably culminated at Indira Gandhi’s residence with frenzied slogan-shouting in her support. They would submit letters, requests, pleas, and pledges of support to her. She in turn would promise to speedily alleviate their suffering, and would sport a reassuring wave of her hand. Dr. Bhyrappa joined the crowd by suitably disguising himself—wearing tattered clothes and no footwear. He struck a rapport with some of the people in the crowd and learned that these were concocted crowds—a middleman (dalal) with links to Congress party leaders was responsible to muster crowds. The greater the number he mustered, the heftier was his cut. In turn, he used to pay each rally-participant about five or ten Rupees per appearance. Dr. Bhyrappa describes how he attended several of these rallies and noticed how he saw the same faces in almost every rally—the same person used to be a “member” of the Garlic Sellers’ Association, the Hawkers’ Association and so on. Of course, to the average Indian citizen of today, this is nothing new—the bus-biryani-booze method of gathering large crowds is too commonplace to even stir our notice—but that’s precisely the point: to trace the roots of the debasement of politics and democracy, and to hold a mirror to the extent to which we’ve become immune to this kind of profanity that has infected all aspects of public life.
Needless, such gimmicks translated to handsome electoral gains for Mrs. Gandhi. However, these gimmicks also contained the seeds of the eventual destruction of the Congress party. Within just two decades, the Congress party in 1989 suffered a drubbing from which it has never recovered. These seeds were characterized by a mastery of the vile art of duping the voter and the hubris that results from it.
It is a truism that Rajiv Gandhi holds the record for the Congress party securing the largest ever electoral mandate in the history of independent India thanks to the enormous sympathy wave for Mrs. Gandhi. Most commentaries and analyses merely stop at this. They blame Rajiv’s numerous ill-informed policies and scams as reasons for his defeat in 1989. However, what deserves to be thoroughly studied is how effective he was as a vote-getter. Rajiv Gandhi’s 1984 victory was more a vote for his deceased mother than for him. Indeed, the 1989 drubbing provides valuable lessons. Indira Gandhi’s stints as Prime Minister witnessed far worse corruption, nepotism, and even a brief period of dictatorship. Yet she stormed back to power barely 2 years after her post-Emergency defeat. However, the son was barely a shade of the mother. Just two major instances—the Bofors scandal and the Shah Bano goof-up were sufficient to unseat him. He was in many ways the architect of the Congress party’s downfall.
However, there was another phenomenon at work. The Congress party under both Mrs. Gandhi and later Rajiv had steadily lost the goodwill of the same people who had earlier voted with their eyes closed. Tavleen Singh’s Durbar gives numerous instances—some of them hilarious—of the measure of this loss on the ground. The other important measure of this loss was the slow but steady and sure rise of regional parties, and the meteoric ascent of the BJP. Rajiv Gandhi’s Congress party was reduced to watching this phenomenon with increasing despair, and groping hopelessly in the dark for that counter it did not have. Perhaps the most important measure is how Rajiv Gandhi who commanded the largest ever majority in Parliament received an equally phenomenal hammering after a paltry five years, and had to stoop so low as to destabilize Governments just so he could stay relevant.
Most things have changed phenomenally since then. Most things, except the Congress party.
Cut to the present when the Congress party faces a grave threat to its very survival. In its second consecutive stint in power, it has nothing except gargantuan scams and scandals to tout as its achievements. The Reigning Hope of this party currently happens to be the selfsame Rajiv Gandhi’s son, Rahul Gandhi. Enough has been written about this Youthful Eminence’s natural excesses in launching a rebellion against commonsense and intellect. If all the perfumes of Arabia couldn’t rid Lady Macbeth of her guilt, why should we surprised that all the media ointments and generous doses of feel-good tonic haven’t helped germinate in Rahul what he wasn’t born with?
Besides, I don’t think Rahul is any different from his father in the Grey Matter Area except that Rajiv had the enormous fortune of a sympathy wave and a Stalinist setup masquerading as a democratic Government. The sympathy-wave equivalent for Rahul is a fawning media, large sections of the academia, and those who call themselves intellectuals. Rajiv Gandhi was already Prime Minister when he uttered those famous “Hum karenge, hum banayenge, hum leke aayenge” lines and more hilariously, the “jeetenge ya loosenge” bit. Yet, they were sufficient to provide a glimpse into the fact that, forget Prime Minister, he was not even Municipal Councilor material.
But those were different times. The average Indian voter was much more tolerant and still naïve in many ways. The generation that was born around Rajiv Gandhi’s time today enjoys an entire array of the first fruits of (an almost) free market economy, has travelled the globe, has experienced true democracy abroad, and more importantly, doesn’t tolerate nonsense, is very vocal in its criticism of nonsense, and most importantly, doesn’t fall for the political and socialist snake-oil that sold so well for almost five decades. And it is hungry to reap to the fullest all the fruits of a true free market economy. Needless, this breed of Indians belongs firmly in the middle and upper middle class aka the tax-paying class. And the classes below are naturally aping this class.
And these are different times. The Congress party to its detriment realized too late the potential and the power of the Internet, which in India has proved to be the deathblow-dealer to the Dynasty starting with shattering the Nehru Myth. Had Rajiv Gandhi still been around, there is little doubt that he’d be pilloried in the same way his son is now getting pilloried. Rajiv got away with his gaffes because the Indian state was still Stalinist—recall how he himself tried to pass the Defamation Bill—and because the Indian citizen of that time was far more tolerant and large sections sincerely believed in the harmful baggage of the Myth of the Infallible Dynasty. It is clear especially in the online world that today’s voter is no longer prepared to take this kind of thing lying down. The kind of brutal, brilliant, and dedicated satire that’s directed towards the Dynasty and prominent Congress leaders would have been unthinkable just 15 years ago. Today, some of the websites doing this have achieved iconic status.
But what does the Congress party do? It goes ahead and does the only thing it knows: suppress free expression by blocking websites, blogs, and Twitter handles. However, even this vile endeavor bombed. Meanwhile, the Indian social media space had turned into this gargantuan national football field where every misstep, every gaffe, every scam, and every single word uttered by anybody in the Congress party was dissected to the last dirty detail, crucified, and torn to shreds. And people who continue to do this hail from the selfsame educated, hardworking, and tax-paying Indians who have the nation’s interest at heart.
However, even in this instance, the Congress woke up too late. What’s common throughout, especially after Mrs. Gandhi’s demise, is the fact that the Congress has always been behind the curve, thanks to the Dynasty’s unquenchable thirst for power, which invariably attracts only sycophants who have no idea that something called a curve even exists. The Congress party continues to remain frozen in time.
And so, even in this instance, it has acted predictably. Because it knows no better, it has relied on tricks that had worked so well in Mrs. Gandhi’s time. It has allocated 100 Crore Rupees for its social media campaign or whatever it is called, to take on its opponents most of who passionately—and correctly—abhor the Congress for mauling the country so badly. 100 Crore Rupees to fund something which is the Social Media equivalent of hired supporters who had taken out rallies in support of Indira Gandhi against the Syndicate.
Except that the calendar says 2013, not 1968-69.