Rahul Gandhi is a reluctant politician, let him go. The family has had its chance. Now elect a leader.
In a democracy, it should be possible for a citizen to meet her elected representatives. But for various reasons, citizens never get to see an MP or an MLA in person. Hence this letter. I am sure that what I am going to say will be considered too basic, too simplistic, too often said by political pundits and veteran journalists. I am equally sure that your party has enough learned men (I use the word ‘men’ deliberately) who know all these things. However, at times, especially during times of crisis, we need to go back to what we have taken for granted, we need to reiterate some facts, ideas and beliefs which may become invisible in the haze of political debates and loud arguments.
This letter comes to you from an ordinary citizen who has lived eight decades in India, who has watched the birth of an independent India, who saw the tricolour go up and the Union Jack come down, one who has voted in most elections since attaining adulthood. And, yes, a citizen who has, through the years, seen your party move from nation-building to power-grabbing and money-amassing. You need to know what such a citizen thinks. Besides, as a writer, I believe in what American author Ursula Le Guin said, that there are matters on which one needs ‘to stand up and be counted, lest silence collude with injustice’.
To get to the point: While you are being criticised, ridiculed and humiliated after the 2019 elections, I think of you as our most valuable asset at the moment, since you are the only national party which can provide the country with an opposition. Now that the Communist Party is only a shadow of its earlier self, and Lohia’s Socialist Party splintered, you – however poor your performance in these and the last elections may be – still remain the only national party apart from the BJP.
To have two strong parties is the ideal situation for a democracy. But yours has seen a swift and steady decline. Your numbers in parliament are abysmally low and with poor leadership and skewed priorities, you have lost contact with the people. You knew, even before the 2019 elections, that you had no chance of getting enough seats to form a majority. You hoped to align yourself with some regional parties, but you bungled even that.
The regional parties were confident that together they could form an opposition. That, too, did not work out. I am glad the regional parties have not been able to become a strong force. Regional parties will never be able to coalesce into a single force. They are committed to the interests of their states – a conflict of interests, which is always possible, will divide them sharply and decisively. And a splintered opposition is a gift to the ruling party.
Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US, whose influence on the making of the constitution was great, believed in a strong Centre. The greater the powers given to the states, he said, the weaker the Union would be. This is so much more true of India, which was never a single entity until Gandhiji came and knitted the country together. We have a long history of satraps, who rebelled against their masters and became independent powers themselves. And therefore, though our constitution had wisely maintained a balance of powers between the Centre and the states, I strongly believe that we need both the ruling party and the main opposition in parliament to be national parties.
We need a national party as the main opposition even more at this time when the ruling party has got a huge majority – which makes it possible for the party to impose its ideology on the country with nobody to stop them. It can make changes to the constitution, some of which can have frightening consequences. The party is now free to implement its ideas, of which we have already had a disquieting glimpse. They are raring to go. Democracy itself is likely to be threatened when the ruling party can roll over citizens like, yes, an appropriate phrase, the chariot of Jagannath.
Not many people believe you can pick yourself up and come back. You are considered a lost cause. But surprisingly there are a great many, even those who opposed you and voted against you, who hope you will make a comeback. You cannot go into hibernation – which you call introspection – you have to come out of it. Look at what happened on the first day of parliament. It was as if the battle of Panipat was being fought all over again with opposing cries of ‘Har Har Mahadev’ and ‘Allah hu Akbar’. Is this going to be our future? Will we never hear an Indian voice in parliament again? Do you think you are capable of giving us that?
I wonder if, during your introspection, you realised that it was your policy of ‘Muslim appeasement’ that drove many voters away from you and into the Hindutva fold? While you mull over this, you should also think of how little you have helped the Muslim community and how shallow and false your policy of helping them was. If they have progressed, it is because of the men and women in their own community, not because of any one of the political parties.
You also brought words like ‘secular’ and ‘liberal’ into disrepute, both of which came to mean being pro-Muslim. Words have remarkable power. At the same time, they change meanings according to the times. Look at the words ‘secularism’ and ‘socialism’ which have become heavy with the contempt they have gathered through the years. This is because to you, they were just words; you did nothing to make the words a reality. The word ‘secular’, whatever its dictionary meaning, in our country meant, or was supposed to mean, not bringing religion into politics.
Now religion is everything in politics. Sadly, you have succumbed to the idea that religion matters, you have begun speaking of ‘soft Hindutva’. Your leader visited as many temples as perhaps the BJP leaders did. There is no such thing as ‘soft’ Hindutva. In any case, Hindutva was never what your party believed in. Stand by your convictions – abandoning them to gain some votes will backfire. Hindutva worked for the BJP because it was always at the core of their ideology. If you wear saffron today, even if it is only a loincloth, you will lose all the credibility you have left. You badly need to ask yourselves: what is our ideology? What policies will we follow in pursuit of this ideology? You have to be clear about this before you face your voters again.
Your sycophancy has made you the target of your opponents, yet amazingly you don’t seem to understand how dearly it has cost you. Even today, after your debacle at the polls, in spite of Rahul declaring not once, not twice, but often, that he does not want to lead the party, you still cry out for him. In Rahul I saw, I see, a reluctant politician. He did his best. Now he says he wants to go. Respect him by believing him and let him go. Failure is no shame, but failing to see the truth is. And the truth is that Rahul is no leader. So move on. The family has had its chance. Now elect a leader.
Electing a leader is one of the basic tenets of democracy. To elect a non-Gandhi as leader of your party is not lese-majesty. By holding an election, you will prove to us that the country matters more to you than an individual, more than a family. Until now you showed us that your loyalty to a family was greater than your loyalty to the country. The country cannot forgive you for this. Louis XIV, that most powerful monarch, he who said when he was young and arrogant, ‘I am the State’, the same man told his courtiers when he was dying, ‘I am going but the State remains’. Yes, the Gandhis may go, but the country remains. We hope you will think of this and elect a new leader, the best woman or man you have. Be assured some leader will emerge. And you never know from where that leader will come.
You need to do more than this: You need to reinvent yourself. You have become structurally rigid and ideologically dithering. Shuffling the same tired old faces around, including some who have a stain on their record, won’t help. Holding out empty promises, criticising other parties and their leaders will put off the voters. Tell us what you are going to do. Right now, we can see that you are bankrupt of ideas. You need fresh blood. You don’t need to ask where it will come from. Look around, look at the large number of young people in the country, young people exploding with energy and talent. Use these qualities for the good of the country. Think of the huge hunger of the young for opportunities, for a chance to prove themselves, to find their place in the world. Feed that hunger and give them opportunities in politics.
Get more women into the party, not because they are connected to a man, or because of political correctness, or just to show some numbers that make you look good; choose women because there is a huge potential waiting in them. Women are eager to prove themselves. Make use of their talents, use them for the good of the country. This is the century of the young. It will also become, I am confident, the century of women. Accept these two facts and shape your party accordingly.
Let me be frank – the country is tired of old men with whom lying, hypocrisy and chauvinism have become a habit. Give us better women and men. And a manifesto, perhaps the shortest in India’s political history, which promises us just four things to start with: Health, education, justice and freedom. Many lifetimes will be necessary to make these four simple words into a reality, but a start in earnest has to be made. Why not by you?
Remember that you can offer the country something which the ruling party cannot. Your history, if we ignore the past few decades, tells us that you do not believe in dividing the country into Hindus and Muslims. Which the ruling party, despite its soft words after the elections, does. We have heard the words of women and men in their party, we have seen them acting on this belief. My generation remembers the bloodshed and carnage of Partition, many more will remember 1984, 2002 and so many other occasions of hatred and violence of one community against another. We cannot afford such moments of horror again.
I go back to Alexander Hamilton who said that what works during a revolution does not work after the revolution succeeds. Gandhiji too had advised you to disband after independence. Perhaps it is good that you did not heed his advice then. The country needed the leaders who had fought for freedom to help the nation get over the trauma of Partition, to set us on the path to a mature democracy. This moment, now, seems to be the right time to take Gandhiji’s advice.
You need not disband, but you have to remake yourself. Make yourself into a party which gives voters an alternative choice. If you do not, you are doomed. Unfortunately, without a strong opposition, the country we fervently believe in may also be doomed. Come out of your closed room. Listen to us. You can find no better teachers than the people you claim to represent, the people who rejected you in the last election, but who wait for you to give them what they want – a strong opposition. An alternative.
Shashi Deshpande is a novelist and short story writer. Her latest novel is Listen to Me (2018). Her best-known novel, That Long Silence, won the Sahitya Akademi Award in 1990.