In an effort to vigorously defend its campaigner-in-chief, the Congress has embarrassed itself by referring to Rahul Gandhi as a “janeu-dhari Hindu”, armed with a sacred thread. The party, which positions itself as secular, has stepped unthinkingly, or strategically, into a trap laid by the BJP. To stay in the game, will Gandhi pledge allegiance to the most conservative and even regressive beliefs of the BJP cadre? And all the while, the attention of the electorate is drawn away from the substantive issues on which a modern democracy presumes that people will vote — be it development, access to opportunity or social peace.
Meanwhile, the BJP has its own image problem. Its campaigner-in-chief is also the prime minister, and he remains in permanent campaign mode. The campaigner makes statements which are sometimes unexpected from the elected leader of the world’s most populous democracy. While an election campaign is not a debating society, and the ad hominem mode is only to be expected, his speeches running down his predecessors, Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru, sit uneasily with his stature and office. Just recently, the PM recalled a Gujarati magazine cover from 1979 which had showed Indira Gandhi covering her nose with a handkerchief on a visit to Morbi, where a breached dam had left the landscape littered with putrefying corpses and carcasses. It was a human reaction, rather than an insult to the locals. In the context of Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the Somnath temple, the PM has taken Jawaharlal Nehru to task for his discomfort with the state playing patron to the rebuilding of the shrine, and its inauguration by the president, Dr Rajendra Prasad. But Nehru’s objection was not to reconstruction per se, which had begun shortly after independence, but to the aegis of the state.
With both parties stooping to conquer, it’s a level playing field and no matter who wins, the purpose of elections stands unmet. None of the issues which should matter in a modern polity appear to be in play, and the weatherbeaten old demons of community and caste are in the vanguard. The expected debate has degenerated into bickering. The Gujarat election has important signalling value, but sadly, it is being devalued.