Rahul Gandhi’s resignation letter horrified me. Not because I do not think he did the honourable thing by accepting responsibility for the drubbing the Congress party got in the recent general election. But, because of what he said about India and her democratic institutions. If he wrote the letter himself, then he would do well not to return from his summer holiday. What is the point of returning to a political career in a country whose institutions he has such contempt for? If someone else wrote the letter, then that person should emigrate forthwith.
The two paragraphs I found most offensive in the letter are these. “A free and fair election requires the neutrality of a country’s institutions; an election cannot be fair without arbiters — a free press, an independent judiciary, and a transparent election commission that is objective and neutral. Nor can an election be free if one party has a complete monopoly on financial resources.
“We didn’t fight a political party in the 2019 election. Rather, we fought the entire machinery of the Indian state, every institution of which was marshalled against the opposition. It is now crystal clear that our once cherished institutional neutrality no longer exists in India.”
As a member of the media, let me begin by admitting that most of us got the election wrong because we hoped Modi would lose. Those of my comrades who bothered to travel into the wilds of rural India came back absolutely certain that Modi would lose at least 50 seats in the northern states. I believed the same until the results came. Only then did it occur to me that I interviewed around 150 people in different states and less than 20 said they would not be voting for Modi. It was the impression created by the media that fooled Rahul Gandhi and his campaign managers. When they began projecting him as prime minister, voters on the fence saw that the choice was between him and Modi and fell off the fence onto Modi’s side of it.
Now let us talk about the judiciary. Never before have Supreme Court judges shown such open defiance of a Prime Minister as they did last year when they called a press conference to imply that the Chief Justice was a BJP partisan. Why? They objected to his choice of judges on certain benches while admitting at the same time that deciding the roster was his prerogative. If only Supreme Court judges had shown defiance when Rahul’s grandmother ordered them to suspend every one of our fundamental rights including the right to life. One judge objected and his career was ruined.
Accepting that this happened because democracy was suspended on account of the Emergency. But, believe me when I say that long after it ended, I saw election commissioners riding in the official car of a Congress prime minister during a Kashmir election. The Election Commission is no longer as pliable. The same people who charge it with partiality in conducting the general election said not one word when the Congress party won in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
What worries me most about Rahul Gandhi’s farewell letter is that I detect the start of a new narrative. If in Modi’s first term the narrative was that Modi was working only for ‘a handful of his rich friends’, the narrative now is that the RSS has ‘captured’ our institutions completely. In the words of the Congress president, “Our democracy has been fundamentally weakened. There is a real danger that from now on, elections will go from being a determinant of India’s future to a mere ritual.” This is rubbish and shows real contempt for Indian democracy, but a gaggle of aged officials, who benefited hugely from Congress rule, has written a letter to the Election Commission backing Rahul Gandhi.
The truth of the 2019 election campaign is that the Congress president ran a lousy campaign. He behaved like an entitled prince trying to oust a usurper. His tone was belligerent, distasteful and rude. He forgot that his opponent was also the Prime Minister of India. Voters did not and were appalled. The other mistake he made was to attack Modi not where he was weakest — the economy — but where he was strongest, which was his image of being utterly uninterested in being in public life to make money. Those endless shrieks of ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’ never gained resonance.
The truth is that Modi (not the BJP) won this election because he was seen as a real leader. The truth is that millions of rural Indians benefited from government welfare schemes for the first time. The truth is that the Congress party did not offer Indian voters anything other than an entitled prince and princess who hoped to win only by exalting the ‘charisma’ of a Dynasty that has ruled too long.
This article first appeared in the print edition on July 7, 2019 under the title ‘Fifth column: A reality check for Rahul.’ Follow Tavleen Singh on Twitter @tavleen_singh