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National Interest: First family,second nature

Why Congress loses its head as it bends over backwards to defend Vadra

Written by Shekhar Gupta |
October 13, 2012 2:01:47 am

Usually,every time you start asking if the Congress party has lost its political instinct,it pulls off something entirely unexpected,like its successful backing of the nuclear deal,for example. That ruthless but quicksilver political craft was in evidence again as it isolated the BJP and humiliated Mamata Banerjee in getting the president and vice-president of its choice elected. Yet again,in the manner it was able to shift the “hawa” at least a bit with the sudden flurry of economic decisions.

And then,all of a sudden,it was back in the trenches. Firing the odd ill-directed fusillade at nobody in particular,but mostly whining. And all of it not because somebody had caught it,or its top leadership,doing something really awful. But because charges were hurled at Robert Vadra,whom the party describes as yet another private individual.

There is the evidence of the 2004 and 2009 elections to show that the Congress party is not brainless. Yet,what is it about the party that the moment a member of the Gandhi family is attacked,it loses its political judgement,instinct,discretion,everything? It ceases to respond like a political party. Its seniormost leaders and cabinet ministers,many with several decades in public life,instead of trying to leverage the qualities of experience and maturity that rivals like Team Kejriwal (mere “upstarts”,as the Congress would describe them) may find hard to match,start behaving like panicky hitmen in some kind of political Gangs of Hastinapur.

The capital’s political scuttlebutt now has it that word has come from the very top for the stormtroopers to shut up. But the more important question is,why was that self-defeating counter-attack launched in the first place? If Vadra is a private individual,married to a member of the Gandhi family who,too,is apolitical and thereby a private person,why did the party jump to his defence? And even if they did,why with such colossal incompetence and stupidity?

You think we are being harsh? Examine some of the things prominent Congressmen said. Salman Khurshid first swore to give his life for the Gandhi family (hoping they’d notice and be suitably impressed). Then he said something like,he knows,“for example,where Prashant (Bhushan) gets his cases from.” You first accuse Gang Kejriwal of not being political and hitting below the belt. Then the law minister of the republic kicks a fellow lawyer in the one place a half-decent public figure usually wouldn’t. Howsoever Bhushan may “get” his cases,does that answer the charges levelled against Vadra? The “two wrongs make a right” argument only tars the one Khurshid is defending.

Manish Tewari is the party’s spokesman. He has worked hard at raising his voice to be heard in the noise within a formidable peer group. But in the days to come,if Kejriwal finds muck to throw at a senior BJP leader,he might have to hastily revisit his charge that they are merely the BJP’s B-team. Rajiv Shukla was quick to pronounce there is no quid pro quo (how does he know so soon?) and counter by “exposing” the Bhushans’ land allotment in Himachal Pradesh. But Ambika Soni,the I&B minister? She said Kejriwal was levelling his allegations to boost his own image (is that a crime in politics?) and accused the TV channels of “helping him by airing these allegations.” What are these TV channels supposed to do? Not to be left behind,Veerappa Moily piped up too,and lost his way a bit in history. He accused Kejriwal of Goebbelsian lying and then added,hold your breath,that “India is not Germany and our democracy is well-nurtured.” Which Germany was he talking about? It took him a couple of days,but inevitably,H.R. Bhardwaj dumped his constitutional reserve (he hasn’t shown much in Bangalore anyway) and also rose to the defence of the Gandhi family,whom frankly he had only ended up embarrassing permanently with the way he,as law minister,had supposedly helped Quattrocchi retrieve his hoard from a sealed bank account. And Jayanthi Natarajan? Just how angry did she get in a TV studio over the attack,which she called “shameless and shameful”,so effectively outraged that even Salman Khurshid quietly fled from the same discussion,afraid of being shown up as relatively moderate? If only she were to show the same passion to save the Gangetic dolphin. It was such a spontaneous avalanche that you thought for a moment that even A.K. Antony may decide to break his permanent silence.

And just an aside too tempting to avoid: how come,while they talked of the land in Himachal,no Congressman raised questions over the Bhushans’ patently wrong farm-home land allotment by Mayawati in Noida? This was exposed by Ritu Sarin in this paper on April 20,2011,and carried a gem of a quote from Shanti Bhushan: “I agree there is no transparency in the scheme… But why should we challenge this?… There may be a case for a scheme like this to be cancelled” (see full story and quote at Could it be,could it just be that some of the senior Congressmen also may have got allotments there,following the principle we would describe in heartland politics as Ram naam ki loot hai…?

The only people who stayed out of it,surprisingly,were Jairam Ramesh and Digvijaya Singh,the usual suspects. Could it be that they were beaten at the blocks by others? Or could it be that they had heard something to the contrary from the powers that be? Either way,this sudden Congress outrage was just what you would expect from a party whose leitmotif,over the years,has been sycophancy. It was as if everybody wanted to mark his attendance in the royal court. And predictably,the angriest voices were of the party’s Rajya Sabhaite durbaris.

Robert Vadra may indeed have a defence. In any case,he is entitled to the usual privilege of innocent until proven guilty. But the defence should have been mounted by him,particularly if he is just another private citizen. And the defence had to be built around facts,answers and explanations,not counter-abuse and outrage. Frankly,if he had a case,it has been damaged severely by his in-laws’ party’s sycophants. Even if he now argues that he is not in public life and thus should be spared this limelight,public opinion will not buy it. The Congress party has stupidly pulled that cap on to his head,and theirs too. In any case,he had not exactly strengthened his ‘just-another-private-citizen’ argument by refusing to insist that his name be taken off the list of people exempted from frisking,publicly displayed at airports. At this juncture in our evolution,public opinion is utterly unforgiving of those seeking the trappings of VVIPdom.

Meanwhile,spare a thought for the only real Congressman,and an important chief minister at that,who is charged with having delivered the quid pro quo,if at all — Bhupinder Singh Hooda. Sure enough,no Congressman has spoken in his defence.

The larger point,however,is,the Congress needs to grow up. Kejriwal and Bhushan have broken a post-1980 political contract in India that children of political families were not to be attacked. The Vajpayee and Gandhi families treated each other with great deference during the NDA years and later. The opposition,by and large,has been kind to the Gandhi family,except Modi’s “gai-bachhra” (cow and the calf) responding to “maut ka saudagar” in 2007. The Left has never attacked them,targeting only the evil duo of Manmohan Singh and P. Chidambaram. This has now changed. The Congress has to factor this into its politics. Because,if it continues to respond the way it did over the past week,it would only be exposing its anti-democratic organisational culture,its I-am-a-bigger-sycophant-than-the-rest mindset.

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