Here is a counter-factual: If Rahul Gandhi had not been Congress president, would the prime minister have spoken recently in parliament of how Vallabhbhai Patel would have made a better prime minister than Jawaharlal Nehru? Narendra Modi first played the Nehru vs Patel trick during the campaign for the 2014 general elections. Why is he playing it again, four years later? Largely because it is a convenient handle to distract voters away from the failures of his own government. The “achhe din” he promised have manifestly not arrived for the youth and the farmers, while “bure din” have manifestly arrived for Muslims and other minorities (and arguably for Dalits too).
India is now a year away from a general election. On what grounds will the prime minister seek to win once more? From stray comments he has let slip, it seems that he knows that demonetisation was a mistake, and that GST was carelessly implemented. The economy is at best bumbling along, while society is more conflict-ridden than it was four years ago. Relations with China and Pakistan have worsened under the prime minister’s watch, while our own internally troubled areas, Kashmir and Nagaland, are also more discontented than they were in 2014.
The BJP has, at the moment, a narrow majority in the Lok Sabha. In the first flush of their victory in May 2014, their strategists were speaking confidently of the party achieving a two-thirds majority in 2019. But as those polls come closer, they know that even maintaining their present numbers will be hard. In 2014 they won all or a vast majority of the seats in Gujarat, Rajasthan, MP, Haryana, Himachal, Uttarakhand, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand on their own, and a vast majority with their allies in Bihar and Maharashtra as well.
It is very likely that in all these states the tally of the BJP will fall, in several places substantially. It is also likely that they will lose seats in UP, which last time gave the party as many as 71 MPs. They may gain a few seats in other states, but overall — as things stand presently — the BJP will be hard put to obtain a majority in 2019.
How can they change this? By one of two ways, separately or in combination: By polarising the electorate on communal lines, and by making the election presidential. The first may or may not happen; the second certainly will. The prime minister will seek to make it a Modi vs Rahul affair again. He will pit, once more, his aam aadmi background against his opponent’s near-royal lineage; his considerable administrative experience (now augmented with five years as PM) against his opponent’s never having been even a minister in a state or at the Centre; and his superb oratorical skills against his opponent’s indifferent public speaking. I would not be surprised if, several months before the election, the prime minister challenges the Congress president to a series of television debates, in Hindi of course. If Gandhi declines (on the grounds that this is a battle of parties and ideologies, not of personalities), Modi and the many media channels sympathetic to him will make #RahulGandhiFlunksDebate their hashtag of the day, the week, the month.
In a speech in Berkeley, Gandhi claimed that the elevation of family lineage over individual achievement was an Indian thing; allegedly practised in many spheres other than politics. This was, at best, a half-truth. Among the reasons that M S Dhoni and Nandan Nilekani are such icons is that the former is from Ranchi not Mumbai, and the latter is not a Birla, Tata or Ambani. Indians increasingly admire the achievements of individuals from obscure or underprivileged families; a mark of our slow but ongoing move away from feudal hierarchies to democratic mores. To be sure, some children are emulating the success of their parents in the same profession but only by showing that they are themselves professionally competent. And while one can accept accountancy and legal practices being passed on to biological heirs, the idea of a fifth-generation dynast heading the oldest political party in the world’s largest democracy is — to any honest democrat — repugnant.
Nehru and Patel were colleagues not rivals, co-workers not adversaries. Working individually, and together, they united India and gave it a democratic template. However, repeatedly correcting the PM’s errors of fact and interpretation plays into his hands
Whenever Modi says something to diminish Nehru, or to oppose Nehru or Patel, the Twitterverse is abuzz with appeals to the historical truth that the PM distorts. For Nehru and Patel were colleagues not rivals, co-workers not adversaries. Working individually, and together, they united India and gave it a democratic template. However, repeatedly correcting the PM’s errors of fact and interpretation plays into his hands; in part because the BJP has its own “alternative facts”, in part because it keeps the debate safely in the past. For, so long as the PM has an excuse to attack the gross and irrefutable facts of Congress dynasticism, he will use it, to avoid a searching examination of his own record.
Criticisms of the government’s handling of the Doklam crisis will be answered by referring to Nehru’s failures in the 1962 war; of increasing curbs on artistic freedom now by referring to Indira Gandhi’s Emergency in 1975; of attacks on minorities now by referring to Rajiv Gandhi’s overturning of the Shah Bano judgment in 1986. Modi will continue to speak of such matters from 20 and 40 and 60 years ago, making the Congress president responsible for the mistakes (real or alleged) of his father, grandmother, and great-grandfather, while preempting discussion of the prime minister’s own mistakes now.
The Congress may have its own reasons for choosing this particular leader. But so long as they stick with him they will have to bear the consequences. Since Nehru’s great-grandson is Congress president only because he is Nehru’s great-grandson, the PM shall talk repeatedly about alleged errors made by all his ancestors, hold his descendant responsible for them, and warn voters against trusting the nation to him. On the other hand, if, for example, a person bearing the surname of Singh, Negi, Divan or Ganguly was president of the Congress, the PM would not be speaking of Vallabhbhai Patel at all. Had a non-dynast been head of our principal Opposition party, the PM would have found it impossible to hide his own government’s failures in the present by repeatedly diverting attention to events and personalities of the distant past.