With elections approaching, the Congress must ask itself if it can afford to be seen to be a party that is not in control of itself. That is precisely the picture it offers, in the controversy over the film The Accidental Prime Minister. Sections of the party are working against the image that the party leadership is still trying to rebuild, and reminding the people that while the Congress now claims to be a champion of free speech, it was not always so. The official Twitter handle of the BJP set the cat among the pigeons by praising the film as an account of how “a family held the country to ransom for 10 long years”. That, and the fact that expressive party supporter, Anupam Kher, plays the title role, brought forth gratuitous allegations from the RJD that the party had sponsored the film. And the Congress rank and file swung into precipitate action, when it need not have reacted at all. Indeed, Manmohan Singh wisely kept his own counsel when he was asked about the film.
Yes, it’s a film, not reality. It is based on a bestselling book published without much controversy in 2014. Nevertheless, it was bruited about that Madhya Pradesh, which the Congress has freshly wrested from the BJP, would not permit a release — the Congress has ruled out the possibility of a ban since. And the president of the Maharashtra Youth Congress has demanded a special screening in order to play censor. The impression that could be gleaned from this episode is that what the BJP has been doing in defence of the mythical, the Congress would like to do to venerate the corporeal.
To be sure, when it comes to freedom of creative expression, the Congress is burdened by a troubling inheritance. During the Emergency, among other things, it banned Aandhi, which found release only after the Janata Party came to power, and it totally erased Kissa Kursi Ka. It silenced Kishore Kumar on radio and TV and blacklisted Sonal Mansingh. In recent times, the rank and file had again swung into action against Sacred Games, over the treatment of Rajiv Gandhi and the depiction of the vasectomy campaign. At that time, Rahul Gandhi stood up for free expression. Now, he must reprise that moment, and prevent overzealous Congressmen from contesting the right wing for control of the commanding heights of the empire of hurt sentiments.