In Praise of Sonia Gandhi

Hindutva and the Upcoming Indian Elections

The Hindutva movement has effectively used the same tactics- that Gramsci called ‘war of position’ and the ‘war of movement’ to advance its political agenda. Mrs Gandhi, in her own manner, has returned to that strategy. She has extended the possibilities of Gandhism today in context of rabid communal discourse of the sangh parivar.

Twenty five years ago, for the first time since Indian independence, a political party came to power at the center by whipping up a mass communal hysteria. That party was the Congress and its leader was Rajiv Gandhi, who commented that the “earth shakes when a big tree falls”, as if the anti- Sikh pogrom was the most natural phenomenon. He was soon to backtrack from such a frontal communal posture towards balanced communalism. He let open the locks of the Babri Masjid and simultaneously supported the Muslim Law Bill. In both cases, he provided a shot in the arm to the regressive sections among the Hindus and the Muslims.

The BJP- a relatively minor political entity in the 1984 elections, had been long gestating in various garbs for over six decades. It was quick to learn the technique from the Congress’s 1984 performance and catapulted itself to seize power at the center by whipping up a frenzy of mass hysteria leading to the destruction of the Babri Masjid in 1992. Rajiv Gandhi was no longer on the scene by then, and it was left to PV Narasimha Rao to be remembered for the infamy of 6th December 1992. Nowadays, it is also often overlooked that the destruction of the Babri Masjid provided a larger fillip to Muslim fundamentalism in South Asia- in Bangladesh and Pakistan.

The 1984 anti- Sikh pogrom was also the last time that the Congress party was able to use its total monopoly of the mass media. From the days of Sanjay Gandhi when he used the Doordarshan to show the popular flick ‘Bobby’ on the same day as JP was to address a meeting at the Ram Lila grounds in Delhi, the new Congress under Rajiv switched to showing Ramayana and Mahabharta during prime time television. The Congress’s flirtation with the age of the color TV was to take a beating with the emergence of the audio and video cassettes that the Hindutva movement initiated and en- cashed.

Fascist movements in Germany and Italy too had proved themselves to be very effective and early adapters of the then modern means of mass communication- the loudspeaker and the radio. Recent advances in technology have made it possible, however, to take on and dent- to whatever limited extent- the monopoly of the few on media. This is borne out in the case of Varun Gandhi’s recent speeches that have put him in the dock now.

The contrast between 2004 and 2009 is exacerbated by the accidental infamy that Varun Gandhi has gained in the last few days. It points to the fact that it has been left to a hitherto a very minor leader of the party to articulate what the Sadhvi Ritambaras during 1989- 1992 and then Narendra Modi and the late Pramod Mahajan took up later. The central BJP leadership is no longer using the appeal of hard Hindutva during the national elections.

New media- including the emergence of a new generation of journalists- and the sheer proliferation of new technologies including easy access to video filming (as in case of Varun Gandhi’s speeches) and the competition among the television channels makes it more difficult for anyone party or agenda to monopolize. Of course, it was just five years ago that the same media shrilly cried that India was shining. How the media operates and how technology can be harnessed and used as a democratic tool has a reciprocal relation to the kind of government that is in power. A by and large secular government at the center in the last five years is in sharp contrast to the previous six long years of Hindutva.

The credit for this sharp contrast between the run up to the 2004 and 2009 elections goes by and large to the political acumen of Mrs Sonia Gandhi. It needs to be remembered that she took up the reins of the Congress in 1998 when BJP sought to form the government at the center in a 13 party coalition. She was then able to stem the large scale desertion by rank and file  from the Congress to the BJP. In 2004, she led the Congress from the front taking up the Hindutva bandwagon almost single handed-ly so much so that in Gujarat it was seen as a contest between Narendra Modi and Mrs Gandhi. In Gujarat, as in much of India, there is little to distinguish between state level leaders of the two parties. A former RSS pracharak Shankarsinh Vaghela could hardly be an ideological antidote to Narendra Modi.

What the UPA has done in the last five years on the question of communalism is not so much to take on Hindutva head on, as to deflect it from the center of political discourse. The end result is very evident- in the absence of communalism- and in some cases like in Karnataka, boomeraging with many of its support base especially among the urban middle classes- it has been practically left without a Unique Selling Proposition. The economic agenda is practically common between the Congress and the BJP (and even the CPM practically endorses it in West Bengal).

Gone are the days when the BJP leaders masqueraded as gods and when Vajpayee anointed Advani as Ram and the late Pramod Mahajan as Lakshman, Advani likened himself to Arjuna and the increasingly sidelined Uma Bharti compared herself to Eklavya !

The other achievement that Mrs Gandhi needs to be credited is that for the first time in the history of independent India, a non- Brahmin prime minister has completed a full term of five years.

Again, it was Narasimha Rao who re- established the dominance of Brahmins in an increasingly Mandalized polity.

Writing in 2003, veteran journalist Saeed Naqvi asserted :

When Rajiv Gandhi came to power in 1984, in a House of 544 there were 198 upper caste members of Lok Sabha. Of these, 79 were Brahmins. By 1990, mandalisation had so stirred up society that in the 1991 elections,upper castes, particularly Brahmins, fell like nine pins.

P.V.Narasimha Rao took swift rearguard action to keep the Brahmin from political oblivion.

Rao played no mean role in virtually handing the baton to Atal Bihari Vajpayee. And when Vajpayee completes his five year term, he will have sustained a tradition set by Nehru. Every Brahmin prime minister has either completed his full term or exceeded it. Of the 56 years since Independence, the Brahmin has been at the helm in New Delhi for over 50 years.

As a corollory to what Naqni states above, one needs to point out that in the past, prime ministers who have lasted the full term have only been Brahmins. The Congress itself has given the country a sequence of Brahmin prime minsters- Jawaharlal Nehru, Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and PV Narasimha Rao. The BJP gave the country another Brahmin prime minister- Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The non- Brahmin prime ministers- Charan Singh, VP Singh, Chandrasekar, IK Gujral and Deve Gowda  have come from the non- Congress and non- BJP outfits. None of them managed to complete their term. Incidentally, between 1984 and 2004, the number of Brahmins in the Lok sabha has declined from 20% to 9%.

Dr Manmohan Singh is the first non- Brahmin prime minister to complete a full five year term. That he should come from the Congress party is another unique aspect. Ashish Nandy has pointed out somewhere that for the non- Brahmin Mohandas Gandhi, a bania by caste,  he needed to take a larger than life persona- that of a Mahatma- to emerge as the leader of the freedom movement. This underscores how difficult and crucial it is to overcome one of the strongest structural fault- lines of Indian society- that of caste. By insisting on Dr Singh’s candidature and providing full support to him in the last five years, Mrs Gandhi has also succeeded in winning back the confidence of the Sikhs and other minorities.

By scoring this double whammy, Mrs Gandhi has proved her early detractors wrong and skeptics like Uma Bharati correct. Two years ago, Ms Bharati had warned the BJP that it will be swamped by Mrs Gandhi. Her leading role is also announced in the Samajwadi Party leader Amar Singh’s candid admission that no secular government is possible at the center without Mrs Sonia Gandhi. What a far cry from the days when she was seen as another ‘gungi gudiya’ and much worse! That kind of language and personal attacks on Mrs Gandhi are now conspicuously and thankfully absent.

In this process, Mrs Gandhi carried forward not so much the legacy of Jawaharlal Nehru as that of Mahatma Gandhi. This started with her decision not to accept the prime ministership that she so richly deserved as the leader of the leading party.

In a speech two years ago, Mrs Gandhi remarked on a seminar on “Peace, Non-violence and Empowerment, Gandhian Philosophy in the 21st Century”:

Ms. Gandhi said the real issue was not the relevance of Mahatma Gandhi but “our preparedness for him and whether we are ready to embrace him once again. It is not a question of going back to Mahatma Gandhi as much as it is of going forward with him. This is not as simple as it sounds. While he fascinates and enchants, we have to admit that it is difficult to emulate him. It is easy to make him an icon. But infinitely more exacting to make him our beacon. He did not provide us with final answers, he wanted us to find our own and make our own experiments with truth,” she said.

Historically, among the educated Indian elite, the dislike towards Gandhi is not new. From Sripad Dange’s denouement in his defence speech in 1920 later published as Lenin vs. Gandhi (in which Lenin emerged victorious, in case you were wondering), to Golwalkar’s A Bunch of Thoughts, Gandhi was not the image in whom some among the Indian upper and middle classes saw themselves. The loin cloth was not exactly their idea of making a fashion statement, whatever those peasants might have thought.

The Hindutva’s dislike for Gandhi had bordered on fanaticism, no surprise, therefore, that he was assassinated by a former Hindu Mahasabha member. Later, in an irony of sorts, the political inheritor of Hindutva, the BJP, flirted with Gandhian Socialism when both Gandhi and Socialism were still in vogue in the late seventies. However, it was the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci who best interpreted the political genius of Gandhi’s un- theorized strategy. The Hindutva movement has effectively used the same tactics- that Gramsci called ‘war of position’ and the ‘war of movement’ to advance its political agenda. Mrs Gandhi, in her own manner, has returned to that strategy. She has extended the possibilities of Gandhism today in context of rabid communal discourse of the sangh parivar.

Given her achievements in the past five years in turning the tide as far as Hindutva as an election platform is concerened, her words need to be taken seriously, and with the respect that she, and her achievements in countering Hindutva, richly deserve.

Cross posted at Indian Muslims


Author: bhupinder singh

an occasional blogger

7 thoughts on “In Praise of Sonia Gandhi”

  1. Being a Gramsci fan, I can appreciate the beauty of this article of yours. I would be happier if you could distinguish the two positions ‘war of position’ and ‘war of movement’ a bit in detail because the overall construct of the debate is waging a counter-hegemony against a hegemony steeped in caste and communalism. I feel that despite this strategy being successful, Sonia Gandhi is herself a symbol of a hegemony that derives its strength from dynasty rule and patron-client mentality. War of position and war of movement would be much sounder if they are waged at level of individuals or locally entrenched ‘ecological and economical’ groups. Anyhow, it is a nice piece. I would like to meet you whenever you are in Punjab. Thanks for putting my blog in your blogroll.

    1. I should clarify that I am using the two key concepts from Gramsci in a restricted sense here.

      I consider Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s leading from the front in 2004 general elections and then in the Gujarat elections as the ‘war of movement’ while the 1998 plunge into politics and last five years as a ‘war of position’. I admit that a lot more details need to be worked out to expand on this idea.

      I also do not consider caste to be a necessarily a regress. There are positive aspects to caste and even the issue of caste in the democratic process is an indicator of its modernization and not just an acceptance of the caste system.

      Mrs Gandhi’s belonging to a political party is an advantage- just as it is for Omar Abdullah, Chandra Babu Naidu and the hordes of other relatives of politicians. End of the day, they have to submit to the democratic process- not an ideal system but better than any other known to us. Simply because a person belongs to a political family cannot be held against him or her.

  2. Good attempt. But you have completely ignored the fact that 2004 elections were a verdict on the economic policies and the ‘India Shining’ campaign rather than on Hindutva, whatever may be Sonia Gandhi’s intentions. Hindutva was no longer an issue even during those elections though I agree that this time, the BJP is on the defensive on this issue. I think they realize that the masses are weary of Hindutva.

  3. there is a catch here – the article says 50 out of 56years so that takes care of the period for which Mr shastri was the prime minsiter 🙂
    Doesn’t matter much because IK Gujral was also not a Brahmin.

  4. Come to think of it. The Congress prime minister in waiting and the madame’s son, Rahul has also about 25% brahmin ancestry. In public they follow Brahmin customes like the Brahmin cremation and death ceremony of Rajiv Gandhi by his son. Every one in congress including Manmohan Singh has expressed Rahul to take over the reins after Manmohan. Manmohan is more like a regent warming his seat for the crown prince to take over. So you think Brahmins will win again.

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