Rahul Gandhi’s style of functioning – I am not using the word ‘leadership’ – is a key reason behind the rebellion in the Congress, however much both sides may deny it. An otherwise minor incident, I was the only journalist to witness, speaks a lot about his mindset and is worth recalling.
In the run-up to the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, I was walking home one night from the Metro station, taking my usual shortcut through the PVR cinema complex in Saket, when a dealer in secondhand books who I knew, called me. Thinking he had a book for me, I happily turned back. He came up to me and spoke almost in a conspiratorial tone: “Look straight behind me. Rahul Gandhi is having coffee with some friends.”
I took a few seconds to identify Gandhi from among four young people – three males and one female, all looking upper middle class – seated on chairs around a round table in the open. They were engaged in a conversation.
Alone in Crowd
As I stood there, Gandhi – then the uncrowned Prince of Indian politics – and his friends stood up to leave. There was a flutter among the security personnel. Gandhi started walking towards the parking lot and was gone in no time.
What struck me that day was the suddenness with which Gandhi departed. Here was a man whose party was fighting a battle with its back to the wall. He was projected nationally as Narendra Modi’s main opponent. Every vote mattered. In a critical time like this, Gandhi could have won hearts if he had shaken hands with the three-four employees of the restaurant. He could have even walked up to some of the vendors and visitors and mingled with them or at least waved to everyone. But, no, he just breezed away, almost coldly. I thought that night: Can he be a successful politician?
This was the same city where, within months from then, Arvind Kejriwal would apologise to crowds ahead of the February 2015 Delhi Assembly elections for resigning in just 49 days – and promising to never repeat it. Seated in the front along with the driver in his SUV, people would mob him at traffic junctions. He was ready to shake hands with anyone and everyone. One could agree or disagree with him, but it was more than clear that this Income Tax officer-turned-activist was indeed cut out for politics.
Even if you fast forward this comparison, Gandhi has remained mired in denouncing Modi on each and every issue, at times the reactions and the use of words sound immature. In sharp contrast, after the 2019 Lok Sabha battle, Kejriwal has done a U-turn on Modi bashing – and remains relevant in Delhi while the Congress is struggling to stay alive in the city.
But to put all the blame on the Gandhis for the rot in the Congress is unfair. There are larger ideological issues. A party, which once set the national agenda, looks like it is trying to ape the BJP. In the process, it is neither winning new votes nor retaining existing ones. Rahul and Priyanka’s sudden love for Hindu temples is an example.
On the day the Congress government won a confidence motion in Rajasthan, its Parliamentary Affairs Minister Shanti Dhariwal compared the Modi government with Mughal emperor Akbar. One doesn’t know if this was a promotion or demotion of Modi! The Minister said that his own government, led by Ashok Gehlot, was akin to Rajput king Maharana Pratap. The comparison did not win much space in newspapers, but it was sad to see India’s oldest political party giving up on an emperor who rejected religious theocracy and, in that sense, was a secularist far ahead of his times.
A little recounting of Akbar’s rule (1556-1605) is needed to show how Congress leaders have got themselves tied in this sickening good-Hindu-versus-bad-Muslim syndrome. Akbar not only enlarged the Muslim empire to include almost the entire Indian sub-continent but realised that non-Muslims too must support him in such a culturally and religiously diverse land. His library included works in Sanskrit apart from Persian, Urdu, Greek and Latin. He pursued a policy of reconciling with his foes, both Muslims and Hindus. Having had two Shias among his early tutors, Akbar, a Sunni Muslim, encouraged religious debates. The wisdom of Vedanta is the wisdom of Sufism, he declared. The emperor celebrated Diwali, allowed Brahmin priests to tie jewelled strings around his wrist, met Jain scholars and declared that Hindus who converted to Islam could return to their original fold without facing death penalty.
A majority of those Akbar fought were Muslim kings. These included the Muslim (as opposed to Hindu) rulers of Rajputana, Afghan ruler Baz Bahadur, Uzbek chieftains, Sikander Shah Suri, Baluchi chiefs and Muzaffar Shah III. He also punished those from within his nobility who conspired against him. His forces once slaughtered Muslim theologians and Sayyids. Akbar also fought Hindu rulers and those Rajputs who refused his suzerainty. Rajput soldiers and generals also fought for the Mughal army.
The Rajput rulers of Mewar and Marwar, Udai Singh and Chandrasen Rathore, refused to bow to Akbar. Maharana Pratap, who later became a folk hero, was Udai Singh’s son who kept harassing the Mughal ruler. Another Hindu king who died fighting was Raja Vir Narayan. At the same time, Hindu Rajputs who married their daughters and sisters to him were treated on a par with his Muslim fathers-in-law and brothers-in-law in all respects except on the issue of dining with him. Employment in the imperial administration was open to all.
On top of all this, Akbar, towards the end of his rule, became disillusioned with orthodox Islam. That is how he established Din-i-Ilahi, a new religious path. (That it didn’t last after his death is another story.) He opposed the killing of animals. These earned him the hatred of bigoted Muslims. Indeed, Pakistani historians moan the reign of Akbar, particularly the way he allowed Hindu Rajputs to assimilate in his kingdom.
Yet the Rajasthan Minister couldn’t get any other analogy but the worst in today’s vitiated atmosphere to denounce the Modi government. Those who don’t know history are bound to draw the obvious but wrong conclusion. It is these small but constant communal adds-on that fuel an ideology that attempts to paint most Muslims in the worst possible light.
(The author is a senior journalist based in New Delhi)
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