There should be no hesitation in condemning the remarks against the slain former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, even though these were in the thick of an election campaign. And there should be no hesitation in welcoming the response of his son Rahul Gandhi, who is also in the thick of the same campaign but refused to be provoked or go down to the level of his senior and more experienced opponent, the Prime Minister of India. The remark is one that will upset if not infuriate many Indians and will remain testimony to how bitter this election has become. Just when many might have thought that standards could fall no further, this particular comment has taken the discourse to a new low.
For many, the remark referring to the death of Rajiv Gandhi and his legacy will bring back memories of that horrific day on May 21, 1991, when late in the evening news trickled down that the former Prime Minister was killed by a suicide squad of LTTE operatives in Sriperumbudur, where he was on the trail of a campaign for elections that many had reckoned he would win. One phase of polling was done; the second phase was postponed for a while to keep peace and calm after the assassination. In the end, the Congress won 36.26 per cent of the vote and a total of 232 seats against the BJP’s 120 seats and 20.11 per cent of the votes polled. It is an acknowledged position that there was a swing in favour of the Congress in constituencies that went to the polls after Rajiv Gandhi was killed. In his death, he gave a new lease of life to the Congress, a party that was not particularly strong but was still poised to return to power. That is what gave us the minority government of P V Narasimha Rao, with Dr. Manmohan Singh as finance minister and the launch of the economic reforms. In voting for the Congress, history and the people of India recorded that they saw Rajiv Gandhi as a leader whose killing brought a sense of loss, anger and pain. Even for those who might have held Rajiv Gandhi culpable in the mass of allegations around the Bofors gun, his death brought that conversation to an end. That is the Indian way – not to speak ill of the dead, to forgive and to let bygones be bygones.
These are timeless Indian values that Rahul Gandhi has taken in well with his message of love for the Prime Minister, in return for the latter’s extreme hatred for Rahul’s father. In a tweet that is now the stuff of headlines, Rahul Gandhi wrote: “Modi-ji, the battle is over. Your Karma awaits you. Projecting your inner beliefs about yourself onto my father won’t protect you. All my love and a huge hug. Rahul.” The words are strong, powerful and they take down the offender in a manner little else can. They also showcase Rahul Gandhi as a politician who, while he is still surrounded by the typical Congress leader of yesteryear, carries the capacity to listen to saner voices and take the discourse someplace higher.
This one tweet is unlikely to breakthrough and cut across the image of a leader who is portrayed as being not ready, so much so that a lot of the arguments offered in favour of the Modi-Shah combine hinge around the suggestion that the alternative cannot be Rahul Gandhi. He was regarded as a novice, a late starter who never did well in the school of politics, right from the beginning, and not about to pick up any day soon. But this election, forced as he is in the centre stage of the battle, Rahul Gandhi has been able to chip away at that image and present himself as a credible alternative. Not everyone buys that but the upswing in the image, the presentation and the content is all there. Messages like the one on love for the Prime Minister fit rather well into this fabric because Rahul Gandhi stands more and more apart form the angry faces of the ruling party. That he can smile, that he can speak to a variety of channels and media houses through the election season and that he is different form the crop of leaders, all work in his favour. The power of his kind of messaging cannot be underestimated at a time of extreme bitterness in the political discourse. This opens up the path for a younger leader who has a very different approach to the hard and stern view of the world that the BJP leadership represents.
The BJP has ben unable to see that its face fires only the converted and turns away all those on the margins who must be won over if this election is to turn to their advantage. In that, bitter comments like the one on Rajiv Gandhi stand out for the damage they can do. This time, they have brought new energy to the Congress campaign, brought a whole range of leaders out in support of the Congress and built new prospects of all of them working together in case the BJP falls short of the required numbers. The remarks further show that the BJP leadership is under pressure, that the campaign against the Rafale deal is gaining ground and that the Congress sharp focus on allegations around the deal are hurting where they intend to. Worse, the BJP isn’t able to back-off, either because aggression is the only way the party machinery runs or because others are jumping in to be seen in the support of their leader. The effect is more damaging where the deal should be to cut losses and try and forget about the ugly remarks and in fact even apologise for them. The damage is probably as bad as was seen when Mani Shankar Aiyer remarked in 2014 on camera that Modi, the chaiwallah, can never become the Prime Minister – derisiveness gone berserk that surely cost the Congress many votes.
About one year ago, as a part of Buddha Jayanti celebrations, the Prime Minister Modi himself spoke on the subject of love and compassion. He said, “In order to save the world from the impending danger, it is indispensable to follow the message of love and compassion…Lord Buddha had also said that one can gain strength only by walking on this path.” It is interesting that Rahul Gandhi is walking that path and he appears to have understood the words that Modi spoke: “Life is not about winning battles with destruction, violence and hatred. Life means winning over hatred, violence and injustice with friendship and compassion.”
(The author is a journalist and a faculty member at SPJIMR. Views are personal) (The Billion Press)