Rahul Gandhi embraces his lineage as ‘family of sacrifice’, calls obsessive haters in Congress


AIf this column is about the Congress party, I offer a triggering warning first and foremost: It won’t be about what ails him and the usual litany of complaints against him or his leadership. You can save the next five minutes of your life if that’s what you expect and stop reading here. The Congress party has had a pretty good week of mobilized action combined with combative words and images, indicating that it is preparing for battle. Is a new Congress in preparation? Before I venture to guess, I will offer two main provocations as to why many Indians love to hate Congress and even obsessively at times.

I am thinking in particular of those vocal critics of the Congress party who belong to the once old but ever-expanding establishment of the educated, English-speaking, metropolitan or urban elite. They may or may not have become full devotees of Hindutva. Some of them are now captivated by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).

As a once-dominant party, Congress has always had its critics and opponents, but this “love to hate Congress” routine is just a decade-old trend. At that very moment, I began to seriously and truly observe the Congress Party for the first time. My interest remains in political ideas, both old and new, and the promise and perils they offer. There is a lot to be said about the ideological wars currently raging in India and around the world. But today I want to capture, even roughly, certain dominant feelings and the psychic life of the politics they fuel.


Also read: Congress can remind voters it knows how to govern. But Rahul Gandhi must first own UPA success


The age of anger

In his remarkable book The age of anger: A history of the present, essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra points to the power of political feelings. The feeling that underlies the anger of our time is resentment. You don’t need to know your Nietzsche – who first wrote about it – to recognize resentment. It is a toxic, yet potent, combination of desire and contempt that you wish to emulate or even become. Politically and socially, it has been associated with the syndrome of a rising elite. Often this is amplified as a struggle against the old, the fake, the decadent and the weary by the new, the young, the brave and especially the real. Or Westernism against nativism. Or the metropolitan against the provincial. Etc.

This has indeed been the scenario in India for the past ten years. The clash between the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) was initially staged as a clash between the old and the new. Crucially, it was not staged as a contest between Hindutva and liberal socialism, in the years leading up to 2014. Resentment erases and effectively replaces the underlying clashes of political ideas with emotional vocabulary of competitive envy.

Corruption thus became, unsurprisingly, the clarion call of the so-called new era, as it captured both the decadence of the old world and modern financial fraud. As has been widely noted, corruption is the classic anti-political cause because no individual let alone a party will contest for this. In the end, it didn’t matter whether the centerpiece of this campaign or the notorious figure of the 2G “scam” was real. It was as real a metaphor as possible. Corruption crucially captured resentment as both disgust and envy, and it turned tempers too quickly against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.

I am not saying that there were no financial irregularities. On the contrary, the accusation of corruption ensured that Hindutva was disguised as populism. It certainly barred the Congress party from claiming its record on governance, especially the economy, community friendship, or basic rights that it had all improved. Inciting rage, the issue of corruption gave the newly formed AAP the softest landing, mainly due to the unconditional love it received from a then all-powerful and totally uncritical media. . [In full disclosure I wrote my first op-ed in 2013 and was one of its few if any critics then.]


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Dynasty or the Age of Displacement

The almost obsessive focus on Congressional leadership in this “love to hate Congress” syndrome is because it satisfies a major psychic need. The drumbeat of dynasty enables displacement and the purging of guilt. This is especially true for the “middle classes”: the most broadly and broadly defined of the low-wage, middle- and high-income earners and the ugly simple rich in India. Historically opposed to any form of land or income distribution, and largely “upper” caste and hostile to affirmative action or reservation, this layer has loudly shed its own responsibility in this convenient way. . The aggressive hostility seen in the regular rants and jeers against Congress, and in particular against Rahul Gandhi, testifies to this only too visibly.

The social fabric of India, not to mention caste, equals family. Look no further than your local grocery store, or any law firm or even dentist’s office, small or fancy, or movie theater, media, college: name any profession or business, family rules Indian. Strict lines of descent define both direct and indirect lines of patronage and the lateral flow of prestige, money, and social network. Social mobility in these consortia of families is marked by routines of aspiration and repression, and social cohesion is also controlled by strict codes of insiders and outsiders. But singling out and making a punching bag of Rahul Gandhi allows you to forget, if not atone for, your complicity and at the same time allows you to signal virtue and espouse “merit” and competition.

Perhaps no one is more guilty of this displacement than the media. Simply put, the mainstream media as well as most of the regional media is now going after Rahul Gandhi, aggressively and frontally with the same old tired tropes, mainly because he has to deploy his considerable powers of criticism somewhere . Banished by the ruling dispensation, the Indian media is going wild in this way simply because it can do in Congress what it cannot do elsewhere. If populism has masked Hindutva, then the drum of dynasty now hides the real work of authority. Since this is a political party and not a social media influencer, the under-attacked Congress can’t take comfort from the influencer’s mantra “haters will hate” or keep calm and carry on!

Last week’s public demonstration by the Congress party appears not to be working under the old attitude of nobility obliges just continue. Sharp words and strategic actions now stage his new political rhetoric. To be sure, it’s not the AAP’s agitprop antics. By confronting the harsh economic reality with identity passions, Rahul Gandhi seeks new forms of political identification. By being fearless in the face of divisive, albeit powerful, politics of hate while aligning itself with the weak and vulnerable in an unforgiving economy, Congress appears to be returning to its founding political principles. The party will have to charge its first principles and political virtues with the power of new feelings of attachment.

The two false stories of corruption and dynasty, which speak entirely as self-descriptions of those who deploy them, can no longer be concealed within the cruel realities of staggering inequality and charged community relations. The violent identity-hatred cosplays and shows that increasingly resemble the bad B-grade Hindi movies of the last century will be no match for the hunger games of the new global economy. By embracing his lineage, his dynasty and as a family of sacrifice, Rahul Gandhi has called and named our current moment after its true ideological nature. The gloves are off! The psychodramas of guilt and resentment finally meet their long-awaited match in politics.

Shruti Kapila is Professor of Indian History and Global Political Thought at the University of Cambridge. She tweets @shrutikapila. Views are personal.

(Edited by Prashant)

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