Politics by blackmail: Eulalie syndrome in Indian public life
If the Gandhi trio stirred themselves into action as a serious opposition, is there a possibility that they would end up in jail? If they were spared despite this affront, it would imply that the Modi outfit has come to the conclusion that the Gandhis are now totally harmless.
Requirements of the media in this regard are helpful to the Narendra Modi establishment in a peculiar way. It keeps the Gandhis in frequent focus with the express purpose of sustaining the delusion that they are still the rallying point for a national opposition. This salience given to the Gandhis keeps them in the public eye and thereby a massive roadblock in the way of any opposition unity, particularly since the Gandhis and their limping cohorts constantly "emote" an urge to "revive". They know that such a revival is impossible but the belief serves a purpose indicated above: it obstructs opposition unity. The media is content with the simplicity of the tweedledum versus tweedledee narrative. After all, coalitions and regional diversities are complexities impossible to contain in soundbytes.
In recent times, a story that has wafted out of the Gandhi enclosure is one of differences between them. Sonia Gandhi, with reliable retainers like Ahmad Patel is averse to rocking any boat. Status quo, uncomfortable though it be, is about the best she sees for the brood in the given circumstances. Her listless politics is also a function of her indifferent health.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra's status quoism derives from her personal anxieties, family problems and an inability to cope with responsibilities. Ask Kishori Lal Sharma, appointed years ago to nurse the "family boroughs" of Rae Bareli and Amethi and he will guardedly spill the beans. The poor fellow's Stan Hardy (as in Laurel and Hardy) moustache greyed waiting for Priyanka to address the "Congress volunteers". But Priyanka, like Godot, never showed up.
Rahul Gandhi, meanwhile, is being more assertive about beliefs he has long held and which approximate to the line Rajiv Gandhi enunciated at the 1985 Congress Centenary in Mumbai chastising the "power brokers". Is Rahul Gandhi looking for that kind of a platform?
In 1969, when his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, split the Congress away from the "power brokers", the regional satraps, the capitalists, eventually joined up with the Socialists and the RSS in the Bihar movement of 1974 under the leadership of arch Gandhian, Jayaprakash Narayan.
The 1969 split had a Left-Right dimension to it because it was in the context of the Cold War. In the post-Cold War world "Inequality" has emerged as the principal affliction of democracies where people's demands are dismissed as "populism". Crony capitalism thrives but no political party is allowed to find its feet if it intends to harness the discontent of the people who have borne the brunt of, say, the extended lockdown in India. There is a huge Left-of-Centre space for the opposition to occupy. It does not have to be terribly ideological. All it has to do is to make available to the people social benefits such as health, education, housing etcetera. Surely Rahul is aware of this opening, even though Sonia Gandhi is averse to any politics that would incur the wrath of the state.
Politics these days is at a standstill because of the lockdown, of course, but also because of what I call the "Eulalie" syndrome. This light hearted diversion comes from Wodehouse. The resourceful Jeeves has come to the assistance of his master, Bertie Wooster, at a particularly challenging moment. Spode, the Earl of Sidwik, has become a permanent social menace in a country house which is Bertie's favourite haunt. How to cut down Spode's bombast? That is Bertie's challenge. Jeeves provides the panacea. Bertie's has to sneak up to Spode and whisper, "I know all about Eulalie." Bertie follows Jeeves' advice. The result is electric. Spode becomes white as a sheet and collapses in the chair like a deflated balloon. It turns out that before Spode began to float in London's high society, he owned a store called Eulalie which sold lingerie known for its bras with bold designs. Eulalie, then is harmless blackmail. But the blackmail which has become the staple in contemporary politics is brutal.
A whisper on the National Herald case or Robert Vadra's land deals and Sonia Gandhi will begin to resemble Spode after the latter heard the threat made to him, "I know all about Eulalie."
After the BJP's stunning victory in UP in 2017, the opposition, armed with data on electoral fraud, sought Sonia Gandhi's permission to hold a press conference. She refused to get involved in "controversies". Likewise, she backed away from "snoopgate" which had both Modi and Amit Shah in difficulties.
Take a look at Lucknow. Jockeying has begun for the 10 Rajya Sabha seats from UP. Conventional wisdom concedes eight to the BJP and one to the SP. One would have expected the opposition to jointly keep the BJP out on the solitary remaining seat. But individual party leaders are in an almighty state of funk just in case the Enforcement Directorate comes knocking at their door.
Even though the opposition has a comfortable majority in the Upper House, the BJP rammed through nearly a hundred bills without any vote. A petrified Akhilesh Yadav is hiding behind columns to avoid political leaders who are pressing him to approach the Supreme Court. What if Yogi Adityanath sets the dogs on him?
In uniformed cities like New Delhi these examples of the ruling party's impunity, away from the media's critical glare, enhance an impression of the BJP's invincibility. Forgotten are dismal economic figures and the simple catalogue that the party is not in power in Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Odisha, West Bengal, Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Delhi. Just as your eye settles on these facts, India Today thrusts before you its poll results: Modi's approval ratings are 78 percent. Like the Priest in Kurosawa's Rashomon, you walk away nodding your head, "What is the truth?"
Saeed Naqvi is a senior Indian journalist, television commentator and interviewer.