The previous few weeks of these marathon elections have thrown up some wonderful nuggets. Here, in no particular order, are three things we have learned recently.
1. It’s best to leave politicians’ personal lives alone unless they throw some sharp light, or have a direct effect, on a politician’s ability to do their job fairly. If you make a gratuitous foray into a political figure’s private life there will be, in this new India, an adverse and unprofitable reaction. So, the whole brouhaha about Narendra Modi’s wife was completely pointless and unfair, and took energy away from the valid questions opponents could have been asking Modi. Gujarat, and indeed India, is full of instances where political husbands and wives (and their children) lead very separate lives; one of the great criticisms levelled at M.K. Gandhi himself is his treatment of Kasturba and his children, but this takes nothing away from what MKG contributed to our society. Likewise, Mrs Modi’s absence from her husband’s public life has nothing to do with Modi’s track record as a politician and chief minister. Similarly, the absence of a visible partner in Rahul Gandhi’s life has no bearing on his credentials (or lack thereof) to lead India or the corruption rampant in the UPA. Save a few places like America’s Bible Belt, people the world over are increasingly unbothered about whether a politician is married or single, gay or lesbian, living in a ménage à trois or a strict brahmachari — delivery of governance is what matters. In India, the common citizen may not say this too loudly just yet, but, certainly, the much talked about young voters care little about our leaders’ domestic arrangements, even as they are passionate about getting those same leaders’ sanctimonious 19th-century paws off their own private lives.
In the eyes of these young people — and of many others — Digvijay Singh and his journalist partner have done superbly well under a dirty attack. With exemplary straightforwardness the two of them have given short shrift to any hopes their detractors might have had of eliciting shiftiness or shame. Even more laudably, the journalist’s husband has come out in support of the couple, stating clearly that his marriage is about to be terminated and there is nothing underhand or immoral in the bond his soon to be ex-wife and Mr Singh have formed. The real question in this case is who hacked into the journalist’s computer to release private photographs on the internet. There is no evidence yet that allows us to lay the blame specifically, but we can safely say whoever did it, counting no doubt on gaining moralistic advantage, has scored a massive own-goal and increased Digvijay Singh’s public stature. Whoever takes over after May 16, they will have to take serious note of this moment in Indian public life.
2. The Baba-log, or rather the Bebi-log, are striking back. Indira Gandhi’s spirit is, right now, dancing raas-garbaa in the heavens. If you were to take a tracking shot of just the stride of the feet under the sari, you could be forgiven for thinking you were back in the early 1970s. She has the same chutzpah and confidence. She’s taller and milder but there is something, some nuclear genetic core, that is immediately recognizable. If you’re of a certain age, you keep searching for that streak of white in the black hair — drat, where has it gone? Even the timbre of the voice is similar, pure N-family, unalloyed by either dhansak or ossobuco. It is said some qualities jump a generation. Rajiv Gandhi certainly didn’t have what his daughter does, and what she has goes by many labels — ‘star quality’, ‘natural charisma’ and ‘the common touch’ being just three. Watching Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra work the crowds in Amethi and Rae Bareli, you could be forgiven for wanting to take all the extraneous stuff on the table, Sanjay-Maneka-Varun, Sonia-Rahul, and sweeping it aside. People have been using various analogies: ‘their classiest batter coming in at No. 10’, ‘ a lovely little aria from a potentially great diva, pity she only appeared at the end of a disastrously off-tune opera’ and so on and so forth, but the fact is, in the space of ridiculously few days, without taking any helicopters or private jets, PGV has managed to make the mountain of Indian media come to her. This is because she does something that almost no major campaigner other than Arvind Kejriwal has managed in this heavy artillery war of bombast — she meets your eyes, ‘voh noermal-si baat karti hai’, she talks ‘normally’, self-deprecatingly and with humour, communicating an unperturbed honesty. Once you work past the similarities with her paternal grandmother, it’s actually the differences that stand out. What Priyanka conveys is that she’s basically good-natured but tough, not primarily tough with a layer of good nature possibly lurking somewhere underneath (the tack chosen by both Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi), she takes questions on the chin unlike Indira Gandhi who, in a different way from Modi, used to visibly bristle at any critical questioning, and most importantly, while Priyanka is proud, she doesn’t think that grandly of herself, she’s just a daughter and a younger sister helping out, and if that means being targeted about her husband then, no problem, here she is.
Will Priyanka win the election for the Congress? No. Are the various Congress courtiers right in protesting that she’s just a ‘private citizen’? Again, no, she’s closely related to two of the most important political figures in the country, and campaigning for them, and that means she can’t really hide behind the curtain of ‘private citizen’ and neither, beyond a point, can her husband. Does it mean she will play a big role in the Congress from this point on? No, but expect to see her as a core member of the team along with a few completely new faces, a couple of years down the line. One of the current quips goes: ‘Priyanka’s entry has nothing to do with 2014, this is the beginning of Fightback 2019’. This may or may not be accurate, and this may centrally hinge upon Priyanka being able to tell the spouse in the pink trousers to get on one of his super-bikes and zoom off (remember the earlier bit about politicians leading separate lives from their spouses), but in any case it will be worth keeping a close watch on her.
3. FGFC and IGFC, that is, Foreign-Grown Foreign Commentators and Indian-Grown Foreign Commentators. We who form the Opinionati-Indica like to say we don’t care about know-nothing foreigners and those pesky rightist or lefty NRIs, but we do. What we’ve learned over the last few weeks is that while the Modi juggernaut may have managed to push aside charges of communalism in different pockets of the country (or, even, deployed them advantageously in places through an array of dog-whistle gambits), the issues thrown up by the Gujarat violence of 2002 aren’t going away any time soon in the international arena. There is a wide array of people, in various positions of power in the West, who are deeply alarmed by the rise of Narendra Modi. It might be tempting for Modi’s supporters to try and label most of his critics abroad as ‘Westernized, out of touch jhola-wallas’ but it won’t wash. The line-up of artists and academics who have come out against Modi is startling. Like it or not, the signatories of the various letters in the Western press are internationally the best-known, most respected artists and academics, either of Indian origin or who engage deeply with India. The world knows us through these people and if they say something in large unison the global community is bound to listen. Among the most articulate voices are people who in Britain would be identified as coming from a ‘Hindu-Gujarati’ background. Among the signatories are people who’ve studied the US- and UK-based Hindu fundamentalist groups in enormous detail for years; there are women who have a very public record of fighting attacks from extremists of all religions, not least the jihadi Islamists; there are academics who’ve produced solid analyses of Indian society backed by huge field research; there are reputable human rights lawyers who are known not to be easily swayed by the shibboleths of the Left; there are people here, with no trace of pinkness, who believe that a free market is inseparable from genuine freedom of speech and the right to life. These people are too varied and too smart to be easily taken in by a few ‘lefty-liberals’ writing in India’s English press. Among these signatories there is hardly any love for the Congress; nor did many of them shed tears at the decimation of the Left Front in Bengal.
Then, separate from these groups which people might club as the ‘arty-academic-human rights lot’ (but a very influential lot), are the Christian church groups of different denominations, with people working in India’s interior, who have serious, unanswered questions they’ve asked of Modi. These are groups that have huge global influence. Now, are all these people, with one voice, demanding a boycott of an India ruled by Narendra Modi? Not at all. However, if Modi does become the prime minister, thus fulfilling the hopes and huge investment of his many NRI supporters, what it will mean is that the whole issue of the Gujarat killings and their long and ugly aftermath will come under international scrutiny as never before. His marital situation may be of no interest to the world, and he may not be saddled with a spouse accused of illegally amassing huge wealth, but if he takes over the prime ministership of India Modi will find that there is no divorcing himself from the black events of Gujarat in 2002.