The rhetoric doesn’t matter much to me. Who calls whom “shehzada” and “feku” and why is so much gravy at election time, that’s all. It’s what politicians do.
What does matter are the announced plans. Case in point, I’ve just heard, from one PM-aspirant, plans for a massive statue of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel at the site of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Memorial to Patel, of course. And this statue will cost Rs2,500 crore.
Pause a moment to let that number sink in, if you will. Here’s one point of comparison. Last Tuesday, the Maharashtra State Road Development Corporation (MSRDC) made a presentation to CM Prithviraj Chavan about a sea link between Bandra and Versova. The estimated cost?
Rs5,000 crore. Now I make no pronouncements on the desirability of sea links, nor on the certainty that this estimate will rise as the years go by. I only mean to juxtapose these two numbers. One statue of Patel can pay for half the Bandra-Versova link.
Makes you wonder: how would Patel himself have reacted? Everything we were taught about this Iron Man of India tells me that he would have abhorred a statue of himself, and abhorred much more this obscene amount to build it. Of course, he died over 60 years ago, and I’m sure we could argue this point for another 60 without any meaningful resolution. But it’s still worth remembering the kind of man this was: no-nonsense, strong-willed and uninterested in the frippery of privilege. For those reasons, a giant of our freedom struggle, and indeed of modern Indian history.
For those reasons too, I know it like I know the back of my hand: the Sardar would have scoffed at this statue. Why then does the 21st century government of his state plan to build it?
When you ask that question — and in fact others like it — fans of that government offer an odd response that I’d be hard-pressed to call an answer. “What about when Congress governments erected monuments and named things after Indira and Rajiv and Nehru and Sanjay and even the Mahatma?” they will say. “What about when Mayawati built all those statues of herself in Lucknow? What about all that? If they can do it, so can we!”
Consider: how does this “we” react to the sins of the Congress and the Mayawatis and various other parties? By not repeating them, perhaps? By finding a better way, maybe, especially, if “we” are seeking to form a government ourselves? Not on your life! The country may have tired of the misdeeds of the Congress and turned to “us” for answers, but “we” have none. “We” must commit the same sins, but on an even grander scale. And once “we” plan to do that, it’s wise to promptly start up the “what about” refrain. Because really, “we” have no answers.
Because really, “we” are no different from that “we” seek to replace.
Then again, there is indeed something to that use of “shehzada”.
But start with something of a rewind. In 2002, the country’s then-Chief Election Commissioner became a target. Prior to that year’s assembly elections in Gujarat, the CEC ordered a postponement of polling, from July to December. He believed that the security situation in that state, in the wake of months of widespread killing, would not allow for a free and fair election.
Whether you agreed with this assessment or not, and whatever your thoughts on the massacres, it was and remains the CEC’s job, as a Constitutionally appointed officer, to conduct elections in the fairest possible climate. In choosing to postpone the election, he was simply doing the job expected of him.
But, naturally, this was not good enough for the then-Chief Minister of the state. Seeking re-election that year, he was anxious to hold elections as soon as possible. (My own theory: because he didn’t want his electorate’s memory of the violence to fade). Thus he was furious at the CEC’s decision. At election meetings across his state, he repeatedly told his audiences that the postponement was an insult to Gujarat and its people.
That exercise in absent logic aside, he also repeatedly referred to the CEC, JM Lyngdoh, by his full name, James Michael Lyngdoh.
The implication he wanted his listeners to take home without needing to actually say it: Lyngdoh is Christian. Even if you don’t know the name “Lyngdoh” — who knows what kind of people you find in far-off Meghalaya anyway — you have “James” and “Michael” to guide you. And they tell you that this man is not one of “us”. He might even be acting at the behest of that other prominent Christian, Sonia Gandhi, and doing so because of their shared Christianity. She’s not to be trusted, as this man is not to be trusted.
Not very subtle, but then when have election tactics had use for subtlety anyway?
Cue this year’s sort-of reprise, with “shehzada”. The same Chief Minister has his sights now set higher, but his efforts at insinuation remain at the same level. Absolutely nothing wrong with referring to Rahul Gandhi, that son of power and privilege, as a prince. But why “shehzada” and not “rajkumar”? Why the Urdu word and not the Hindi one?
The answer lies in the cynical use of that other Indian tragedy: that we have all come to associate a great Indian language, Urdu, only with Islam. The Machiavellian implications, I leave to you.
Rs2,500 crore. “Shehzada”. Low-intensity Bombs. Election time, folks. And it’s still early days.
What’s ahead? A derelict Congress party seeking to run on a name and a prayer that we’ll forget years of corruption and malaise. A BJP that offers only insinuation and empty symbols.
Where are you when we need you, a credible third force?
How does this “we” react to the sins of the Congress and the Mayawatis and other parties? By not repeating them? By finding a better way, maybe, especially, if “we” are seeking to form a government ourselves? Not on your life!
The author lives in Bombay and writes so he can keep his cats Cleo and Aziz fed. Views expressed are personal.