Monday, May 12, 2014



Priyanka Erred in Saying Amethi Will Never Forgive Modi

Patrick French is an award-winning historian and political commentator. His books include 'Liberty or Death: India's Journey to Independence and Division', 'The World Is What It Is' and 'India: A Portrait'.

Politicians like to embrace well-known figures from the past, and to be identified with their status. Jayalalithaa does it with M. G. Ramachandran, Narendra Modi does it rather cheekily with a former Congress home minister, Sardar Patel, and Sonia Gandhi does it with several forebears from her late husband's family. Just about everybody does it with Bhagat Singh, an all-purpose revolutionary historical hero, in part because of the reputation of popular films like Shaheed and Rang De Basanti.

How well does all this play with the voters? It depends very much on the reverberation of the name from history, and whether or not people today feel a sense of inspiration or respect when they hear a mention of the distant figure from the past.

Sometimes the reverence for the departed leader is confined mainly to the internal theology of a particular political party, which is why it was a mistake for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, on the basis of slim provocation, to accuse Narendra Modi of insulting her martyred father in Amethi and to say that the voters would never forgive him.

If the average Indian is now aged 26, it means that he or she was only one year old when Rajiv Gandhi was voted out of office in 1989, and just three when he was assassinated. Although he was by all accounts a likeable personality and a good airline pilot, even his admirers would not claim he was a brilliant prime minister, which is to be expected given that he was swept into power without any experience or qualifications. Few of the new generation of voters will be making their decision about which button to press in the privacy of the polling booth on the basis of the apparent accomplishments of a prime minister from back in the 1980s.

Yet despite this, the Congress continues to invoke Rajiv Gandhi's name with an expectation that it will carry influence with the electorate. On his birth anniversary last year, one national newspaper carried no fewer than 10 advertisements praising his achievements.

One of them, presumably paid for by the taxpayer since it was credited to the Ministry of Power, suggested, "His vision guides Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana, a Programme to bridge the urban-rural gap and provide reliable and quality power to rural India." Another advert, this time promoted by the nation's Ministry of Steel, said: "A True Winner Always Comes Out On Top."

Although the ministers whose names featured alongside the late leader's surely hoped that such publicity would enhance their position with the party leadership, it will bring them little clear benefit on polling day. Dynastic or hereditary politics is by no means exclusive to the Congress, but the endorsement of figures from the past has less impact than it once did. How inspiring it would be if political parties focused only on the stars of the present and future when making their pitch to lead the nation: fame by association is always less impressive than fame by achievement.

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