As this column is on the Congress party, I offer first and foremost a trigger warning: it is not going to be about what ails it and the usual litany of complaints against it or its leadership. You can save the next five minutes of your life if that’s what you are expecting and stop reading right here. The Congress party has had a rather good week of mobilised action combined with combative words and images, which indicates that it is gearing up for a fight. Is this a new Congress in the making? Before I hazard a guess, I am going to offer two main provocations as to why many Indians love to hate the Congress and even obsessively so sometimes.
I have in mind especially those vociferous haters of the Congress party who belong to the once old but ever-expanding establishment of the educated, English-speaking, metropolitan or city dwelling elite. They may or may not have become full-fledged devotees of Hindutva. Some of them are now captivated by Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP).
As a once-dominant party, the Congress has always had its critics and opponents but this ‘love to hate the Congress’ routine is only a decade-old trend. At that very moment, I started to observe the Congress party seriously and really for the first time. My interest remains on political ideas, both old and new, and the promise and perils they offer. There is a lot that can be said about ideological wars currently raging in India and across the globe. But I want to capture today, however crassly, some prevailing sentiments and the psychic life of politics they are fuelling.
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Age of Anger
In his remarkable book Age of Anger: A History of the Present, essayist and novelist Pankaj Mishra singles out the power of political sentiments. The ace sentiment underlying the anger of our age is resentment. You don’t have to know your Nietzsche—who first wrote about it—to recognise resentment. It is a toxic, if potent, combination of both desiring and despising that you wish to emulate or even become. Politically and socially, it has been associated as a syndrome of a rising elite. Often this is amped up as a struggle against the old, fake, decadent and the tired by the new, young, brave and above all, real. Or westernism against nativism. Or the metropolitan against the provincial. And so on.
This has indeed been the storyline in India for the last 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. Critically, it was not staged as a contest between Hindutva and liberal-socialism, in the years leading up to 2014. Resentment effectively erases and replaces underlying clashes of political ideas with an emotional vocabulary of competitive envy.
Corruption thus unsurprisingly became the clarion call of the so-called new era, because it captured both old-world decadence and up-to-date financial scamming. As widely noted, corruption is the classic anti-political cause because no individual let alone party will argue for it. In the end, it didn’t matter whether the centrepiece of that campaign or the notorious 2G ‘scam’ figure was real. It was as real a metaphor as they get. Corruption crucially captured resentment as both disgust and envy, and that made people’s minds all too quickly against the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government.
I am not saying that there were no financial irregularities. Rather, the charge of corruption ensured that Hindutva was disguised as populism. It certainly disallowed the Congress party to lay any claims to its record on governance, especially the economy, communal amity, or fundamental rights that it had all enhanced. Inciting rage, the issue of corruption gave the softest landing to the newly formed AAP, mainly due to the unconditional love it got from a then all-powerful and entirely 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 near-obsessive focus on the Congress’ leadership in this ‘love to hate the Congress’ syndrome is because it fulfils a major psychic need. The beating of the dynasty drum allows for the displacement and purging of guilt. This especially holds true for the ‘middle classes’: most widely and broadly defined from the lower-end salariat to middle and high income and the plain ugly 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 stratum has loudly aced the dumping of its own responsibility in this convenient manner. The aggressive hostility noticed in regular rants and taunts against the Congress, and especially Rahul Gandhi, testifies this all too visibly.
India’s social fabric, to say nothing of caste, is equal to family. Look no farther than your local grocery store, or to any lawyer’s or even dentist’s chambers, small or posh, or film, media, academia: name any profession or business, the Indian family rules. 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 sucking up and pushing down, and social cohesion is equally policed by strict codes of insiders and outsiders. But in singling out and making Rahul Gandhi a punching bag allows you to forget, if not atone, your complicity and at the same time enables you to virtue-signal and espouse ‘merit’ and competition.
Perhaps no one is more guilty of this displacement than the media. Simply put, the mainstream as well as most regional media goes after Rahul Gandhi now, aggressively and frontally with the same-old tired tropes, mainly because it must deploy its considerable powers of criticism somewhere. Benched by the ruling dispensation, the Indian media vents in this manner simply because it can do to the Congress what it can’t do elsewhere. If populism cloaked Hindutva, then the drum of dynasty hides the true work of authority now. Since it is a political party and not a social media influencer, the under-attack Congress cannot take any solace in the influencer’s mantra of ‘haters gonna hate’ or keep calm and just carry on!
Last week’s public protest by the Congress party looks like it is not labouring under the old attitude of noblesse oblige to simply carry on. Sharp words and strategic action are now staging its new political rhetoric. To be sure, it ain’t the agitprop antics of the AAP. In squaring up the harsh reality of the economy against the passions of identity, Rahul Gandhi seeks new forms of political identification. In being fearless against the divisive, if powerful, politics of hate while aligning with the weak and vulnerable in an unforgiving economy, the Congress seems to return to its founding political principles. The party will need to charge its first political principles and virtues with the power of new sentiments of attachment.
The two fake storylines of corruption and dynasty, which speak entirely as self-descriptions of those who deploy them, can now no longer be cloaked in the cruel realities of staggering inequality and charged communal relations. Cosplays and violent spectacles of identity hatred that increasingly resemble bad B-grade Hindi films from the last century will be no match for the hunger games of the new global economy. By embracing his lineage, nay dynasty and as a family of sacrifice, Rahul Gandhi has called out and named our current moment after its true ideological nature. The gloves are off! The psychodramas of guilt and resentment are finally meeting 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)