What was it about Narendra Modi’s latest speech that caused such a huge commotion? Almost every national newspaper considered it so important a matter that long editorials, bristling with outrage, were devoted to it. Senior ministers in the Government of India considered it their personal responsibility to censure the Gujarat Chief Minister on television. He was charged with not understanding our ‘political culture’ and with not behaving like a real national leader. The answer in a sentence is that the Nehru-Gandhi family is considered sacrosanct and any hint of criticism is treated as blasphemy. As someone who is routinely reviled for daring to question Sonia Gandhi, my sympathies lay with Modi but there is a more important point that needs to be made and this is that in a democracy no elected official has the right to be as unaccountable to the public as the Gandhi family has been.
The biggest difference between feudalism and democracy is that in a democracy ordinary people have every right to not just demand accountability from their representatives, but to criticise them publicly and to get rid of them if they continue to remain unaccountable. When we demand less than this we put ourselves in real danger of being ruled in totalitarian fashion. But, for reasons that I have never been able to fully understand, the mighty Indian media has permitted Sonia Gandhi to not just remain unaccountable, but to actually participate in guarding her privacy. In no other democratic country, for instance, would it be considered normal for a major political leader to fall ill and keep the nature of the illness secret. Nor do democratic countries permit elected leaders to wander off to foreign lands without demanding to know where they went and at whose cost but in India we have never asked questions like this of Sonia Gandhi or her children. What is worse is that if someone, like your humble columnist, asks such questions then you end up as I have with the label ‘Sonia-baiter’ pinned on you.
When my book Durbar came out recently, some reviewers went to the extent of saying that it would have been a better book if I had not allowed my ‘personal feelings’ about Sonia to come in the way. The truth is that my personal feelings have nothing to do with this but I do believe that as the most important leader in India what she does and says has to be within the realm of criticism. It has to be otherwise we would be following feudal and not democratic rules. I believe further that the media should not have allowed her to get away with giving no interviews. It is the public’s right to know her views on important matters since she has played a definite role in making policy
Modi said nothing in his speech at last Sunday’s BJP meeting that was even slightly offensive. He expressed the view that the interests of the Congress Party and the country had been sacrificed to the interests of ‘The Family’ and this, he said, had weakened the polity. Is this more offensive than Sonia Gandhi having called him a ‘merchant of death’ in the 2007 election campaign in Gujarat? Is it any more offensive than Sonia having called Atal Bihari Vajpayee a ‘liar’ and a ‘traitor’ in the days when she was a political novice? Just as she had every right to criticise her political opponents, so does Modi. If his criticism of the ‘parivar’ has caused the equivalent of a political earthquake then it could be because there is more at stake than is immediately obvious.
Whenever a member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been in power in Delhi, a court or ‘durbar’ forms around them. In recent times, because of Sonia’s aloofness from ordinary people, the power of this court has grown exponentially. It is not just her political favourites who shield her from lesser political beings but journalists and even socialites. When Durbar came out, it puzzled me that the book was attacked most furiously on the cocktail circuit and especially by a large and loud socialite whose son is a close friend of Rahul Gandhi. At almost every social event I attended in Lutyens Delhi, I found myself accosted by people who told me they had heard bad things about the book from this lady. When I tried to find out why from one of her friends, she smiled and said, “You see she thinks of the Gandhi family as her personal property and she doesn’t like anyone writing anything against them.”
With Modi having made his intentions to enter national politics abundantly clear in his recent speeches, a terrible panic has begun to spread among those who constitute the court that surrounds the ‘parivar’. They have begun to fear that the privileged access that they have had for nearly a decade is now in danger of being lost for good. They fear that even their friends in the BJP will be thrown into the dustbin if Narendra Modi becomes Prime Minister and that there will be new equations into which they will not fit and new rules that they will not understand. A businessman who listened carefully to Modi’s speech said, “Not only has he changed the agenda, he has changed the idiom. It is the first time that I have heard any political leader discuss complicated ideas of governance and economics in Hindi. It has never happened ever.”
So what they fear in Delhi’s murky political corridors and elegant drawing rooms is that the advent of Modi bodes ill for them in every possible way. This is why there has been such hysteria over his having dared to attack the ‘parivar’. He talked of many other things in his speech, important things like why India had been left behind economically by countries that had been behind us. And, the importance of ending the sense of hopelessness that has spread across the land but these are not the points on which long editorials have been written and noisy panel discussions held. It is his attack on the ‘parivar’ that has been more discussed than anything else because the sycophants who surround the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty from political, media and social circles are beginning to see his advent as an existential threat.