Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s greatest and most powerful political dynasty and general-secretary/vice-president of the ruling Congress Party, has condemned the “politics of hatred” of the principal opposition, the right-wing, nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, ahead of next year’s general election.
Rahul even suggested that the type of extremist rhetoric employed by the BJP is similar to the toxic divisiveness that contributed to the assassinations of his grandmother, Indira, and father, Rajiv, both former prime ministers of India. Rahul said he, too, may one day become a victim of political violence.
The Press Trust of India reported that at a rally in Churu, Rajasthan, Gandhi spoke of a visit he recently made to the Muzaffarnagar district of the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, the site of fierce sectarian violence between Hindus and Muslims in August. More than 40 people were killed in the clashes, requiring the deployment of the army to restore order. Reportedly, some local BJP officials made incendiary speeches to local Hindu farmers urging them to fight Muslims.
“I was seeing my face in their grief,” Gandhi said of the Hindu and Muslim villagers in Muzaffarnagar. “In them, I saw my story. In their pain, I saw my face. That is why I am so against communal politics. That is why I want India to stay united, that is why I want us to be one… That is why I am against their [BJP's] politics....What do they do? They will put Muzaffarnagar on fire, Gujarat on fire, [Uttar Pradesh] on fire and Kashmir on fire and then you and we will have to douse that. This damages the country.”
Then Rahul Gandhi made it personal, by relating his own family’s tragic history. “My grandmother was killed,” he said. My father was assassinated and perhaps I may also be killed one day. I am not bothered. I had to tell you what I felt from the heart.”
In October 1984, Indira Gandhi was murdered by her two Sikh bodyguards, Satwant Singh and Beant Singh, as retaliation for the government’s storming of the Golden Temple – the holiest shrine of Sikhism -- in Amritsar, Punjab, earlier that year. Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated in May 1991 in a suicide bombing carried out by members of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, a separatist organization from Sri Lanka. The BJP was not linked to either of those killings. Nonetheless, Rahul attempted to make a connection between the violence of prior militant groups and the current language of the BJP.
“Anybody can get angry,” he said. “The anger is deliberately put into people. Politicians do it. [The] interested party does it. And then the common man, who is hurt, has to carry this anger with him. He moves everywhere with this anger. That is why I am against the politics of BJP. Because what they do is that they hurt [people] for political gains.”
Not surprisingly, BJP figures attacked Gandhi for his comments and called them a ploy to generate sympathy votes for a corrupt party (the Congress-led UPA) that has failed to perform. "It is very unfortunate that Rahul has spoken about the assassination of his grandmother … during electioneering and made an emotional appeal to the people to vote for Congress," senior BJP official Ravishanker Prasad told reporters. "It's very mean on the part of the Congress vice president to harp on the sacrifices made by his family about which the country already knows. … It [Rahul's speech in Rajasthan] also explains [why] your government has nothing to offer as far as the problems of modern India is concerned.” Prasad added that Gandhi’s sentimental appeals will likely fail, citing that "today's youth is not moved by these emotional things but they are more concerned about their future."
Another BJP figure, spokeswoman Meenakshi Lekhi, suggested that Gandhi needed to study history again. “5,500 riots have happened in the country post-2002 [since communal riots in Gujarat], and most states where these riots have happened …the government is run by the Congress. … He will do better by studying these subjects [of history] deeply,” she said.
The leader of the BJP, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, has a history of making inflammatory comments about Muslims and other minorities. His alleged involvement with the deadly 2002 riots in Gujarat may always taint his career (he openly supported the Hindu nationalists during the disturbances and was even accused of condoning such acts against Muslims).
Michael Kugelman, South Asia senior associate at the Woodrow Wilson Center, told International Business Times that while the BJP has not distinguished itself with respect to such issues as pluralism, diversity and tolerance and indeed carries a lot of “baggage,” Rahul Gandhi’s emotional appeals to his family’s tragedies were largely uncalled for. “I think a lot of it had to do with electioneering in what looks like a tough battle to stay in power for Congress,” he said.
In the event that Modi wins the election next year and becomes the prime minister of the world’s biggest democracy, Kugelman said that might bring “discomfort” to some segments of the U.S. government, especially in light of Modi’s and the BJP’s harsh rhetoric against China and Pakistan. “But India is simply too big and important to ignore or marginalize,” he noted. “I think Washington will work with Modi and find some way to engage him.”
Kugelman also rejects the notion that the BJP is analogous to the tea party wing of the Republicans in the United States. “There may be some ideological similarities between then, but keep in mind that the BJP is a mainstream conservative party with many of its members in high positions of political power,” he said. “In fact, Modi is the leader of one of India’s most important and prosperous states, Gujarat. In contrast, the tea party is quite small and represents a tiny fringe of the GOP.”
Palash has worked as a business journalist for 21 years in New York.