I think Rahul Gandhi has made the most mature and intelligent political speech from an Indian leader in 30 years. I don’t think his father ever had this quality of penetration into India. That explains Rajiv Gandhi’s bewilderment at why he could change India little and perhaps not at all despite sitting on the biggest majority in our history (over 400 seats).
One reason is because Rajiv spent little time in rural India, as his grandfather had done with Mahatma Gandhi. At 40, he was prime minister when two years younger than his son is today, and far less knowledgeable than him about the ways of India.
There are two things that stand out in the speech. The first is Rahul’s recognition of the chaos of India, for which he used the image of the beehive. I think this is wonderful realism, and excellent imagery.
We cannot look on ourselves as a normal state and a normal culture given the levels of chaos, if not anarchy, around us. For most of us, even observing this is not possible, let alone accepting it. In this view, we are just like any other society, actually better, but our bad leaders have ruined it all. This is incorrect.
One of my favourite books is Maurice Maeterlinck’s Life of the Bee. To appreciate Rahul’s beehive parallel, see how Maeterlinck’s observations describe our society and the culture of our cities:
“The first impression (of someone observing a beehive) will be one of some disappointment. He had been told that it contained an unparalleled activity, an infinite number of wise laws, and a startling amalgam of mystery, experience, genius, calculation, science, of various industries, of certitude and prescience, of intelligent habits and curious feelings and virtues.” However, Maeterlinck continues, “All that he sees is a confused mass...their movements are slow, incoherent, and incomprehensible.”
Could the romance of India and its reality be better juxtaposed?
There’s more: “The bee is above all, and even to a greater extent than the ant, a creature of the crowd. She can live only in the midst of a multitude. When she leaves the hive, which is so densely packed that she has to force her way with blows of her head through the living walls that enclose her, she departs from her proper element.”
Again, for me, an excellent account of how Indians are.
Maeterlinck tells us to “not too hastily deduce from these facts conclusions that apply to man. He possesses the power of withstanding certain of nature’s laws.”
Clearly, the Belgian aristocrat did not have the opportunity to observe us.
The other thing that Rahul says, and it will deflate most of the middle class, is that our problems are not about to be resolved by the man on horseback.
A strongman, no matter how strong, no matter how well-meaning, no matter how efficient, cannot change culture. This can only be done from the inside, not externally.
But the attraction of the strongman as a quick solution is universal and eternal. It is the common man of Rome who voted Julius Caesar dictator (it is the refined aristocrats of the Senate, bless them, who despatched him). It is the bazari, the pious shopkeeper of Tehran, whose rebellion demanded that Ayatollah Khomeini return as tyrant.
These two observations tell us Rahul’s time in rural India has served him well. He has learned the limits of what the state can do to make India more livable. He has discovered an essential truth about India.
Critics of Rahul’s speech, my friend The Indian Express editor Shekhar Gupta is one, hold his political failures against him. It is true that Rahul is a political failure, both in Uttar Pradesh as well as in Bihar, the state where, Gupta points out, Rahul campaigned on homilies, banalities and, “Congress lost its deposits in 221 of 243 seats”.
Political success in India, particularly in Bihar, comes from tribalism and caste. There is no research to show that Nitish Kumar, the chief minister, has won his elections for anything other than bringing together castes through his alliance of socialists with Hindutva.
There is zero evidence to show that the Congress lost because of Rahul’s message, but let us accept he is a failure in politics. In any case that isn’t what his speech was about. He was describing to us fundamental aspects of India. If we accept his interpretation, we have to look at the problem differently than in terms of broad solutions coming to us through politics and elections and governance.
By most accounts, Rahul’s speech was a flop. It was like a good movie that flops. The content is rich and deep and may cause you to introspect. The audience, however, is seeking entertainment, and anticipates the hero on horseback coming to save the day.
Aakar Patel is a writer and a columnist.
Also Read | Aakar’s previous Lounge columns