By Seeking Bail, the Gandhis Have Taken Baby Steps Towards Political Sainthood
Stone walls do not a prison make, but a stint in prison stonewalls, by default, all doubts about the stature of political leaders. The symbiosis between prison and politics creates living heroes. Historically, jails and courtrooms have served as incubators, which nurse budding leaders to become future customers for the tenacious tailors of populism, who will measure them for new suits to fit their newly acquired political height. Last weekend, the national political discourse and narrative centered on the question whether jail instead of bail would be the best option for Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to vitaminise their leadership and boost the shrunk cachet of the Congress. They have taken their baby steps towards political sainthood by presenting themselves before the court and seeking bail. Both belong to a pedigree whose members have spent long or short stints in gaol before becoming national leaders. Their bloodline trend began with Motilal Nehru and ended with Indira Gandhi. It was only Rajiv Gandhi who couldn’t get the political opportunity to gatecrash jail in spite of the Bofors calamity, leaving voters to judge his case instead.
The paradox is that Mahatma Gandhi’s prison days led to his Experiments with Truth as the patriarch of the Congress and Independence, who only had the national interest in mind, while the Gandhi family’s evocative experiments with jail had little to do with public causes. This time, they have converted a mere court attendance into an opportunity to hit back at PM Modi. BJP leader Subramanian Swamy has accused them, along with five others, of illegally grabbing assets of the defunct National Herald newspaper. A local court summoned both mother and son to appear before it to legally argue against the allegations. Since it was for the first time that both were called to appear by any court, the party saw it as a golden opportunity to catapult them as victims of Modi government’s “politics of vendetta”.
The Congress strategy is in tune with the age-old conduct of leaders in India and other democratic societies, who seek revival of their relevance. For Sonia and Rahul, it was just an act of picking a page from the history of political battles fought by the Gandhis. Indira Gandhi converted the punitive action initiated by the Morarji Desai-led government in 1977 to re-establish herself as the populist queen who would rather fight than bow before the might of the state. On October 4, 1977, a day after she was arrested for political corruption by the Janata Party government, the court released her unconditionally. Her feisty offspring Sanjay Gandhi chose to face a lathi charge along with his Youth Congress followers. It was their ‘jail bharo’ strategy that brought the family back to power within 30 months. Ironically, the Gandhis succeeded in voting out a government, of which most ministers, including PM Desai, had spent over a year incarcerated during the Emergency. Even today, many national leaders and Union ministers have acquired their current elevated moral status by going to jail accidentally or by design. Many current and former CMs carry the proud tag of jailbirds. If Lalu Prasad, Nitish Kumar, Parkash Singh Badal and Karunanidhi have become leaders of note, it is partially thanks to their brief landings in jailyards.
The romance between gaol and politics has been a most effective method to rocket many leaders to power in other countries as well. In Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif became PM again because he was exiled by General Musharraf. Benazir Bhutto’s party won a massive mandate because her father, Zulfikar Ali, was jailed and executed by another general, Zia-ul Haq. The post-mortem charisma of Quaid-i-Awam—beloved of the people—Bhutto Senior acquired after his hanging rubbed off on his daughter’s popularity. In Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi—who spent two decades in jail at the instance of the junta—scored a political victory when her National League for Democracy won the parliamentary elections last month. Though Suu Kyi is constitutionally barred from holding any top political office, she had the mandate to influence the choice of Myanmar’s next president, because of her stature as a living symbol of political martyrdom. Nelson Mandela was elected the first President of apartheid-free South Africa after his release from jail, where he spent 27 years. Mandela had said prophetically, “It is said that no one truly knows a nation until one has been inside its jails. A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens, but its lowest ones.”
Since politics is supposed to be about public service and protecting the marginalised, politicians find jail as an effective habitat to learn about poverty and criminalisation. Learning from history and experiments in various countries, Indian parties from the Left to the Right have been encouraging their cadres to adopt issues and tactics, which would lead to agitations, in turn leading to short jail terms. There is hardly any protest in the country in which agitators do not violate laws and land in the lockup. Applications sent to party headquarters by various candidates seeking nominations to the state legislatures and Parliament prominently mention jail terms as a sterling qualification. The joke is that many accidental Emergency prisoners are still lobbying with Modi to accommodate them in lucrative government assignments on the strength of their stay in jail between 1975 and 1977.
For the Gandhis, however, courting jail is not a tactic to seek any office. Both are Lok Sabha members and hold the first and second position in the Congress respectively. If the thought of spending some time in prison ever struck their minds, it would be purely prompted by the strategy to kill two birds with one stone. If either or both had been denied bail, it would have diverted popular attention from the National Herald case and rallied the dispirited party behind the family. The Gandhis also expect Congressmen to bury their factional fights and save their moribund political enterprise as well as dent the PM’s popular image. The Congress is not leaving any opportunity to hit the NDA government. From the Vyapam scam in Madhya Pradesh to corruption in DDCA, it is determined to convert every visible slippage by any NDA leader into a cause for hitting the streets. Since the next general election is 40 months away, the Gandhi gameplan will unfold soon. Its basic contours revolve around agitational politics, which will provide enough chances to Rahul to be photographed behind the bars. A stay in jail is the only prized qualification missing from his resume. He is itching for symbolic handcuffs to give both the Congress Hand and himself a hand.
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