Rahul Gandhi’s performances can often be misleading. One sees in them fragments of illiteracy and ham-handedness. Some critics present them as the lighter side of politics with some remark made by the Congress vice president functioning as the “lemon of the week”. It could be “suit-boot ki sarkar” or his more recent “khoon ki dalali”.
But sometimes controversies should be looked at not to emphasise individual idiosyncrasies but as symptoms of a collective problem. Gandhi, one must admit, puts it indelicately, his telegraphic or epigrammatic Hindi creating a B-grade film cameo. But B-grade films often reveal the crisis of the collective mind in India.
Gandhi recently took Prime Minister Narendra Modi by the horns, accusing him of sacrificing the blood of soldiers and of appropriating the credit for the surgical strikes on Pakistan. He was suggesting that Modi was confusing the effectiveness of governance with the power of the country’s institutions, especially the Indian Army. But in the way the Congress leader conveyed this, it was not the power of the Army but its changing role in Indian politics that has become problematic.
As a symbol, the Army is one of the pillars of Indian democracy, ensuring that civilian-military relations do not become one of today’s fault lines as they have in Pakistan. It was also a symbolic unifier with the slogan “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan” echoing the unity of the late Nehruvian years. Today, that slogan sounds nostalgic and filmy. And Gandhi, by appealing to that world view, made it sound like an empty slogan. Instead of summoning nostalgia, he conveyed a sense of ineptness. Yet, Gandhi sometimes has the gift of stumbling into a problem that echoes a collective impasse.
In today’s “aspirational” world, where aspiration itself is an official word, the Army does not score high in the success stakes. And it loses out to civilian life in mobility battles.
The Army was a challenging career when India was making a transition from agricultural to industrial life, when the Army served as a great educational force. Today, it lacks that halo. Our politicians wallow for years before they decide on a war memorial or deliberate on increasing a soldier’s paycheck. Our television channels are full of security consultants or anchors playing at war, but the Army as a symbolic force is missing.
Maybe, that is one of the changes Gandhi was pointing to, that the Army is not quite the icon and idol it once was. Oddly, this is happening at the very moment the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party has become jingoistic, militaristic and warlike. Yet, this very shadow play hides the fact that the Army is no longer the ideal it was.
The sociological fact is that changing roles of technology, knowledge, economy and middle-class world views are quietly marginalising the soldier. Today, the soldier is not quite the “sepoy” of colonial times or the “jawan” as he was affectionately called. As “soldier”, he is another occupational category, a worker and a part of a colourless workforce.
The power of symbol cannot paper over the ruthlessness of the sociological fact, that the Army is a weakened charismatic symbol. Gandhi blamed the BJP without realising the depth of the problem he encountered. Yet, by his raising the problem ineptly to the surface, one faces the fact that the Armed Forces Special Powers Act has affected the image of the Army, that men like the current chief lack the charisma of a Thimayya or a Cariappa, that civilian life has a charismatic glow the Army cannot match.
Today, the myths of courage and sacrifice make little sense. In an age of technological mayhem, the life and death of an individual soldier hardly counts. Out of patriotic duty, people praise the Army in moments of crisis, fully realising the banality of what they were saying the minute peace returns.
The Army needs to recapture itself symbolically. But this demands a political adeptness neither the BJP nor the Congress have. What we have instead is sentimentality, rhetoric, and a flood of hyperbole about sacrifice and martyrdom.
Sentimentality in a political sense creates schizophrenia. People shed crocodile tears even as blood is shed while being indifferent to peace as a problem. Civilian machismo becomes an index of indifference to the Army. The Army, rather than uniting the nation, reflects its splits and its tensions, and the sadness is that a commitment to peace is lost in the process. A global change is lost in the quarrelsomeness of a superficial politics. Maybe, the Rahul Gandhi phenomenon should be seen differently. From being a slapstick phenomenon, he is now the “wise idiot”, pointing to deeper problems a society does not confront or is afraid to think through.