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It’s the end of the road for the sacrifice saga

  • The ballad of the sacrifice of the Gandhis holds the Congress party together, but it doesn't get them votes
  • The narrative of sacrifice has been overtaken by the BJP's model of aspiration

A still from ‘Deewar’, a film in which Nirupa Roy plays the long-suffering, self-sacrificing mother of a policeman and a gangster.
A still from ‘Deewar’, a film in which Nirupa Roy plays the long-suffering, self-sacrificing mother of a policeman and a gangster.

During the 2014 election campaign, I remember watching a Rahul Gandhi-Priyanka Gandhi road show in Jayas near Amethi. Before the duo arrived, Congress workers were entertaining the waiting crowds with a piece of street theatre.

The topic, unsurprisingly, was the “Sacrifice of the Nehru-Gandhis". A young woman, wrapped in the tricolour, played dead. A few men carried her around in a circle while a man stood in tearful salute. That was supposed to be Indira Gandhi, of course. Soon a young man appeared and started talking about the internet. I realized that was Rajiv Gandhi, ushering in the digital age. Luckily, someone shouted “Priyanka-Rahul are here" before we got to his balidaan (sacrifice) and the macabre street theatre ended abruptly.

The Gandhis have paid the ultimate price undoubtedly. Their sacrifice cannot ever be denied. But that piece of street theatre also shows how the self-righteousness of that sacrifice hangs around the necks of the Congress leadership like an albatross.

When Rahul Gandhi finally assumed a leadership role as the vice-president of the Congress, he accepted it like a crown of thorns. He told his party that while they were congratulating him, his mother came to his room and wept. “She understands that the power so many people seek is actually a poison," he said.

While others seek power for gain, the Gandhis imbue it with a sense of self-sacrifice. Now, as he seeks to relinquish power, it is yet again soaked in that same aura of self-sacrifice rather than true zimmedari (responsibility) for the electoral rout. Gandhi is sacrificing his rightful claim to the throne in an act of Lord Ram-like nobility. Usually, the charade involves the Gandhis offering their resignation, and the party rejecting it on bended knee. This time, Gandhi is apparently sticking to his guns but as stories fly about him refusing to meet party leaders and chief ministers, it is clear this is an exit without a succession plan, something even an ordinary non-profit usually has.

The Congress, India’s grand old party, is floundering like a newborn in search of its umbilical cord. Karan Thapar writes in the Hindustan Times (16 June) that the Congress is damned if it does cling to Gandhi and damned if it does not. There is a high probability that he could lead the Congress to a third consecutive defeat. On the other hand, a Congress without a Gandhi at the helm could steadily fall apart. “Despite his personal failings as a leader, (Rahul) is the glue that holds it together," writes Thapar.

Rather, it is the ballad of the sacrifice of the Gandhis that holds the party together and gives it a sense of moral superiority. While political pundits speculate about what the Congress should do now to save itself, what’s fascinating is the way the party seems trapped in this straitjacket of self-sacrifice. The Gandhis’ claim to power is not Gandhi’s electoral prowess but the sacrifices of his forebears. Senior leader Veerappa Moily says Gandhi needs to quell infighting with “an iron hand" but someone needs to wipe off the glycerine of sacrifice first. The Congress has to want to win and not feel that it is owed victory because of the sacrifices of those who came before.

That strategy worked for the longest time. We have been raised in the Mother India/Nirupa Roy school of self-sacrifice. Rasheed Kidwai, author of Neta Abhineta: Bollywood Star Power In Indian Politics (2018), writes that a Mumbai daily sought Mahatma Gandhi’s message “on the occasion of the 25th year of Indian cinema". Gandhi had no interest in cinema but the post-independence generation of film-makers like V. Shantaram, Mehboob Khan and Raj Kapoor imbibed his values and their films dealt, writes Kidwai, with “the core themes of Gandhian ideology—non-violence, love and sacrifice, Hindu-Muslim unity, the rural-urban divide, rejection of crass commercialism, women’s emancipation, and fear of moral decay".

Mother India (1956), the ultimate paean to sacrifice, grossed about 6 crore at the box office, one of the greatest Indian hits of all time. My mother’s generation wept gallons over the Bengali film Uttar Falguni (1963), remade as Mamta (1966) in Hindi, where Suchitra Sen limpidly played a “fallen" woman who gives up her daughter so the child can have a better future. And, of course, Nirupa Roy’s was the epitome of motherly self-sacrifice in Deewar, where the wayward son got his gaadi (car), bungalow and bank balance while the righteous one got the mother. The moral was always the same. Ultimately, the meek who sacrifice shall inherit the earth. And the mother.

But the ground reality has shifted in the new India. Narendra Modi is the first Indian prime minister born after independence. Indians read his life story less as a saga of sacrifice than as a model of aspiration—from tea-seller to prime minister. When Modi went to the US for the first time as prime minister, he addressed a crowd of jubilant non-resident Indians (NRIs) at Madison Square Garden. He told them that balidaan was embedded in the national psyche, that a mahapurush always showed up to sacrifice for the country during its darkest hour. The year was 2014. A century earlier, in 1915, Mahatma Gandhi had returned to India and led a people’s movement for independence. Modi too exhorted his cheering fans to be part of a jan andolan for vikaas (progress).

However, this andolan would not require anyone to burn foreign-made clothes, which was just as well since his audience was largely NRI. They would not even have to return to India à la Shah Rukh Khan in Swades. He asked them to give their suggestionson the MyGov website. He promised lifetime visas for PIO (person of Indian origin) card holders and visas on arrival for American tourists. Unlike former US president John F. Kennedy, he did not say “ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country". Instead, he flattered the NRI sense of entitlement, absolving them of the guilt of being the prodigal sons.

Modi understood instinctively what the Congress still struggles to grasp—the emotional blackmail of sacrifice pays increasingly lower dividends in a changing India that is far more interested in individual success and bank balance, bungalow and car.

Demonetization was presented as a project of sacrifice. We were chided for resenting standing in a queue at the bank when the jawans (soldiers) were sacrificing so much more at the border. But no Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) minister came forward to be a poster boy for sacrifice, to practise what the leadership preached. And the narrative quickly became about punishing fat-cat black marketers and ushering in a cashless India Shining. In 2013, when Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit tried to tell an angry electorate that she felt their pain about the spiralling price of onions, she said she too had to do without onions in her bhindi (okra) for weeks. She lost the election.

At the American Democratic Convention in July 2016, Khizr Khan, a Pakistani-American lawyer who lost his son in the Iraq war, put his hand over his heart and addressed Donald Trump: “You have sacrificed nothing. And no one." When confronted with Khan’s comments, a spluttering Trump told ABC television that of course he had sacrificed. Lots. When asked to enumerate, he just talked about his achievements and Twitter coined a mocking new hashtag, #TrumpSacrifices. His rival Hillary Clinton’s adviser Paul Begala tweeted, “Once survived an entire weekend at Mar-a-Lago with just one can of hairspray. #TrumpSacrifices."

In the end, Trump had the last laugh.

We may still go to watch sacrifice in the movies but we don’t vote for it any more.

Cult Friction is a fortnightly column on issues we keep rubbing up against. Sandip Roy is a writer, journalist and radio host.


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