11 - 24 October 2013 #677

Mamma mia

The politics of Rahul Gandhi’s mother-fixation and India’s pre-election politics
Ajaz Ashraf
NEW DELHI - Rahul Gandhi should behave in the manner befitting a 43-year-old and stop referring to Congress President Sonia Gandhi as his mother in public remarks. We all know she is his mother, but hell, because India is a democracy, he should refer to her as Congress president, not as his mummy.

This tendency was on display at the time he tried to explain his intemperate criticism of the Manmohan Singh government’s decision to promulgate an ordinance to set aside the Supreme Court’s verdict disqualifying convicted legislators from contesting elections for two years or more. He barged into a press conference of the Congress spokesperson and called the ordinance “nonsense”. Since the ordinance was the Union cabinet’s idea, its authority was undermined.

The outcry against Rahul’s remark prompted him to say last week: “My mother also told me that I used very strong words and that I could have said the same thing in a nice manner. As an afterthought, I agree it was a mistake to use harsh words, but I have a right to raise my voice.” Parse the sentence and we can fathom the politics underlying Rahul’s mother-fixation. Despite the outrage against his indecorous criticism of the ordinance, he still did not think he had committed a mistake until his mother also said it was indeed the case. Good mother that she is, Sonia presumably lectured her middle-aged Congress vice-president son on etiquette.

Rahul realised his mistake only after his mum told him, but as the scion of India’s premier dynasty, he couldn’t possibly tender an unqualified apology. Rahul’s acceptance of his mistake, albeit in infantile language, was cleverly crafted to ensure his position in the party wasn’t undermined even as he mollified a hurt prime minister. The message: Rahul Gandhi only bows before Sonia Gandhi not because she is the Congress president, but because she happens to be his mother.

Substitute ‘Congress president’ for ‘mother’ and it conveys the sense that he had been reprimanded and his assertion of his right to raise his voice as recalcitrance. By contrast, bowing before your mother, in our culture, suggests obedience, not subservience. This isn’t the first occasion Rahul invoked the trope of mother for political purposes. The morning following his appointment as vice-president of the Congress in January last year, he told a gathering of Congressmen in Jaipur: “Last night everyone congratulated me … but last night my mother came to my room and she was with me and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many seek is actually a poison … she can see it because she is not attached to it …”

No doubt, Rahul is extremely fond of his mother, as most humans are. It is also possible the scene he described in the Jaipur speech wasn’t the concoction of his speech-writers. Yet contrast his disclosure of the intimate moments with his mother to the entreaties of Congressmen in 2011: then they had rebuffed all inquiries about where precisely Sonia had gone for treatment, claiming the family members wanted their privacy to be respected.

Why then reveal details of mother-to-son conversations? Because it provided Rahul an opportunity to harp on his mother’s qualities of self-abnegation. He was also subtly crafting a more benign image of himself and his family as selfless politicians – that despite his mother’s insights into the true nature of power, she was letting him participate in politics for the larger good of the people.

He said as much in Jaipur: “We should not chase power for the attributes of power. We should only use it to empower the voiceless.” Indeed, Rahul’s references to his mother are aimed at reinventing the family in the era of coalition politics in India. Not likely to secure a majority on their own in the foreseeable future and dependent on mercurial coalition partners unwilling to become sycophants to the Gandhis, Sonia and Rahul don’t wish to wield executive power only to ensure their stature of unquestionable superiority is not diminished.

Yet, their participation in electoral politics requires justification and the theme of self-abnegation has been invented to ensure that their supremacy, despite not heading the government, isn’t eroded.


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