In India, we rarely insist on excellence from our authority figures. Mediocrity has been the Indian government’s mission statement for as long as one remembers. However, since 2014, an exception has been made to this rule just for Prime Minister Modi. Throughout Modi’s tenure as the prime minister, the standards which many Indians have set for him have no precedence in India’s history.
Let us take big-ticket corruption as an example. Corruption among the top echelons of the cabinet is a tradition which harks back to the Nehru era and the resignation of finance minister TTK in the 1950s. In the Modi years, this convention of loot has been ruthlessly curbed. The only thing more amazing than this achievement is how nonchalantly this feat has been accepted by the people. It is almost as if top cabinet members have always been free of corruption. The same nonchalance has been extended to other exceptional exploits like rural electrification, GST rollout, surgical strikes, the virtual elimination of major terror strikes, the bullet train project and so on. Did something change in the Indian people? Have they suddenly transformed from a society which gets easily impressed to a group which, perhaps rightfully, expects a lot more from its government and leaders? Or is this surge of expectation been reserved only for the prime minister? For when it comes to the rest of the polity, most Indians continue to get easily enthralled at the slightest hint of proficiency, no matter how phoney that hint may be.
In the last four years, every event on this land of 1.3 billion people has been deemed to be worthy of discussion only if it fits in the ‘Can this be connected to Modi’ prism. There is an insatiable eagerness among many, including a good chunk of the prime minister’s admirers, to believe some half-true incident in some corner of the country as long as the circumstantial evidence allow a tenuous opportunity to slander Modi. That same eagerness gets miraculously replaced by a casual indifference when faced with appalling stories of how Chidambaram and kin ran extortion rackets whose brazenness would make Russian oligarchs blush. It seems many of our fellow citizens can inhabit two different countries simultaneously. For Modi, they pretend to be in an advanced 1st world nation whose pristine and sophisticated homogenous social fabric is at risk from the experiments of this upstart from Vadnagar. For the Gandhi family and their cohorts, they pretend to be citizens of a besieged sub-Saharan principality who are thirsting for a leader who will just have to agree to turn up for a photo-op once in a year.
If Rahul can answer a question without becoming a viral meme, he gets described as Prime Minister material. Priyanka gets called the next Indira if she is caught doing something innocuous like spraying insecticides in her neighbour’s garden. Sonia is accorded sainthood for just confirming periodically that she exists. This is not just about the pliant media who double up as the PR arm of the Congress party. Very carefully observe how otherwise reasonable and rational folk get impressed if Rahul does anything remotely normal. Here is a man who is close to fifty and hasn’t done a day’s honest work in his whole life. Here is a man who disappears on mysterious vacations every quarter and owes everything he has to his illustrious surname. Here is a man who has been an MP for over a decade and has nothing to show for it – no private bills, no interventions, no vigorous debates while his constituency Amethi still inhabits the eighteenth century. And yet when Rahul Gandhi gave a speech earlier this week and surprisingly could finish most sentences and didn’t drop his pants either, there were murmurs of approval from discerning folks who wondered at his eloquence and knowledge.
‘Indian voters are very smart. You can never fool them’ is perhaps the most hilariously annoying thing one hears on TV during any election coverage. It is intriguing how ‘smart’ voters who have been voting for seven decades have managed to keep themselves in squalor and scarcity. Rahul’s equally buffoonish father was gifted the largest parliamentary majority ever. He destroyed India’s economy, got embroiled in a nasty war & was corrupt to the core. We remember him by naming half the country after him and call him a visionary. Rahul’s grandmother was the only dictator in independent India’s history and she was brought back to power by a very forgiving populace. In recent memory, a handful of semi-trained teens held India’s largest city to a bloody hostage. The people who were supposed to protect us demonstrated unpreparedness before, during and after the event. What were there consequences? Just a few months after 26/11, the residents of Mumbai voted for Congress candidates in each constituency of the city. Indian voters have always treated the Gandhi family with a perverse amount of generosity.
Why is it that we are so desperately keen to believe anything the Gandhis tell us while we treat every achievement of Modi with wariness and aloofness? Why do so many want the Prime Minister to fail?
Perhaps somewhere within us, we are afraid of being a successful nation. Success is scary because it means each of us will need to step up in this better India. We can no longer blame the government or the politician or the caste leader or our families. Modi offers a vision. Visions are unsettling as they signal uncertainty. And this uncertainty is accompanied by discomfort and anxiety about the future. On the other hand, having a Gandhi as the ruler provides that all-so-attractive comfort of status-quo. Yes, it is true that status quo means we remain ensnared in the chains of hopeless yet arrogant mediocrity and ordinariness. But at least it is familiar. It does not create apprehensions about whether we will fit into this unknown future. It doesn’t take away our excuse for why we can’t be a different kind of a citizen. Having a Gandhi rule provides the comfort of having the perennial excuse ‘Is desh ka kuch nahi ho sakta’. And everyone loves the comfort.
In a rational system, the very existence of a Rahul Vs Modi debate would be absurd. One may as well have a Rahul Vs Sachin debate on who is a better batsman. Instead, the Modi-Rahul battle is a fight between un-equals where contrary to popular perception, it is the Prime Minister who is the underdog. The PM’s ardent supporters massively underestimate how little Rahul Gandhi has to do in order to persuade Indians that he is a viable alternative. It is very very little.