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Is Rahul Gandhi's vision for India based on caste?

By T V R Shenoy
April 19, 2012 20:00 IST
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Rahul Gandhi's remark 'I am a Brahmin, and I am general secretary of the party' would have been dismissed as a stray thoughtless remark if it were not for the fact that it shows a trend in his thinking, feels T V R Shenoy.

In 1965, when my journalistic career in Delhi began, Lal Bahadur Shastri was the prime minister. I had no idea what his caste was, it simply wasn't important. (He had dropped his surname several years earlier; 'Shastri' was actually a title, earned at, not gifted by, Kashi Vidyapeeth.)

K Kamraj, who had given up the reins as chief minister of Madras -- it wasn't yet 'Tamil Nadu' -- to become president of the Congress, was regarded as the gold standard of administrative ability and political acumen. I cannot recall his caste ever being mentioned.

And if you had asked me back then to differentiate between a 'Kamma' and a 'Reddy' all you would have got was a blank look.

No, the India of my journalistic youth was not a caste-free paradise. Caste differences certainly existed, but the point is that most of us thought they would vanish over time. Instead, fifty years later, caste -- specifically caste prejudices -- seem stronger than ever.

This mournful conclusion was crystallised by an incredible impromptu comment from Rahul Gandhi. The Congress was holding a post-mortem on its debacle during the Uttar Pradesh Vidhan Sabha elections. One leader apparently put forward the notion that the party had ignored its upper caste base, which then presumably turned to other parties.

At this, the Congress Yuvraj blurted out, 'I am a Brahmin, and I am general secretary of the party.'

(That 'I am a Brahmin' reminded me, irresistibly, of Roberto De Nobili, the Jesuit missionary who went around 17th century Madurai, clad as a sanyasi and claiming to be an 'Italian Brahmin', sacred thread, tuft of hair, and all. Not a happy precedent!)

Rahul Gandhi's remark would have been dismissed as a stray thoughtless remark if it were not for the fact that it shows a trend in his thinking. For instance, while campaigning in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi referred to Sam Pitroda as 'a Vishwakarma, a carpenter by caste'.

Rajiv Gandhi made 'Sam' Pitroda famous as the face of a new breed of Indian technocrats; Rahul Gandhi has now hung a caste tag firmly around 'Satyanarayan Gangaram' Pitroda's neck.

An embarrassed Pitroda would only respond, 'Today my caste is science.' He may have the stature -- and good sense -- to ignore Rahul Gandhi's transparent bid to woo votes, but when the 'Yuvraj' speaks it is a brave Congressman that dares break ranks. We may take it for granted that promoting caste differences is now part of the Congress's strategy.

Let us not forget that the Manmohan Singh government gave the green signal for a caste-based census, the first time that such an enumeration has taken place since the days of the British Raj. What Rahul Gandhi said in a party meeting might be an internal matter of the Congress; what a Congress-led government in Delhi says and does is a matter that concerns all Indians.

If even the Union Cabinet cannot refuse, how do you blame regional satraps for following the Yuvraj?

Possibly the greatest threat the Congress faces today comes courtesy of Jaganmohan Reddy. The reason is that the largest contingent of Congress Lok Sabha MPs is from Andhra Pradesh, and the recent by-elections demonstrated how much the Telangana issue and Jaganmohan Reddy have shaken the Congress's hold in that state. (The Congress lost all the seven assembly by-elections whose results were declared in March.)

Telangana is probably a lost cause as far as the Congress is concerned thanks to its dithering. Thus the party has apparently decided to concentrate on Jaganmohan Reddy. We all know how Jaganmohan Reddy's immense wealth came under the scanner only after he left the Congress.

More disturbing, there are now reports of a whisper campaign in Andhra Pradesh -- that Jaganmohan Reddy is not a 'true' Reddy because he is actually a Christian.

Can such a campaign be confined to Andhra Pradesh? Will it not have repercussions outside the state?

Leaving that disturbing thought dangling in the air, let me now turn to my native Kerala. Ten months ago I said the polarisation of Christians and Muslims in favour of the Congress-led UDF would create problems. To quote myself: 'The Ezhavas, for instance, are numerically the largest Hindu community, and yet they have but three MLAs to represent them on the UDF benches. And soon the Nairs shall start counting how many they have, and then each of the rest.'

I added: 'The Congress has ten representatives in a 20-strong ministry. Since the Congress has only 38 MLAs that is a ratio slightly better than 1:4. The Muslim League and the Kerala Congress think they should enjoy the same ratio of MLAs to ministers. In other words, the Muslim League thinks itself entitled to five ministerships while the Kerala Congress wants three, one more each than has been allotted.'

This is precisely what has happened. The Muslim League wanted a ministry for M Ali ten months ago; he has now been inducted into the Oomen Chandy ministry. And the Kerala Congress is happy because Anoop Jacob found a berth. This means a majority of the ministers are non-Hindus.

Oomen Chandy is genuinely secular, in the noblest sense of that much-abused word. But facing the charge of heading a government run by Christians and Muslims, the chief minister ceded the home portfolio to Thiruvanchoor Radhakrishnan, a Nair. How will the chief minister keep the Ezhavas happy?

Of course, if Oomen Chandy truly wanted to prove his 'secular' credentials he would have made Aryadan Muhammed his home minister! (Instead the veteran was handed charge of transport, alongside power, to stop his grumbling about the fifth Muslim League minister.) That would have given Kerala an excellent home minister. As a bonus it would have given the Muslim League the fits.

But should we blame either Oomen Chandy or those misguided rumourmongers in Andhra Pradesh? The policy is set in Delhi, and Rahul Gandhi's vision of India's future is apparently 'caste in concrete'.

Please read more columns by Mr Shenoy here

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T V R Shenoy