In July 1977, months after being voted out of power, then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi brought the little-known village of Belchi near Patna into national spotlight. In the aftermath of a Dalit massacre, she immediately made her way into, as her biographer Sagarika Ghose writes, “the heart of dacoit country”. There was, however, one tiny problem.
At some point during her journey, the road turned unfit for vehicular movement. In what turned to be a defining moment marking the beginning of her comeback, the 60-year-old travelled the rest of the distance on the back of an elephant. When it comes to the relevance of political symbolism, 2021 is not too different from 1977.
Neither was 2011, when a previously unknown former soldier and social activist’s fast unto death paralysed Manmohan Singh’s UPA-2 Government. In no time, the 74-year old Gandhian Anna Hazare turned into a symbol of resistance against a corrupt regime trying to crush dissent from civil society. Contrast these examples with the current state of the opposition. You may or may not like his arguments, but over the last several months it has become amply clear that whatever is left of the national opposition’s role is being almost single-handedly performed by Rahul Gandhi. From alarming the government about the impending Covid crisis to questioning it on China, unlike a lot of his peers from other opposition parties, he has been visible. Despite making the right noises, the principal opposition party and its de facto leader seem to be failing miserably in this game of symbolism, which the Prime Minister and his government have mastered.
Why political symbolism?
In a 1967 paper, political theorist Michael Walzer remarked: “The state is invisible…(it) needs to be symbolised before it can be loved…” For him, political symbolism is, therefore, not a value addition to the idea of state; it is in fact representative of the idea itself. Indeed, owing to their existence in the abstract, political ideas and beliefs need a medium of expression. The role of political symbolism becomes even more important when the underlying message that needs to be conveyed to the masses is complicated.
In fact, when Rahul Gandhi resigned the Congress presidentship in the wake of the 2019 General Election débâcle, his stand was well-received. He seemed to be wanting to change the status quo in his party.
What followed, however, was a grave miscalculation. Owing to the current state of his party where he still seems to be the de facto leader without accountability, and inexplicable events such as ill-timed vacations, instead of symbolising political accountability, he is still perceived as privileged. The attribution becomes even starker when his image is placed next to that of the Prime Minister, who comes through as a symbol of the honest kaamdar. In sharp contrast was the de facto leader of the farmers’ protest, Rakesh Tikait’s symbolism. Despite political baggage, not only did his emotional appeal succeed in reviving the flailing farmers’ agitation, his recent call for candlelight marches across all villages in remembrance of the dastardly Pulwama attacks of 2019 was just another reminder of farmers and soldiers standing in solidarity as the primary pillars of our nationalism ‘Jai Jawan Jai Kisan’).
Starting with Mahatma Gandhi’s Dandi March to Mamata Banerjee, Arvind Kejriwal and K Chandrashekhar Rao’s fasts and most recently YS Jagan Reddy’s padayatra, India’s political history has time and again proved that hard-to-create symbolic episodes and moments swing public mood like nothing else. Yet, the current Congress leadership seems either unimaginative or playing the wrong pitch (read, Hindutva-related symbolism).
In fact, the party can take a leaf from two such recent instances when its own symbolism put the BJP on the backfoot. In 2020, at the peak of the migrant exodus, triggered by the lockdown, Congress Interim President Sonia Gandhi’s message of her party paying for migrants’ travel fare immediately sparked a response from the government. Similarly, had it not been for its symbolism, the Yogi Government would not have detained the Gandhi siblings as they headed to Hathras in the wake of a dastardly rape incident.
Even while he has not been very effective with political symbolism, Rahul Gandhi’s credentials and some of his actions have allowed the BJP to project him as a symbol of political incompetence and privilege. Fortunately or unfortunately for him, the response to this predicament lies in the symbolism itself.
The day he embarks on a nationwide padayatra or launches a serious sit-in is when the voters will start taking him seriously. Coincidentally, petrol prices just touched triple digits in some parts of the country. If silver bricks can be sent to Ayodhya, nothing stops the Congress from making a spectacle out of fuel bills collected from across the country.
The writer is a PhD Scholar (Economics) at the University of Maryland.