Two words that have got on my last nerve in the tawdry drama that we have seen in Punjab are: high command. They are words that we have come to so totally accept that journalists use them casually in their reportage, as if it was the most normal thing in the world for a political party in a democratic country to have such a thing as a ‘high command’. It is not normal. It is a reminder that proud though we are of holding elections regularly, our political parties remain dangerously feudal in their thinking. Not only is there a ‘high command’ in all our political parties, but this entity is also inevitably surrounded by courtiers and sycophants. If someone has the courage to break ranks and speak the truth, they risk being expelled or getting their homes attacked, as Kapil Sibal discovered last week.
No political party is in greater danger of being destroyed by its ‘high command’ than the Congress, but it seems unable to save itself. The ‘high command’ is currently a triumvirate and the oldest member of it is rarely seen these days. She is rumoured to be in poor health. So, it is Sonia Gandhi’s children who make political decisions now, and with the careless insouciance of spoilt heirs. Neither of them has shown the ability to win state or general elections for their party either on their own steam or because of the charisma of the family name, but they are today more powerful than any other leaders in our oldest political party. It was they who decided, one fine morning, that the Chief Minister of Punjab was a liability and had to go.
They forgot that it was he who won them the election in Punjab last time despite not being named chief minister before the campaign. They forgot that there are courteous, honorable ways of making a political decision of this kind, and instead forced him to resign by publicly humiliating him. They appear to have done this on the advice of a political lightweight who, after he gave up playing cricket, has been famous only for laughing hysterically on a show called Comedy Nights. Having got rid of the Chief Minister, this laughing man threw a petulant, very public tantrum and resigned from his job as head of the Congress in Punjab.
It matters not one bit if Navjot Singh Sidhu is persuaded to take back his resignation because the damage is done. A sensitive border state that is currently awash with thousands of unhappy farmers now faces serious political instability. Last week Punjab’s former Chief Minister met the Home Minister and the National Security Advisor in Delhi and warned them that our unfriendly, neighbourhood Islamic Republic is making aggressive attempts to stir up secessionist sentiments among Sikh farmers, as they did successfully not very long ago. This time around drones are being used to drop weapons, drugs and propaganda material. The last thing that Punjab needs is a revival of Khalistani ideas, and yet the Congress party’s ‘high command’ may have paved the way.
Captain Amarinder Singh has hinted that he plans to start his own party and that it will speak out loudly for the rights and concerns of farmers, whose protest has gone on much too long. Hopefully he will succeed in persuading both the farmers and the Modi government to make a real attempt to find a solution. It seems obvious that if farmers do not believe that the new agricultural laws will benefit them, then the way forward is for the Prime Minister to either find some way to convince them of the benefits or scrap the laws. If this happens, it could be the only good thing that has come out of the sordid shenanigans that the Congress party’s ‘high command’ has been responsible for.
Meanwhile, BJP spokesmen have found it hard to conceal their jubilation at what they perceive correctly as a total meltdown in the Congress. They need to control their glee and pay attention to the emergence in the past seven years of a ‘high command’ in their own party. Modi’s devotees continue to use ‘Lutyens’ as an abusive word against his critics, without noticing that the Prime Minister has done nothing to change the political culture that made Lutyens Delhi into a detested power centre that bred entities and ideas more suited to feudalism than democracy.
Personally, I cringed at the craven sycophancy and hero worship that I saw at the reception the Prime Minister was given when he returned from the United States last Sunday. Dancers and musicians from different parts of India were brought in to perform and the BJP president spoke in high praise of Modi’s ‘achievements’ from a stage whose backdrop had the faces of the four leaders of the Quad on it. The Prime Minister stood with his hands folded in the middle of a giant garland with an expression on his face that made clear that he accepted that he was worthy of the adulation. And, for what? For speaking at the United Nations, meeting the American President and other leaders of the Quad. Not since the ‘dark days’ of the Emergency have I seen a prime minister greeted with such an open display of sycophancy. As I watched I was overcome by a deep, depressing sense of deja vu.