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Culture War Roundup for the week of March 18, 2024

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Indian elections are coming up in a month, and seeing the rising importance of India, I wanted to do a series on culture wars in Indian politics, give you a bit of the historical context of what's going on. I wanted to cover some major political players, their ideological leanings, how did they come to power and where do they stand.

The Indian National Congress has a problem. The Grand Old Party who had been the dominant force in elections since India's Independence has been decimated in the past decade. The party, who at their peak held 75% of the seats in the lower house, now doesn't even hold the mandated 10% of the seats required to be designated as Leader of Opposition. Chances for a resurgence in the coming General Elections look bleak. If you ask anyone from India for the reason for INC's decline, they would point you towards a singular person: Rahul Gandhi, the de facto leader of the INC, the problem. It's not a recent discovery, after all, the last two defeats were under his stewardship.

Wondering how does one hang on to the leadership even after 2 defeats? Nepotism, but not quite. You see, Rahul Gandhi is the great-grandson of the first Prime Minister of India, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru, though was fairly democratic in his functioning, maintained his hold on power through a cult of personality. His daughter Indira Gandhi similarly maintained a cult of personality, though was quite Machiavellian in her dealings. She installed a patronage system within the party, where her loyalists would occupy the prominent posts in the party and the government. This system kept the politicians, media and bureaucrats in line. Her cult of personality, in turn, made normal party workers and the Congress's voter base loyal to her and her alone. Much like how the Republican Party can't just up and abandon Trump because of the loyalty of the voter base, the Congress couldn't abandon Indira Gandhi. This system has helped the Gandhi Family maintain power even after rebellion within the party, election defeat, or even assassination.

After the assassination of Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv Gandhi, this system was inherited by Rajiv's wife Sonia Gandhi. Born Sonia Maino in Lusiana, Italy, she met Rajiv in Cambridge while working as a waitress in a Greek restaurant frequented by students and wound up marrying into the most powerful family in India. Sonia observed and learned well from her mother-in-law and when she inherited the system and the set of advisors, she performed quite well. Her competence led her to oust BJP from power in 2004. Objecting to her foreign birth, she was opposed as the choice of Prime Minister, so she chose the mild-mannered soft-spoken Manmohan Singh for the post. She entrenched her power by the creation of a National Advisory council and ruled by proxy. Now firmly in power, she wanted to retire and hand over the reins of the party to her son Rahul, with him getting elected in the 2004 General Elections.

Rahul is an interesting character. He grew up quite privileged as part of the ruling elite, attending The Doon School (an elite boarding school modeled around Eton College) and the prestigious St. Stephen College. After the Assassination of his father, he was first moved to Harvard and then the Rollins College in Florida. There he took up the identity of Raul Vinci, which continued till his M. Phil. From Trinity College, Cambridge. The reason why these details are important is to illustrate that all his life he has been surrounded with and part of the global left elite and hence adopts more or the same outlook (interesting to note is that his great-grandfather similarly held a very sympathetic view of Communism due to the same reason). So here is a left liberal whose views and outlook on the world are similar to Trudeau or Hillary or any other generic white liberal, given this legacy of coming from a line of PMs and having ideas about how to create an equitable world, is given the keys to the most powerful party in his country. Nothing could go wrong, right? Well there is a small problem, he is a moron, rather than that people have an image of him being a moron while he actively tries to prove them right.

At the start of his political career, Rahul had quite a good image. He was seen as a forward-looking leader, and a lot of people (including myself at that time) were looking forward to him leading the party. In the run up to 2014 elections, though the government at the time were battling big time corruption charges, Congress banked on Rahul's clean image to tip them over to victory. As part of the campaign, Congress set up an interview with one of the most adversarial (and annoying) TV anchor in media, Arnab Goswami. It was a disaster. Memes and responses flooded the internet mocking him for evading the questions and just sticking to a few core points that were handed over to him. Just look at this reddit thread. Now this gave the impression that he is dumb and was henceforth rechristened as "Pappu"(a name which has come to mean as "dumb kid" very much like how "Karen" has come to mean as an "obnoxious woman"). His party was badly defeated, and his imaged never recovered. Congress went on to lose multiple state elections under his leadership. The fact that sometimes after such defeats he went to Thailand for vacation didn't help his case. His speeches were taken out of context and memes were generated from that. He gave even more gaffes and disastrous interviews.

Though I see a lot of his reputation is undeserved, I feel there is a truth to it. His ideals about how government should be run and what should it do conflicts with realities of both the government and Indian society. Though that could have changed as he learned more about how things actually worked if it hadn't for an almost absolute power over the party and his own arrogance. Let me give you an example, Supreme Court of India delivered a judgement which stated that any sitting Member of Parliament would be disqualified if any court convicts them. The obvious issue with this judgement is that it threatens sitting MPs and also opens up the possibility of MPs being sued just to thin their majority or to keep a certain leader out of power. The ruling Congress government then came out with an ordinance to circumvent this with an added condition of "a person sentenced to imprisonment of two years or more shall be disqualified from the date of such conviction and remain disqualified for another six years after serving time". An ordinance in an Indian context is a temporary law, akin to Executive orders, but they need to be ratified by the parliament in 6 weeks. Legally speaking, an ordinance is part of the constitution, and hence the original is treated with the respect as a proclamation from the head of state demands. Even the opposition parties are careful with the original even as they burn the copies as protest and that too is considered quite extreme. So the sitting Congress government scheduled a press conference to justify the need of this ordinance. Out of nowhere, Rahul crashes the press conference, opposes his own government's stance in front of journalist and tears the ordinance into pieces. The whole nation was shocked. The PM Manmohan Singh was so embarrassed at the act, mulled over submitting resignation. This is just one example of poor political judgements that end up damaging his own party. Just like how he tried linking the fugitive Nirav Modi with Narendra Modi by proclaiming "everyone with Modi as the surname is a thief". Soon a defamation lawsuit was soon slapped, and the lower court convicted him for it. The cherry on top is that this conviction resulted in his disqualification as an MP, Karma's a bitch.

Another common criticism is that though he likes to have the final say, he shrinks from responsibility. Despite resigning from his post a president, he routinely interferes with the major decision being taken. Some MPs say he is seldom available for meetings, treating running a party full-time as a 9-5 job with paid vacations. He has alienated promising leaders, who then promptly left Congress and found massive success in BJP. He alienated the loyal old guard, pushing them out of power. His eye for talent is nothing like what his grandmother and great-grandfather had, appointing sycophants and yes men to his coterie. His weak negotiating skills resulted in him giving too many concessions, causing Congress to weaken both in Karnataka and Maharashtra, two of the most cash rich states in India. He has let BJP appropriate many heroes of the Independence and post-independence era due to his unwillingness to look beyond Nehru-Gandhi family. Modi and Shah (Amit Shah, Modi's right-hand man and current Home Minister) are a formidable duo, but it is Rahul Gandhi's incompetence as a political leader that enabled BJP to be dominant.

The Indian Left is in disarray. For years since the independence, they had dominated the Indian political arena. The institutional capture in the west is a recent phenomena, in India the institutional capture by the left was since their inception, courtesy Nehru's left-wing sympathies. They perceive mortal threat as they are being pushed out of the establishment and the party whose patronage they relied on is unable to dent BJP's power. And yet the party cannot get rid of the Gandhi family. The only vote Congress has left and the rank and file congress worker are loyal to the Gandhi family. The regional parties are now looking to cannabalize Congress 's vote share to become the largest opposition to BJP. And from this fight the one benefitting the most is BJP.

Good overview, thanks for writing it. How much does the average Indian citizen know and care about politics? In a country with so much poverty and so many different languages, I can't imagine it's easy to reach all the voters with real information and well-crafted political ads.

Though the average citizen would only know what's current in Indian politics, it cares a lot about politics. It's a byproduct of the independence movement but has contributed in making Indian democracy quite robust. The Panchayat system of village governance increases people's willingness to vote in other elections. Though voter turnout is an issue, people love debating politics and would do so without any regard to where they are.

In a country with so much poverty and so many different languages, I can't imagine it's easy to reach all the voters with real information and well-crafted political ads.

That's why grassroots worker are so important for political parties. They go door to door meeting with everyone asking for their votes and in a sense pitching themselves to the voter. In fact, one of the things that makes BJP election machinery such a juggernaut is the sheer amount of grassroots worker it has. Providing real reliable information to all voters is a challenge as much as it is in any democracy.