Season of slander and the politics of ‘Gotra’

Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s “Gotra” has become a talking point. The ear-shattering rhetoric during this election season has been bordering on perversity with personal attacks reaching new lows

By Sanjay Jha

In the mid-70’s, my father made several of his bad career decisions, and suddenly I found myself being transported from the charming simplicity and salubrious air of Pune (then called Poona, before the name-changing spree became a national project) to Patna, a rough city with decrepit edges, terribly disorganised, primarily occupied by government officers and still in a deep slumber.

Despite being born in Bhagalpur (infamous for the notorious blinding case) and being a Bihari, I frankly felt like a complete outcast. Ask a regular Punekar of those yesteryears, and he will tell you that the pensioner’s paradise (as it was then known) was heaven on earth; multicultural, middle-class friendly, commodious housing, populated with quaint eateries, fabulous weather and some venerated educational institutions. Understandably, for me the transition was torturous. My first day at school was worse.

One of my fellow students in this high-brow convent school (English medium education was the ultimate snob statement of those times) told me, “Welcome! Good to have another Brahmin join the gang.” For the first time in my life, I became aware of my upper caste credentials. My batch-mates seemed impressed with the inherent entitlements that came with my birth. It was weird, but I soon figured out the caste-stratification and began second-guessing everyone’s origins by their surnames.

So a Singh was mostly a Rajput, a Sinha and a Saran was a Kayastha and a Mishra or a Pandey was a Brahmin. Thakurs had a more catholic coverage, they could either be a Brahmin or a Rajput. There were very few from the backward classes in my batch; the upper castes were a near monopoly. Albeit it was all initially a culture-shock (in Pune they thought the “Jha” surname was an abbreviated absurdity with Chinese linkages). I gradually overcame my resistance to the apparent classification, because other than being made aware of one’s Brahminical roots, there was no real cabal or caucus that was indulging in caste-based activism. But my tranquil reverie was soon to get a jolt.

“What’s your Gotra” is what I was asked next. I had no answers because I did not know. My new acquaintances had a hearty laugh. But truth is that I remain as speechless today, as nearly forty years later Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s “Gotra” has become a talking point overnight, hogging limelight on prime-time television. It is evident that our political conversations are no longer about issues that matter, there are no pretensions of decorum either. As a nation we seem to love political soap-operas in a grand spectacular show, dazzling with on-the-spot twists and turns. Politics is competing with the entertainment industry.

A BJP spokesperson known for his penchant for hokey-pokey stuff asks of Mr Gandhi in a press conference, “What is your Gotra?”, an unheard of personal inquisition in Indian politics. Pray, how does that solve the common man’s ballooning woes? It reminds me of Donald Trump as a Republican nominee for US President raising issues on the birth certificate of Barack Obama. It was a disgusting allegation that insinuated that Obama was a high suspect in the White House as he had questionable intent on matters of national security on account of his origins, both nationality and religion. In her recent memoir Becoming, Michelle Obama castigates Trump for increasing the security risk on her family.

I remain as speechless today, as nearly forty years later Congress President Rahul Gandhi’s “Gotra” has become a talking point overnight, hogging limelight on prime-time television

Mr Gandhi’s Gotra becoming the BJP’s political fixation reflects the public’s underwhelming response to its non-performance on key developmental parameters. Farmer distress, high unemployment, corruption charges, rising atrocities against SC/ST, lynching attacks on minorities, and a disrupted informal economy as a consequence of demonetisation have caused socio-economic havoc across states.

The BJP had received a huge landslide victory in 2013 in the Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, as people bought into the hyperbole of hope. Five years later, the ballyhoo over Gotra is symptomatic of an attempt to arouse people’s emotions on religious and caste by a desperate political party experiencing people’s wrath.

The Gotra episode, when juxtaposed with the inflammatory language used by the Sangh Parivaar virtually intimidating the Supreme Court on the disputed Ram temple issue, completes the jigsaw puzzle. Modi joined the rabble rousers too. The RSS/BJP have a vulpine strategy of behaving as if they are the officially appointed guardians of Hinduism and its interests by the people of India. It is as far from truth as New Zealand is from Newcastle.

The ear-shattering rhetoric during this election season has been bordering on perversity with personal attacks reaching new lows. In this season of slander, BJP leader Ram Madhav raised the bar of political indecency; Madhav explicitly stated that the proposed coalition of PDP, National Conference and the Indian National Congress party in Jammu and Kashmir was engineered with the blessings of the Pakistan establishment. It was a preposterous remark (he later withdrew it giving a clumsy explanation), but with a defined objective to tarnish opposition parties as terror-sympathisers, and therefore anti-national. Modi gave the term Urban Naxals (a right-wing social media trolls invention) an official imprimatur during the election campaign. Politics has entered into a dangerous territory. Quo vadis, India?

Forget about asking; What’s our Gini-coefficient? Where are we ranked on the Global Hunger Index? What are we doing to stop crimes against women? Why are millions of our children still stunted? Why is the Lokpal not yet appointed? Why hasn’t the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy not held a single press conference in four and a half years? All that can wait. First answer this: What’s your Gotra?

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