Missing in action

President Pranab Mukherjee’s abiding loyalty and devotion to Indira Gandhi are legendary. In private conversations and public interactions alike, he can become misty-eyed when recalling his times under the late prime minister.
But his extempore speech in New Delhi on May 13 was more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Journalists and other members of the audience at the function to release the book – India’s Indira, A Centennial Tribute – were quick to read between the president’s lines.
Speaking of Indira’s courage and conviction, Mukherjee recalled, “When the Congress was defeated in 1977, Indira Gandhi told me, Pranab, don’t get unnerved by defeat. This is the time to act.” And act she did – turning around her fortunes with that famous ‘Belchhi moment’, when Mrs Gandhi chose to visit the Bihar village where nine Dalits had been massacred by an upper-caste mob. There were no television channels then to record her journey through slush and mud, switching from jeep to tractor, and finally arriving at the village on elephant back, a torch lighting up her face in the dismal darkness of an impoverished hamlet.
The president is duty bound not to discuss the politics of the day. But his recollection of the past was message enough, not only to those present (Rahul Gandhi included) but to the Opposition at large. The message, for those willing to listen, was carpe diem. Seize the day. It may already be too late.
What many of us forget is that the Belchhi massacre took place on May 27, 1977 and Mrs Gandhi visited the village in August. This means that within five months of her crushing defeat in an election that ended the hated Emergency, she was up and running. And she never stopped in her tracks, despite two incarcerations, despite having to contest by-elections repeatedly (Chikmagalur, Medak), only to return triumphant in 1980, winning more seats for the Congress than in the 1971 polls.
Mrs Gandhi’s feat may have been remarkable, but she was not the only person to take on a government, which had come to power with a big majority. After sweeping the polls in early 1971 and then winning the Bangladesh war at the end of the same year, she seemed invincible. Yet, by 1974, popular unrest manifested itself under the leadership of the frail Jayaprakash Narayan. The JP movement, as it came to be called, galvanized North India and could be put down only by eclipsing democracy.
Riding the sympathy wave after the assassination of his mother, Rajiv Gandhi came to power with the biggest parliamentary majority ever in the elections of December 1984. Less than three years later, he was struggling to retain the enormous goodwill he once had, as his erstwhile colleague, Vishwanath Pratap Singh, began a mass movement against the ‘Bofors’ corruption that finally ended in Rajiv’s defeat.
It is in light of this vibrant political tradition where no government – however handsome its mandate – is allowed to rest on its laurels for too long that the Opposition’s state of paralysis today is particularly pathetic.
As the Narendra Modi government prepares to unleash a two-week long bragathon starting May 26 to mark its third anniversary, you cannot blame its drum-beaters for claiming that they have rewritten history, that Modi is the most popular prime minister since Independence, that the Bharatiya Janata Party will achieve its dream of single party rule ‘from panchayat to Parliament’ sooner than you think.