In these times of hyper-nationalism, Rahul Gandhi has invoked another vision of India. An India where states have primacy and independent identities, but are joined together within the unity of a single nation. This idea is not new; it is the founding principle of our Constitution. On the face of it, all Rahul Gandhi did was to quote from the Constitution which calls India a 'Union of States'.
In a sense, Rahul Gandhi was claiming that this idea of a federal India runs through his veins. His great-grandfather spent 15 years in jail to fight for it, his grandmother took bullets in her chest to uphold it, and his father was blown to bits to protect this idea of India, he told parliament yesterday. And thus, who better to resurrect this vision of India as a negotiated partnership of states than Rahul Gandhi himself?
This was Rahul Gandhi's overt positioning, appealing to state parties to see him as their natural ally and representative at the centre. It is an attempt to gather regional parties around the Congress, two years ahead of the next general election. Underlying the rhetoric of federalism, however, was a covert binary of a new 'Us vs Them' - a division between the Hindi-speaking belt (including Gujarat) and the rest. It was never explicitly stated, but it was thrown up in the air, through certain assertions.
The first of these was when Rahul Gandhi told the Treasury benches, "You will never ever, in your entire life, rule over the people of Tamil Nadu; it cannot be done." In a sense, he was making a sociological statement of the cultural dissimilarity between Tamil Nadu and Delhi which makes it impossible for Hindi-belt parties to ever win elections in that state ("it cannot be done"). Of course, this assertion was immediately diluted by making pseudo-historical claims about the nature of various empires in India that ruled over the past "3,000 years". But Rahul Gandhi returned to his original theme almost immediately by accusing the ruling party of mistakenly thinking that they can "suppress" all the different "languages, cultures and histories" of the states.
It is at this point that Rahul Gandhi made a significant statement on the hierarchy of identities in states that are far from the 'Centre', again with the example of Tamil Nadu. He said "The people of Tamil Nadu have inside their hearts the idea of Tamil Nadu, the idea of the Tamil language, and then also the idea of India." There was a pregnant pause before, and a stress on, the word 'then', almost as if, Rahul Gandhi was giving us the order of the importance of collective identities, where being Tamil precedes the idea of being Indian.
He moved on to the example of Kerala, again at a distance from the seat of power in Delhi. "The people of Kerala have a culture - I am a now a Member of Parliament of Kerala, I understand it slightly better - they have a culture, they have a dignity, they have a history." Rahul Gandhi was careful to leave himself an out, by not making the Hindi-belt-versus-the-rest theme too obvious. He did this by immediately following up the Kerala example with a reference to the culture and language of Rajasthan. Yet, anyone who listened to the speech closely and noted the nuances, the intonations and the body language would sense that Rahul Gandhi was speaking of a distinct cultural divide between the Hindi-speaking belt and non-Hindi-speaking states.
Of course, the speech was also about the contending ideas of federalism and an authoritarian centre. Rahul Gandhi likened such centralised power as the authority of the 'king', and claimed that the Congress party had always been ideologically opposed to the hegemony of the centre. This, as the Congress party's history tells us, is a ludicrous claim. It is well-documented how successive Congress governments, beginning with Nehru's, increasingly strengthened the Centre and undermined federalism. If Nehru had to compromise with regional satraps of the Congress, Indira Gandhi dismantled the entire system by disenfranchising state leaders and nominating cyphers as state party chiefs. If Rahul Gandhi represents Kerala today as an MP, his grandmother as Congress president and his great-grandfather as Prime Minister were to use the notorious Article 356 to dismiss the majority government of EMS Namboodiripad.
At that time, the Congress party represented the 'centralising' tendency which suited big business - it wanted unified laws that would facilitate commerce across India. It also was a natural corollary of 'Nehruvian socialism' which was a top-down vision of state-led industrialisation to be overseen by bureaucrats and technocrats. During the Nehru era, the demands of regional elites were balanced as far as possible through allocations to states, within the process of centralised planning. Indira's attack on the 'Syndicate' closed that avenue altogether as she replaced Congress leaders who represented regional elites with her own nominees. This process, ironically, pushed the regional elites away from the Congress and played a significant role in the rise of regional parties.
If Rahul Gandhi had read contemporary commentary of that time, he would have found an echo, in governments led by his own family, of what he accused the Modi regime of. Here is what the political scientist Partha Chatterjee wrote in 1991, right after Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated: "The successive tragedies that have befallen the Nehru-Gandhi family are not unrelated to the fact that the Congress system since the era of India Gandhi has consistently emulated the form of monarchical rule...It is a corollary of the monarchical form of power that the violence of the Indian state...should have been perceived as the violence carried out personally by Indira or Rajiv Gandhi. Their assassinations were also personalised acts of violent retribution."
By 2004, when Rahul Gandhi became an MP, the balance of power had shifted to a certain extent. If the Congress emerged as the single-largest party, the role played by the regional elites of Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra was not insignificant. This would later show up in the rise of regional capital from Andhra Pradesh and its country-wide spread during the UPA years - GMR, GVK, Lanco, to name a few. Yet the centralising tendencies of the Congress 'High Command' meant that it tried to disempower regional leaders, weakening local units of the party, in the process.
Today, Rahul Gandhi recognises there may be a space to unite the interests of regional elites from outside the Hindi-speaking belt who have seen a loss of importance as a handful of business houses have taken control of almost all sectors. He is betting on the potential for disquiet amongst regional capital in the face of the rise of Zaibatsu-Chaebol-type mega-conglomerates. Regional elites understand that they need a voice at the centre to reverse this process. They may back regional parties in the state but they need a national-alliance to unite as an interest group at the centre. Rahul Gandhi is hoping that by promoting the idea of India as a 'union of states', he can position the Congress as the central representative of regional elites.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV's Hindi and Business news channels.)
Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.