What's Rahul's aunt's name?

Nobody had heard of a certain Sadhana Bharti who happens to be, we are informed, a "Congress youth leader" in Uttar Pradesh, till the Wall Street Journal's India Real Time (the paper's section that captures "The daily pulse of the world's largest democracy") brought us a scintillating report on a recent election campaign meeting addressed by Rahul Gandhi. It was aptly titled "The Rahul Gandhi Show in Meerut".

The most riveting paragraph of the report merits reproduction: "There was one surprising performance by Sadhana Bharti � who openly pitched Gandhi's dynastic heritage as a reason to vote for him � 'Do you know Mayawati's father's name? No,' she said. In contrast, she said, you know that Rahul Gandhi is the son of Rajiv Gandhi, who was the son of Indira Gandhi, who was the daughter of founding father Jawaharlal Nehru. 'All of us have heard of the Nehru-Gandhi family for generations. How can you then vote for those you don't even know?' �"

We can be pretty sure Sadhana Bharti never used the phrase "founding father"; that, in all probability, is an addition by the journalists who reported the story. But let's not get distracted by such inventions of which Panditji would have disapproved. For all his flaws, India's first Prime Minister was neither a windbag nor given to pomposity. Or else he would not have wanted to be remembered as Chacha Nehru -- uncleji to India's children. 
If Sadhana Bharti is to be taken seriously, and she should be since she shared the stage with no less a person than Rahul Gandhi, voters should know what we Bengalis call the iti brittanto (to the last detail) of those seeking their votes. The credentials of the contenders, their manifestos, their track record and their ability to deliver must be rendered secondary, if not meaningless. Equally irrelevant is the name of the mother and the grandmother, unless they happen to be the mother and grandmother of Rahul Gandhi.

But while Sadhana Bharati's 'yo-dumb-voters' act may have sufficiently impressed the Wall Street Journal's reporters to find prominent mention in their report, it may not have necessarily struck a chord with the gathered unwashed masses of Meerut. They could be better informed than her, and the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty she was pitching for.

Mayawati has never bothered to advertise her humble origins. Nor has she tried to suppress the fact that she was born into a family that survived on the meagre earnings of her father, Prabhu Das, who used to work at a post office in Gautam Buddha Nagar in western Uttar Pradesh. For the uninformed, here are some more details: Her mother's name is Ramrati who never tires of pointing out that Mayawati is a BA, LLB, BEd and also knows how to milk a buffalo. That's more than Nehru's great grandson can claim.

It would have been worth asking Sadhana Bharti whether Rahul Gandhi knows the names of his paternal grandparents (she wouldn't have known, for sure). Or why he is reluctant to disclose his Gujarat connection. Feroze Jehangir Gandhi was born to Faredoon Jehangir Gandhi and Rattimai Hatta in Mumbai, but his ancestral home was at Kotpariwad in Bharuch, from where the Gandhis had migrated; the house still exists.

Has Rahul Gandhi ever bothered to visit Kotpariwad? Or meet the surviving members of the Gandhi clan? Has he ever met Chandan Patel, daughter of his father's aunt, Aloo Gandhi? Has he ever been curious as to why Rattimai adopted the name 'Commisariat'? Or what happened to Dorab and Faridun, elder brothers of his grandfather, or his other sister, Tehmina? These are personal questions, you would say, that do not have a bearing on Rahul Gandhi's public life.

True. He should be judged on merit, on his own abilities and skills, not by the names of his father, mother, grandmother, grandfather. His identity as scion of the exalted Nehru-Gandhi dynasty  should not be the propellant guiding the trajectory of his rise to power or otherwise.

Those are nice, well-meaning words. But they don't apply to real life power politics where, as Sadhana Bharti rudely points out, it's important to know the name of the claimant's father. There's a flip side to this reality -- it's about culture and tradition in which most voters are rooted. Kith and kin are important to us and family does not begin and end with our parents, it extends to aunts, uncles, cousins. In this part of the country, the village is the extended family and the tau is not always a blood relative.

Let me end with an anecdote. Ramrati had three daughters and Prabhu Das briefly toyed with the idea of dumping his wife for another woman who would beget him sons. Mayawati's grandfather, Mangal Sen, was in a fury when he heard of it. He ensured his son remained loyal to his wife. And they still happily live together.

-- The writer is a journalist, political analyst and activist

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