Rahul Gandhi’s visit to the FTII campus has breathed new fire into the controversy with the pro-government forces accusing the students of politicizing the issue. This timing of his appearance, just in advance of the August 3 protest in Delhi, outside the parliament makes it furthermore interesting. Not only has this event escalated the issue to a different level, it has also opened up its prospect of becoming a major challenge during the monsoon session. BJP sympathizers, who had unleashed an online character assassination campaign against FTII students, are left infuriated. This event also seems to be a win-win for both parties, (Rahul and the FTII students) since not only will it give a new political boost to the students’ demands but it will also help Rahul combat the political irrelevance he has been reduced to post election.
Before fingers are pointed towards the students, some facts must be set clear. Rahul Gandhi was not exclusively invited to the campus. The students of the institute had been constantly trying to engage the government in a dialogue process but all their appeals fell on deaf ears. The first meeting with the I&B Minister Mr. Arun Jaitley could take place only after a fortnight of agitation, and that meeting too was more of a one sided speech than a dialogue. The ministers exploited all their tools to pressurize the students into withdrawing their strike without paying any heed to their complaints. Having left with no option, the students decided to write letters to forty five members of parliament seeking their support, including three belonging to BJP (Prakash Javadkar, Vinod Khanna and Shatrughan Sinha).
Among all of them if Rahul Gandhi has decided to visit FTII, then students are in no position not to give him an audience for the sake of keeping things “apolitical”. It should be noted that the students never invited any politician to the campus exclusively. In fact, the letters sent to the MPs were for seeking support, not requesting appearance at the strike. However, if anyone chose to come and express their solidarity, the students have welcomed . In fact, some right wing organizations have also protested outside the gates of FTII. Installation work made by the students have been vandalized by unknown people the night before. The students didn’t raise any objection. Members of ABVP, including individuals who had attacked the students earlier, came to the institute and threatened them again (albeit in a veiled manner). The students showed restraint.
If the students could tolerate unruly elements from ABVP coming and threatening them at the gates of their very own campus, then in which moral universe are they supposed not to allow Rahul Gandhi in? Let us not forget that Mr. Gandhi had made his appearance on the 50th day of the strike. If anyone is responsible for awarding that opportunity to him, it is the government itself, whose constant reluctance at establishing a meaningful dialogue with the students has led the strike go on for so long. Instead of showing any sign of goodwill, the government tried out several arm twisting tactics. First, it started to pressurize the students through bureaucracy, then it went on with a character assassination campaign calling the students freeloaders, elitist, naxalites, anti-hindus, and what not. The whole institute, its purpose and its existence was maligned and this educational enterprise (whose entire budget is loose change for the government) was evaluated against its fiscal utility. Counter narratives based on incomplete and disingenuous interpretation of factoids were released and circulated by online bhakt network.
At the extreme, an attempt to sabotage the strike was made by filing ridiculous police complaints against the students exploiting the services of some controversial staff members. None of these could deter the students. On the contrary, by indulging in such cheap tactics, the government has ended up lowering its status further. The outpourings of public support online (often consisting of bullying tweets and profane commentaries) can give the government a sense of fake achievement but in a democracy like India, living in denial can be deadly, and who else than the BJP has the taste of it? But alas, overconfidence induced amnesia is a typical BJP problem.
Instead of trying all these futile exercises, had the government spent some time trying to understand the institute and its needs, the issues might have been resolved rather amicably. Having evaded that responsibility for 50 days, the government has no moral right to accuse the students of politicizing this issue. In fact, they should be thankful to the opposition for giving them a grace period of 50 days.
But, above all, the basic premise that a democratically elected opposition leader involving himself directly with people is something politically vicious, is outright preposterous. People (and especially the BJP and its supporters) should not forget that the constitution has enshrined the concept of opposition in our democracy, not for decoration but for some real practical purpose. And leaders of opposition have every right to involve themselves with issues of the people. In fact, direct involvement with the people is something that should be appreciated and practiced by politicians of all colors. It is true that Mr. Gandhi does not have the oratory skills of Prime Minister Modi and more than often, he is referred to as incapable and mediocre. But one thing that is visibly good about him is that he actively meets people and involves himself in their issues directly, no matter whether it brings any tangible results to his party or not. You can criticize him for a million shortcomings, but the last thing you can chastise him for, is meeting people.
And the BJP should not forget that it owes its present strength to its existence as opposition party for so many years. The full majority that the BJP has in the parliament today, is not just attributed to its pre-election campaign, but to the years of hard work done by veteran leaders like L.K. Advani, A.B. Vajpayee and Shyama Prasad Mukherjee as “opposition leaders”. If the role of opposition were to be so trivial, so insignificant and so limited then there would be no BJP today. The 2014 elections have decimated the Congress to a paltry 44 seats. And perhaps, this is the worst phase in the history of the party. But despite that low score, it still represents the mandate of the people of this country. No matter how small it is, it is still significant and commands the respect of democracy. Now it is the responsibility of the BJP to treat its opposition with the same respect and significance, it has demanded for itself for so many decades. If the BJP tries to constrict the opposition using hard line (and often, below the belt) tactics, it will insult the legacy of its own great leaders.
Surya Samaddar, FTII Student