By: John Elliott

Sonia Gandhi, the usually silent leader of the Gandhi dynasty and former president of the Congress Party, has today delivered one of the most direct and heartfelt attacks on the record of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party government that has been heard since the 2014 general election.

Asserting that the government was “set to subvert the essence of India” with a long-planned “dangerous design,” she spelled out the concerns of many people who fear that the Modi government is determined to change what she described as India’s open liberal democracy.

She said that traditional dialogue anchored in “decency reason and argumentation” was being replaced with “invective, innuendo and abuse.” That, she said, is changing the liberal nature of Indian society that encouraged debate and discussion and allowed dissent.

“Our freedom is under assault,” she told an India Today (media group) conference in the business capital of Mumbai to occasional but not massive applause.

“Today we are embracing a regressive vision…Fear and intimidation are the order of the day. Alternative voices are being silenced literally in far too many cases through violence even murder…religious tensions are being fuelled, vigilante mobs and private armies have been let loose with state patronage.”

That is a reference to the government, together with the BJP and the party’s allied and often organizations supported by gangs of vigilantes, harrying Muslims, attacking and quelling critics, and even killing people suspected of eating beef.

Modi has sometimes spoken against such actions, but usually too late to have much effect.

Each one of Gandhi’s points was well based to varying degrees on what has been happening in the past four years since the government was elected.

Re-engineering DNA

“Our society is being polarised with an eye to winning elections. Something even more sinister is happening. Our social DNA is being reengineered and it will have devastating consequences,” she said. “Our judiciary is in turmoil. RTI was brought to bring transparency, but today that law is in cold storage. Aadhaar is being turned into intrusive instrument of control,” Gandhi added, referring to an alleged pro-BJP bias among some top judges, right-to-information legislation, and an Aadhaar electronic identity card system that was introduced by the Congress government but is now being extended to areas such as bank accounts and mobile phone registrations.

She also criticised the way that the government ignored what had been achieved by past governments. “Was India really a giant black hole before 26th May 2014? Did India march to progress, prosperity and greatness just four years ago? Is this claim not an arrogant insult to the intelligence of our people?” she asked.

Sonia Gandhi before her speech today

Mocking Modi without naming him, she said: “What has made our democracy precious is conversations not monologues, accountability not shunning any form of public questioning and interrogation” (though neither she nor Manmohan Singh, her prime minister, often made themselves available for media and other public questions when they were in power for 10 years till 2014).

Gandhi was the president for 19 years and continues to have an active role in politics because she heads both Congress in parliament and the United Progress Alliance that includes other parties.

She delivered her speech with a quiet authority that cannot be managed by Rahul Gandhi, her son, who is now the Congress president but commands little respect among other politicians.

Answering questions after her speech from Aroon Purie, the head of the media group, she acknowledged that Congress had failed to match the BJP’s marketing of policies, both during the 2014 election campaign and since then in state elections. Congress now needs “a new style of connecting with people” for projecting policies.

She claimed that the massive corruption of the last Congress government had been exaggerated and dismissed other allegations, though she carefully sidestepped commenting on a current case involving the son of Palaniappan Chidambaram, previously the Congress finance minister, over alleged bribes on foreign investment approvals.

Saying “that is a very difficult question,” she also avoided saying whether Congress could survive as a viable political party without a Gandhi in charge, or whether it would break up.

Though Purie did not spell it out, the question stems from concern that Rahul Gandhi will lead the party into election losses, as happened last weekend in three north-eastern state assembly elections.

That leads on to the concern that lies behind Sonia Gandhi’s speech concerning the widespread changes that a Modi government would be able to introduce during a second term of office if the opposition remains weak – maybe even challenging (as she mentioned) the Indian constitution.

Persistent rumors suggest Modi would like to introduce a presidential system of government with, of course, him as the president.