All This For This?
When you drop from the skies, the landing can lead to serious injury. After the disastrous showing for the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh election, humiliating defeats in Punjab and Goa, a close shave in Uttarakhand and an honourable win in Manipur where Rahul Gandhi never campaigned, serious questions must be asked about the man who was described as the great hope of the grand old party. Quite bluntly, is Rahul Gandhi a political flop?
Clearly, at this point in contemporary history, this particular member of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has yet to deliver any substantive political victory. He can perhaps take solace from the fact that there are times when members of his illustrious family were spectacularly rejected by voters. It happened to grandmother Indira Gandhi in the post-Emergency elections in 1977 when both she and uncle Sanjay Gandhi lost their Lok Sabha seats. It happened to father Rajiv Gandhi who lost the 1989 elections although he had led the Congress to its largest ever majority of 411 Lok Sabha seats out of 542, after Indira’s assassination.
The question now is that after Rahul has fallen quite flat on his face, can he stand up, brush off the dust, and rise again to actually lead the Congress party or even what’s left of UPA-II? The irony is that even after this election defeat, when the Congress is worried about the Manmohan Singh regime surviving its term, the only solution on offer seems to be that Rahul should be made PM at the first possible opportunity! Congressmen give good reasons for this—first, there’s the practical argument that since current signs suggest the party will be defeated in a general election, let Rahul be PM now for a few months and hope that a young face at the Centre creates some sort of miracle. The second argument trotted out is that there’s a big difference between state elections and national polls and in the end there is only the first family, a hope and a prayer. The way UPA-II has performed, there are no policies to brag about, only a paralysis to explain.
So Rahul is yet to prove his mettle, notch up any success or get the big political break. But he’s still quite critical in the Congress’s plans although confidence in him has waned. Serious questions are being asked from within the party about his managerial style. “What has he been doing for so long revamping the Youth Congress? Where are the youth cadre? They are only there to take tickets for the elections and get defeated,” complained a party leader. The day the election results came, Congress leaders expectedly rallied around Rahul. But the average party worker had a more insightful take on the state of affairs. As one veteran Congressman from UP quipped after the results—“Rahulji diagnosed the problem very well as the need to do surgery and remove Mayawati. That surgery went well but the problem is that the doctor expired!” A regular at the party office then offered his wisdom—“The problem is the people Rahul has surrounded himself with, and they have created a barrier between him and the traditional Congress.”
Rahul Gandhi has for a long time functioned quite independently of the Congress headquarters. Unlike the easy comings and goings at 24, Akbar Road, the Rahul Gandhi office at 12, Tughlaq Road is accessible only with an appointment. It is not just Rahul who rarely meets the media unless in off-the-record briefings, even his aides are more inaccessible than many Union ministers. The traditional Congress voices against the coterie around Rahul have got stronger. They have created “a fortress around Rahul” and tried to control him, say party insiders. Even some Rahul insiders concede there is a problem. Says a Youth Congress member, “The fundamental problem is that the style of functioning is based on a business model.”
In other words, what we have really is a lot of smart kids around Rahul giving him data, facts, scenarios and making how-to-fix-it plans. Quite similar actually to the “baba log” who once surrounded his father, had all the good intentions, but went about things in quite the wrong way. There’s also a great deal of mother Sonia’s approach in Rahul’s modus operandi. He may not have created an nac (National Advisory Council) but clearly has similar good intentions towards the toiling masses. Well-meaning people from academia and activists have also given him lots of advice and he has listened quite earnestly. Many of those who have shared their wisdom and insights come away quite impressed with his great sincerity. “He means well. He is very sincere,” is the refrain.
Just a show? Rahul dines at a Dalit house in Mendhki village, UP
But good intentions come to nought in the face of such spectacular political failure. Till now, Rahul has not shown the right political instincts. Take his choice of some individuals who have delivered poorly. Congress general secretary Mohan Prakash appears to have thrived in the party with Rahul’s blessings as he has gone from failure to failure. He was in charge of Maharashtra where the Congress did disastrously in the local body elections. He was in charge of ticket distribution in UP and a lot of seats are believed to have been lost due to poor selection. He is also in charge of Gujarat where elections are due later this year, but he will presumably be replaced now. The day after the results, Sonia Gandhi blamed a poor choice of candidates and weak organisation for the debacle in UP. She said price rise too could have been a factor and that the Congress has to “pull up its socks” for the coming battles in Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka. She also denied any “damage” to the UPA regime. The day before, Rahul had publicly accepted responsibility for the results and done so with humility.
But the question now is, whose socks will be pulled up? There is the simple advice that many could have given Rahul before the UP polls that, besides Mohan Prakash, Union steel minister Beni Prasad Verma is not a powerful obc face in the state. But in the course of the campaign Beni became the closest to Rahul and is also believed to have influenced ticket distribution. The voices within the Congress are strongest against Mohan Prakash and Beni Prasad, both of whom are not traditional Congressmen but from the socialist ranks. General secretary Digvijay Singh, who also handled UP, is far too influential and will survive this disaster and move on to other battles. Salman Khurshid with his harping on the minority reservation card is also being blamed for getting it all wrong.
The real lesson that Rahul should learn is, the noblesse oblige model of democratic politics is no longer working. Neither is the politics-as-a-business model. Nor is the abrupt parachuting approach to politics—Dalit house today, farmers’ cause tomorrow. Politics is convincing only when the engagement is consistent. The mess that now stares Rahul in the face is actually not of his own making. It’s the dynastic model that’s at the heart of the crisis. It has often rescued the party but in the long term has also made the Congress a closed, unhealthy organism where there is no real inner-party democracy, just powerful individuals who derive authority from acting as gatekeepers to the family.
Now the family has failed them. Even the usual argument of ‘Rahul may fail, but there’s Priyanka in the queue’ does not apply this time as the near wipeout in the family bastions of Rae Bareli-Amethi points to the family’s charisma having completely evaporated. The lurking fear confronting the Congress is that the so-called charisma is actually a lot of hype. India has moved on; there are strong charismatic figures in the states. The idea of a pan-Indian charismatic leader may now be a myth. And surely, the idea of Rahul is more compelling than the reality that is now unfolding.
By Saba Naqvi with Chandrani Banerjee, Smruti Koppikar, Sugata Srinivasaraju and Pushpa Iyengar
Apropos Zero Worship (March 19), you quote Pune University professor Suhas Palshikar as saying, “It was beyond one man to rebuild the Congress in UP on the eve of a poll”. But Rahul has been trying to rebuild the Congress in UP for more than two years now. Just face it—he failed, even in his own constituency.
Rupjyoti Bhagawati, Pune
With due apologies to Ernest Hemingway:
The son also rises, the son also sets,
And hastens to the place from which he rose. One generation goes, another comes, And so it goes on forever.
Gullapalli V.S., on e-mail
As long as Rahul has Digvijay Singh, Salman Khurshid and Kapil Sibal as mentors, the agenda will focus more on the minorities and governance by handouts than development.
S. Madhekar, on e-mail
Thank God, Rahul failed. Else we’d have had fawning headlines like ‘Rahul the Messiah’ and ‘Rahul the Future of India’.
S.S. Nagaraj, Bangalore
Rahul Gandhi is naive, and that’s what stands exposed.
Karavadi Raghava Rao, Vijayawada
That Rahul stuck his neck out and slogged only increases his respectability.
The assembly poll results only show that people are disgusted with the Gandhi family’s governance by proxy and power without responsibility.
J.S. Acharya, Hyderabad
The Nehru-Gandhi family has not allowed any independent leaders to rise, killing the party in the process. If the recent election results indicate the end of dynastic rule, this will hopefully change.
Vithal, on e-mail
It would have been better had Rahul started small and focused on a few constituencies like Amethi, Rae Bareli and others around there. It would have given him the confidence and the experience to take on bigger fights.
Venkatesh G. Iyer, Chennai
The failure of Rahul and his team to revive the Congress in UP shows why it is important to build grassroots leaders and strengthen the party organisation at the state, district, taluka and village level. A surname won’t fetch votes.
Pramod Srivastava, Delhi
Rahul stands completely exposed for his well-meaning, but ineffective agenda. The best thing about the outcome though is that we won’t have to suffer Digvijay’s dangerous and relentless bunkum anymore.
S. Bengani, on e-mail
Rahul is an example of how sycophants and the media combine to create “gold” out of hot air.
G. Natrajan, Hyderabad
A fall from the sky is sure to cause serious injury. Rahul worked hard, but could not establish contact with the people. The big bosses of his party did not know how to go about campaigning in UP, so they let Rahul Baba do what he wanted. And he revelled in missteps, one after the other. Very soon, the Congress may become a historical monument.
M.K. Somanatha Panicker, Manappuram, Kerala
I am neither a fan of the Congress or dynastic politics; nor do I have any love for Mulayam Singh Yadav and his brand of politics. But I have a feeling Akhilesh Yadav will do for Uttar Pradesh what Nitish Kumar has done for Bihar.
Pramod, Phoenix, US
Priyanka's nice haircut and Rahul's stubble was all which we got (to see), and not any win, what to call of a big one!
I call upon the readers to comment upon Priyanka's haircut, further.
You have predicted about Goa that the distribution of tickets to a few families is a step, which will make the win of BJP easier, and it happened. Congress was sure to get its turn in Punjab, so the tickets were distributed arbitrarily, and not by some shrewd planning, and while Punjab Congress chief Capt. Amrinder Singh was lazy, the high command was over-confident, and a number of rivals also contested, taking a major chunk of vote share, thereby giving marginal advantage to SAD-BJP alliance, justifying the old story of two monkeys fighting over a breadpiece, with a monkey capturing the same. But, the situation in UP was entirely different. The more we try to understand, the more we get confused. I sometimes feel that defeat in UP can be a blessing in disguise for Congress as during 2014, Congress will not have state-anti-incumbancy factor from UP, which can help it somehow to win some seats from UP. But, politics is a strange game, a game of probabliites. Nothing we can guess!
For those who constantly whine about dynastic succession in congress ad other parties, may be they should now realize that the ultimate power is in the hands of the voters. So if at all a son or daughter or a wife or husband gets elected they have no one o blame but themselves.
Indeed, the defeat of the Congress in the UP has shocked the media and woken it up out of its slumber. They had built up Rahul and Priyanka up to almost mythical proportions; the Gandhis couldn't put a foot wrong. So much coverage was devoted to them that one would have thought there were no other candidates and parties in the fray. Now that the elections have delivered a resounding slap on the Congress' face and the ascendancy of the BJP (yeah yeah, skeptics will point to the decline in vote share, but what matters is the number of seats and the eventual configuration, doesn't it?) and other parties is a foregone conclusion, expect the media to do a quick U-turn.
We are about to witness a up side down change in the approach of mainstream media. Now they will dump muslim causes in waste paper baskets and are dying to shake hand with hindus. Yesterday SIT submitted its final report on 2002 riots but there were no headlines on this in daily NewsP. Even TV channels almost kept mum. They have deffered Modi bashing program. So wait and watch. May be saba would be jobless or she will also take a turn around..
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