Sibling comfort Rahul, Priyanka leave after press meet
rahul gandhi
Election 2012 shows up the Gandhi scion as a political novice Congress can’t bank on

All This For This?

  • Rahul Gandhi addressed 211 rallies, more than one for every two assembly seats
  • 18 roadshows in 48 days of campaigning; covered a total distance of 200 km in campaign bus
  • At 28, Rahul has just six more seats from the 22 in 2007
  • In the Gandhi family pocketboroughs of Amethi, Rae Bareli and Sultanpur, Congress picked up just two out of 15 seats on offer. In 2007, it had won 10 of these.
  • In Sonia Gandhi’s Rae Bareli, Congress failed to pick up any of the five seats; in his own Amethi, only two out of five seats went to Congress.
  • Congress picked up just five of the 85 reserved constituencies. It lost the Jewar constituency under which Bhatta-Parsaul (where Rahul campaigned against firing on farmers) falls. In Bhatta village, Congress got 176 of the 446 votes cast.

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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.

...And he has Outlook’s poser becomes
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But the greatest parallel for Rahul perhaps lies in the story of mother Sonia Gandhi, for years dismissed as a “foreigner” with no clue about Indian politics. Before the 2004 “sacrifice” of public office made Sonia an icon, her most humiliating public moment actually involved Mulayam Singh Yadav. The year was 1999 and Sonia turned up at Rashtrapati Bhavan to claim that a Congress-led front had the numbers to form a government. She famously said “we have 272 MPs and growing”. She had banked on Mulayam backing her; the wrestler decided to trip her and backed out of supporting the Congress. The NDA formed the government, leaving Sonia with egg on her face. Now 13 years later, Mulayam’s son Akhilesh, with the easy manner of one who belongs, has certainly shown Rahul his place in the Uttar Pradesh sun.

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.”

“There’s overload on Rahul. He worked without organisational backing. But if we’re head-hunting, his is a good one.” Shiv Visvanathan, Sociologist, Gandhinagar “He did work hard but he’s no seasoned politician. He needs to know Dosco boys won’t come and vote for the party.” Kamal Mitra Chenoy, Professor, JNU, New Delhi

“It’s not a simple lose-UP-lose-all for Rahul. It was beyond one man to rebuild Congress in UP on the eve of a poll.” Suhas Palshikar, Professor, University of Pune “He promised quota for Muslims on one hand, and also FDI in retail. It meant: I’ll kill your jobs but give you reservations.” Narendar Pani, Professor, NIAS, Bangalore

“People saw Rahul staying at a Dalit hut as an orchestrated drama. The results show the Gandhi name counts no more.” C. Lakshmanan, Asst Prof, MIDS, Chennai “The Congress overplayed Rahul. He shouldn’t have been exposed in a state where it has no organisational base.” B. Venkatesh Kumar, Professor, TISS, Mumbai

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

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