PM Modi campaigns for the BJP during a roadshow in Varanasi on March 4. Photograph: (AFP)
A three-time chief minister of a Congress state told me in 2014 that the Gandhis have become a liability for the Congress
Shortly after the Lok Sabha elections in 2014, three-time chief minister of a Congress state told me that the Gandhis have become a liability for the Congress. What sounded shocking to me then seems like a cold reality today. Post 2012, every election where Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi campaigned intensively has been lost by the party. The Congress has only been able to retain or regain those states where the state leadership has been strong. This development has been co-terminus with the rise of Modi’s brand of politics and Rahul’s elevation in the Congress Party. The rise of the BJP also became the rise of Narendra Modi which not only electorally marginalised the Congress but also damaged the Gandhi brand. His campaign model ran down Rahul Gandhi hence his capacity to attract and electrify the voters.
This happened when Narendra Modi had more political baggage than the young Rahul Gandhi. Despite the disadvantage he faced, Modi managed to turn it around. He did this through opportunities inadvertently handed down to him by the Opposition and by projecting himself as an outsider to the corrupt world of the Delhi Durbar. In the process, Rahul Gandhi was successfully projected as a lazy leader who was a product of power and pelf in front of an aspirational India which he has not been able to shake off till date.
Rahul Gandhi not only squandered away the opportunity to understand the humbling process of government work but also proved organisationally inept. Not only did his Youth Congress programme come under tremendous criticism but his transition, forced by his mother Sonia Gandhi, created deep fissures in the party. Married to the defeat of 2014 and 2017, one can safely say that Rahul Gandhi today is turning into a brand liability for the Congress as he fails to draw the voters out on his own account. The truth is that the dynasty is in decline. The truth is that majority of Indians aren’t taking Rahul Gandhi seriously. It is failing to connect to a new India on its own accord. It is a difficult truth but stares the Congress in its face and it should worry everyone in the Congress a lot.
The sum and total of five polls is that Narendra Modi today stands as the only pan Indian leader who possesses the ability to move and mobilise multiple social constituencies. Even if concession is given to Rahul Gandhi that the Congress wrested a couple of states, its overall vote share continues to decline. Rahul's victories never gave him the legitimacy of a mass leader as people gave credit to the state leaders. This time, the family bastion in Uttar Pradesh (UP) was again swept away despite the alliance whereas all seats in Varanasi went into the BJP’s pocket indicating that even the home turf of the Gandhis is in tatters.
To top it up is the issue of perception that no leader comes close to Modi. This image has been buffeted further by the economically-contested demonetisation which he used to the party’s political advantage in Uttar Pradesh. This not only enhanced his stature but also made all adversaries look small, limited and regional in nature.
The UP results also made Rahul Gandhi fall into the trap of sectional politics. In the 2012 elections, he spoke about the issue of backward Muslims which failed miserably. This time also the same mistake was repeated, but in a different avatar.
Despite appealing to the developmental issues, the dog whisper campaign of the SP-Congress was that with the Muslim Yadav combine with the Congress, the upper-caste vote would do well. This was politically countered by the majority discrimination campaign by BJP which was spearheaded by the prime minister himself. Not only did it derail the alliance, but it also created a united Hindu vote which should worry Congress a lot.
Bluntly putting it, PM Modi has become the biggest Hindu mascot who makes his intention of not running after the minority votes very clear to the electorate. To say that the post-Godhra baggage of the PM has been forgotten by India as he speaks more on development would be to fool oneself. Modi represents a skillful combination of Hindutva and the right-of-center economy of the world. So, to say that the UP results showcase booth-management skills or caste management would be to fool oneself. The vote represents a majority vote against a minority veto which has resurfaced in a much more powerful manner after the 1990s. This is the reason why not a single Muslim candidate was fielded by the BJP in UP and similarly in Assam, where the Muslim population touches 30 per cent of the total votes. This is not limited to India. Through the world, a churn exists where the majority not only asserts itself but also wears its cultural and religious symbols dynamically in the political field.
It is in this contrast that Rahul Gandhi comes across as a perpetually struggling leader who has neither defined his idea nor politics. It is this reality that Rahul Gandhi needs to deal with. It will not resolve itself by visiting temples or talking about Saivism in public because it doesn’t look organic.
Congress under Rahul Gandhi can either continue to fight the BJP to preserve its past and the family or can call for internal elections to embrace fresh leadership. Who knows that a tough fight to take over the party might reinvent Rahul Gandhi himself. It did wonders to Sonia Gandhi when she was challenged by Jitendra Prasad. It gave her the legitimacy in front of workers and from there she went on to challenge the BJP. She challenged them state by state and in the process rebuilt a broken party.
The Congress will have to walk the same road again but will have to start the process by addressing the issue of the family first. There is not much of a choice. Fix it or replace it with an outsider.