As we enter the penultimate stage of 2019 election season with Chhattisgarh (recently finished), Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram, and Telangana all going to elections, perhaps it would be a good time for the Congress to introspect on having Rahul Gandhi as the president
There is an anecdote about a woman who keeps buying lottery tickets with the same two numbers every month without success. When her husband asks her why she keeps playing the same two numbers, the wife answers, “Why not, those are my lucky numbers!”
In Indian politics, the Indian National Congress is like that woman who is convinced, in spite of overwhelming evidence to contrary, that Rahul Gandhi as the party president is her lucky number. As we enter the penultimate stage of 2019 election season with Chhattisgarh (recently finished), Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Mizoram, and Telangana all going to elections, perhaps it would be a good time for the party to introspect. Any impartial analysis, even if it stays clear of Rahul’s numerous very public gaffes, would immediately show the many ways in which a Rahul Gandhi presidency is holding his party back.
So, here then, without further ado, the case for removing Rahul Gandhi from the party supremo post, ahead of the assembly election results.
Firstly, as Barkha Dutt, in a rare moment of neutrality, observed here, the Gandhi family, like the Clintons in the USA, is seen by many voters as an entrenched, corroded symbol of a corrupt system. This is essentially a perception issue and thus nearly insurmountable. As a consequence, in spite of being on a Guinness Book of World Records-worthy losing streak in elections, the Congress party, is still seen as the one calling shots, i.e., the establishment, by a majority of the Indian population. The recent turf war between judiciary and legislature hasn’t helped this perception either. Many people view this as the establishment, trying to rule by proxy. The masses’ anger at elites in public life constantly calling them barbarians is getting further fuelled at seeing the government they voted for being hamstrung by another set of elites in the judiciary. Once again, even if you give little credence to “deep state” style conspiracy theories, the fact that the Congress party is being blamed for it is beyond doubt. Ironically, many among the online right admire Congress and their former president Sonia Gandhi for keeping this stranglehold on the “ecosystem”.
Similarly, many on the other side seek some comfort in it. What both sides are ignoring, to Congress’s peril, is that as long as Congress is seen as an establishment, it will never be seen as a challenger, much less an underdog. People have a natural sympathy for the challenger, and people absolutely root for the underdog especially when he is up against a bully. As long as Congress is seen as the bully running its writ in spite of being reduced to 44 in the parliament, it would never be seen as a challenger. To get the power, the Congress needs to win elections; to win elections, it needs to sway a sizeable number of non-committed voters on their side. I am not sure what is the formula for doing this, but I am reasonably sure having a guy who puts up videos of him feeding his dog and winking in Parliament, isn’t it. The fact that most people see Narendra Modi as the political outsider and the underdog in spite of him holding office(s) since 2001, is an immense achievement on his part, but there is no denying that having Rahul as his opposite number has made the PM’s job somewhat easier.
The other issue that haunts the Gandhi scion is, of course, the coterie of journalists, academicians and entertainers, cultivated assiduously by his grandmother, and used to devastating effect by both his parents, has now, in public eye, become the enemy number one. The mainstream media journalists, the so-called Lutyen’s intellectuals, have only added fuel to fire by constantly accusing the public of being bloodthirsty barbarians and positioning themselves as the last frontier against Nazism. As long as the elites pin their hopes on Rahul Gandhi, the masses will keep thinking of him the authoritarian monarch, using his roundtable to keep the subalterns in line. Unfortunately for Rahul, the association has been cemented to such a degree that it might be too late for him to live it down. Any successor to him can take steps from day one and ensure that he is seen as the outsider, the way Modi was within BJP or Senator Bernie Sanders was within the Democratic Party during the US election season.
In the early 2000s as the left worldwide shifted gears to intensify identity politics, Rahul’s advisors too followed suit. The term ‘saffron terror’ has come back to haunt the party and would in all likelihood end up doing incalculable damage to their long-term future. Similarly, even if you take the bans imposed on RSS by past Congress governments, RSS was never targeted as public enemy number one, at least not with the near-obsessive repetitiveness with which the Congress party is doing it now. Recently, in an outreach, Sarsanghchalak Shri Mohan Bhagwat said they have sent people to BJP because the party asked for it and that RSS would be considering sending them to other parties if they asked for it. Former President Pranab Mukherjee too recently addressed an RSS gathering earlier this year. However, there is no way Congress can do any form of engagement with the RSS as long as Rahul (or indeed anyone from the family) is heading it. Perhaps ideologically it is a bridge too far for Congress to travel, but does it need to antagonize it the way it is right now?
And then there is Congress’s dumpster fire of a social media strategy. From Rahul’s much-lampooned video of Pidi the dog to the uncouth personal attack on the Prime Minister by the Congress IT cell head on numerous occasions, its social media outreach has largely confirmed its reputation of elitism and arrogance. Even worse, according to a sympathiser Maharashtra, after Rahul has taken over, everyone is excessively focused on social media (sagale nuste twitter twitter khelat astat- everyone is just playing twitter). By contrast, under Amit Shah’s leadership, the BJP has expanded its cadre footprint in areas such as West Bengal and Kerala as well as North Eastern India. In a country struggling with poverty, illiteracy and a fledgling infrastructure, it is impossible to convey your message successfully through social media alone, especially as Congress lacks the huge army of non-professional defenders (people without any official affiliation to the party) that BJP can boast about. Can the social media influencers and aggregators overcome the “one-person, one-vote” system of elections we follow? Only time will tell but the odds are overwhelmingly against it. Once again, the party needs a shoulder to the wheel type of leader who will connect with masses like Amit Shah has done for BJP since 2014.
While the reasons for Rahul’s deeply personal ill-will towards the Prime Minister can only be speculated about, there is no doubt about this animus has coloured his party’s strategy. Today, Rahul is determined to prove somehow, that Narendra Modi is a corrupt politician. To achieve this, Congress is willing to flog near dead horses like Rafale, as well as create its image as a party actively hostile to large businessmen. An aspirational Indian of the 21st century views large business houses as success stories to emulate, and not necessarily as robber barons to despise. Congress’s constant rhetoric against Adani-Ambani etc is a costly long-term mistake that the party is forced to commit mainly because the boss is willing to engage into the scorched earth to get back at his opponent. Of course, this means Congress is attacking the opponent on a point where he is least vulnerable. Even outside his supporters’ base, Narendra Modi is thought of as largely incorruptible. This coupled with the Congress’s own sordid legacy of corruption, is making every attack on the PM yet another ugly manifestation of the entitled, angry elites, lashing out at an honest, working-class man who rose to the top position through hard work and determination.
This obsession with making corruption charges stick also means not focusing on the NDA government’s economic performance where it is actually more vulnerable. Recently, when the rally in crude prices pushed the petrol prices over 90 rupees a litre, Congress allowed their resources to be divided between fuel prices and Rafale. Now the crude is showing signs of cooling and Congress hasn’t got anywhere with Rafale either. Is the decision to go after Modi’s personal credibility Rahul’s alone? Only the inner circle of the party can answer. What is certain is without a Gandhi at the top, it would perhaps be easier for the party to not make every election as a clash of titans between their president and Modi.
And that brings us to the final point in this case against Rahul Gandhi as Congress President. As long as Rahul is leading the party, every election will ultimately boil down to a quasi-US presidential style duel between Modi and Rahul and that is an election Congress is likely to lose ten out of ten times. Congress actually showed in 2004 that they can get past a charismatic leader without having an equally charismatic leader of their own. Sadly for a party that remembers so much of its past, it is unable to keep in mind one lesson that can perhaps make the difference between existence and extinction.
Will this analysis change some minds inside Congress? Unlikely, since nothing I have written above is something that wouldn’t have already occurred to any observer. And therein lies the tragedy of the grand old party of India. In spite of being aware of both the problem and the solution, not only they are not willing to implement it but they are actually taking pride in persisting with their foolishness. This stubbornness reminds me of this interaction between Charlie Harper and his girlfriend Mia in the hit comedy Two and a Half Men.
Mia: Charlie, we both know you can do so much more with your life.
Charlie: Yes, but you gotta admire my restraint.
I rest my case.
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Last Updated Nov 23, 2018, 11:47 AM IST