Has Rahul Gandhi come of age? This question is being debated in the media like never before. With over 150 rallies and public meetings in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, these Assembly elections are the first real test in the complex political cauldron of India for the scion of the Gandhi family.
Not known for his eloquence but rather as a shy politician, Rahul’s public posturing on the campaign trail in UP seems to be a deliberate attempt at portraying a man on a mission. With his <i>kurta</i> sleeves rolled up, the beard in place, the angry young man image, the road shows and the rhetoric that follows it – the image makeover is complete. And it is attracting the crowds in large numbers.
There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that if the Congress party’s tally and vote share increases in UP in 2012 compared to 2007, Rahul will be hailed as the next big thing in politics and the results will be hailed as his acceptance at the national level. But the moot question is – will Rahul Gandhi humbly accept his share of the blame if the Congress does not do well?
<b>Bihar Assembly elections (2010)</b> – Rahul did lead the campaign there but ended up with Congress’ seats being reduced in Bihar. The crowds may have come to rallies to have a look at him but it did not go down well with them when Rahul talked about lack of development in the state and the money from the Centre being under-utilized. Especially so, because the man largely responsible for taking Bihar to the dark ages, Lalu Prasad Yadav, was supported by the Congress to remain in power. Why did the Congress not raise the law and order problem and lack of development then? Also, the good work done by Bihar CM Nitish Kumar could not be overlooked.
Senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh did accept the same after the Bihar debacle – “We had to pay a price in the Bihar polls because of Lalu. Congress in Bihar had twice supported Lalu to form government in that state in the past to keep BJP out of power.”
<b>Assembly elections (2011)</b> – In Tamil Nadu the comeback queen J Jayalalithaa swept the polls even though Rahul campaigned extensively in the state along with backing some young candidates. In Kerala, his jibe at VS Achutanandan’s age earned him the tag of ‘Amul Baby’. Again Rahul’s so called charisma almost did not work there too with the CPI(M)-led Left Front almost winning the majority. Congress-led UDF just about managed to cross the winning line by securing a wafer-thin majority.
<b>UP Assembly elections (2012)</b> – Given the past experiences, it can be safely said that the politically volatile state of Uttar Pradesh is the first real test as a politician for the general secretary of the Congress party. Yes, Rahul Gandhi has invested a lot in UP polls - his political career and his image is at stake and he has taken a huge risk by jumping in the fire. The results will be a testimony to the fact as to whether he will get burnt or come out of it unscathed. But the fact is that he had no other option. If not now, then when?
Rahul’s attempt to revive the Congress from the wilderness that it has been in UP since 1989 cannot be undermined. He has worked hard at being seen and heard. To be fair to him, Rahul has a point when he talks about corruption in the state. Mayawati’s rule has been plagued by scams and wasteful expenditure of public money. And Mulayam Singh Yadav’s reign was marked by law and order nightmare.
But when Rahul talks of the ‘elephant eating away all the money in UP’, why does he not talk of the perception battle that the party is fighting on graft at the national level too? When Rahul talks about changing the face of UP if given power for 10 years, why does he not talk of the criticism of the Congress-led UPA government at the Centre for policy paralysis when given a second term by the electorate? When he says “whether the Congress gets 200 seats or 2 in UP elections, I am not going to leave the state till I revive it” why does he not talk of shifting bag and baggage to Lucknow?
Also, why does Rahul not spell out who is going to be at the helm of affairs in the state once he leaves UP after the polls? Who is the face of Congress in the state on the lines of Nitish Kumar, Narendra Modi, Raman Singh and Sheila Dikshit, who are hands-on Chief Ministers in their own right.
Rahul must also explain that if he could announce the name of Captain Amarinder Singh as the Congress’ CM candidate in Punjab, what is stopping him from doing so in UP? Or is he planning to remote control UP from Delhi if voted to power – the Congress has a culture of doing so. This is a dangerous trend which will no longer go down well with the voters. To revive UP you need to have a CM who is a leader in his own right. The Congress surely draws a blank on this front.
These are some of the questions that Rahul will have to answer at some point.
He will also have to answer why he is not projecting himself as the CM candidate in UP. This is another topic which has been a talking point in the media. Would the faith of the electorate in him not have increased manifold if he were to say so. Also, if he is being touted as the future PM of the country by senior Congress leaders who constantly say that he has all the ‘qualities’ to occupy the top post, should he not first prove himself as a successful CM who can turn around the state and then take on the arduous task of running the country? We saw what happened when an inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi was given the hot seat after his mother Indira Gandhi’s assassination – he lost the general elections after five years.
Some may say it smacks of elitism when you don’t want to be the CM of a state, but want people to vote for you. It is like saying - I am good enough only to be the PM. But there may be another reason for Rahul’s reluctance. He is investing in UP on a long-term basis – he knows that this time around there might be an increase in the Congress tally, but the party will not be able to form the government on its own and will probably be placed third in the four-cornered fight in the state. At best they can support a larger party. So why bother with the intricacies at this juncture.
Having said that, Rahul also has to understand that even if the Gandhi name is the biggest asset of the Congress party, the family road show complete with Priyanka’s kids and her husband will not get enough votes. If he is serious about reviving UP, then Rahul has to start from the grassroots and invest in people who will work amongst the masses. He will have to do away with cronies and give the local leaders freedom to carry on their own.
It also does not help when the Congress plays the same minority/backward class card like the Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party to garner votes. With Salman Khurshid and Beni Prasd Verma talking of 9 percent reservation for Muslims in UP if voted to power, how is the party different from the BSP and the SP? Isn’t it time to get rid of identity politics and talk of inclusive growth and development for all on the lines of Bihar.
<i>Post Script:</i> The MP from Amethi said recently in Varanasi - “All political leaders in India – all the top ones – have an obsession with prime ministership. This is not Rahul Gandhi’s obsession.” When it is an open secret that Rahul too like others has his eyes on India’s top job, somewhere the seriousness of the statement gets diluted. No harm if he has dreams to lead the country but just like him, in a democracy everyone has the right to aspire to become what they want to become and work towards achieving that dream in a legitimate manner. Gone are the days when the most coveted job in the country was reserved for a particular family. The voters, especially the youth, do not subscribe to the theory of entitlement any more – if Rahul wants to be accepted by the masses, he will have to earn it.