Rahul Gandhi – the road ahead?

Till when will Rahul Gandhi be given time to prove his merit?

Manisha Singh

To say that the results of Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections must have been a disappointment for Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi is an understatement. It must have hit him hard with the shock of the defeat still resonating in his ears. With the Congress not even doubling its tally in the polls but only adding six seats to its previous tally of 22 is hardly the kind of results Rahul Gandhi must have hoped for given the hype around his campaigning. Nonetheless, all that is over and done with. The question now is: what next?

Rahul Gandhi did come out and accept the responsibility for the debacle. “I led the campaign so the defeat is my responsibility,” he said. This is something rare as far as the Gandhi family is concerned. Just as political leaders from the Congress party had formed a protective layer around the scion of the Gandhi family after the 2010 Bihar elections, a bevy of leaders were trying their best to insulate the yuvraj from the 2012 election fiasco too. From Digvijay Singh to Salman Khurshid to Rita Bahuguna Joshi, all put up their hands to take the blame. The excuses were plenty – that Rahul created the wave but others failed to capitalise on it; that the organisational aspect of the party was lacking; that maybe the right kind of kind of candidates were not selected and so on and so forth.

But considering the fact that Rahul hardly campaigned in other states where polls were held and the fact that he was the face of Congress in UP elections, it was required that he come out and face the music. If Rahul Gandhi came out and took the blame for the UP debacle, then it was the right thing to do. Or maybe he was forced to do so. After all the attempts to insulate the young Gandhi did not go down well with the media and there was criticism about what was being portrayed.

Gujarat is due for elections by the end of this year. It is being reported that Rahul now plans to focus his attention on the land of Mahatma Gandhi and take on Narendra Modi in his backyard. While everyone is predicting that there will be no stopping the Gujarat Chief Minister this time too, the win by the Congress in the recently concluded Mansa by-elections in the state after more than 15 years will give the scion of the Gandhi family some confidence. Nonetheless, will Rahul repeat the same mistake in other states that he did in Uttar Pradesh?

For example, in Gujarat too the party’s organisational infrastructure is weak like UP and there is no eminent face from the Congress party who can take on Modi. Congress’ best bet Shankersinh Vaghela hardly seems the man fit enough for the job. The experience of Bihar and UP ought to have taught Rahul that gone are the days when you can parachute from Delhi, garner votes, win, establish a puppet chief minister and remote control from Delhi.

There are also elections in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka at the beginning of next year and in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan at the end of 2013. To be accepted as the prime ministerial face of the Congress by the electorate in 2014, Rahul Gandhi will have to perform well in the next round. Four of these states belong to the main Opposition, the Bhartiya Janata Party, and a good show in these states might salvage some of Rahul’s beleaguered image. If the Congress fares poorly in these states too then Rahul may well have to postpone his prime ministerial ambitions to 2019.

It is noteworthy that after the disastrous outing in Bihar polls, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress repeated the same mistakes in the UP polls. In Bihar too there was no organisational structure in place, tickets were given to the wrong candidates (the likes of Lalu Prasad Yadav’s brother-in-law) and the Gandhi family with Manmohan Singh in tow air-dropped to the state talking about the unspent funds given by the Centre to the state (forgetting that the cash was taxpayers money). Moreover, the Congress cadre in the state is still in tatters and the party still does not have a face which can take on Chief Minister Nitish Kumar. So why did Rahul repeat the mistakes of Bihar in UP?

Thus, there will be some serious questions that will be put before Rahul in the coming days – his managerial style, his success in revamping the youth Congress, his inaccessibility, his rare interaction with the media, his selection of candidates and his coterie of advisers. Take for example the case of Congress general secretary Mohan Prakash. He was in-charge of Maharashtra where the Congress did not fare well in the municipal elections. He was in-charge of ticket distribution in UP, where poor selection of candidates was cited as one of the reasons for Congress’ debacle. He is also in-charge of Gujarat. Well, maybe not now.

Union Minister Beni Prasad Verma was portrayed as the OBC face of the party and is also said to have influenced ticket distribution. The result is there for all to see. Rahul also did nothing to rein in Salman Khurshid who played the minority card; neither did he control Sriprakash Jaiswal who talked of Rahul becoming the PM in the middle of the night. Then Sam Pitroda was introduced to the voters as belonging to the Viswakarma caste by Rahul at one of his rallies. No wonder the state of affairs was so bad that Sonia Gandhi, who had let Rahul take the centrestage in UP, had to come out after the polls to do damage control and lament about the weak organistion in the state and poor choice of candidates. For a change, she candidly admitted, “The problem was also of too many leaders.”

The infighting in UP Congress and washing of dirty linen in public post-polls too haven’t helped matters. Congress MP from Sultanpur, Sanjay Singh openly accused the rival faction within the party of sabotaging his wife, Amita Modi’s winning chances in Amethi Assembly segment. And Rita Bahuguna Joshi clearly said on national television that there was resentment against sitting Congress MLAs as they hardly visited their constituencies.

As per reports, a senior AICC leader and a member of the party`s central election committee involved in the UP campaign, has written a letter to Sonia Gandhi holding Rahul`s secretary Kanishka Singh and Digvijay Singh among others responsible for bad execution of poll strategy in the state. Beni Prasad Verma and PL Punia bad-mouthing each other is also said to have been referred to in the letter.

The charade of being angry by rolling up his sleeves, growing his beard and tearing a rival party’s manifesto enacted by Rahul is something that the voter saw through. If he was angry at the corruption levels and lack of development in UP, then he should also be more forthcoming about his views on the allegations of graft and policy paralysis at the Centre. He cannot remain quiet on some issues and speak only on those that suit him. A true leader is one who takes the bouncers head on and does not duck when the questions get uncomfortable.

So, has Rahul ‘learnt his lesson’, as he said he had on March 06. If it is so then is Rahul ready to break from the norms of the grand old party and accept and back strong leaders in the states and also at the Centre? It is no secret that in the high command culture of the Congress party, a yes man and a loyalist is preferred over someone who has a standing of his own. A recent example of this is the choice of Vijay Bahuguna over Harish Rawat as Uttarakhand CM. If this culture is not going to change then the Congress can forget about winning at least at the state level where regional identities are becoming stronger by the day. Also, does Rahul realise that air-dropping into Dalit homes and having a meal with them is clearly perceived as a photo-op. And taking up farmers’ cause in Bhatta Parsaul for a day without going to jail, unlike Akhilesh Yadav, will also not go down well with the voters who are increasingly voting away from identity politics and for a government who can deliver on the plank of development. Incidentally, in the Jewar Assembly constituency in Bhatta Parsaul, the Congress candidate lost to the BSP candidate.

And is Rahul ready to break from the trappings of dynastic politics, stop behaving like a prince and connect more with the common masses? Rahul once said at an election meeting in UP – “I am here for a long haul.” Will he be able to sustain himself in the grime and dust of Indian politics or is his so called ‘charisma’ waning? Also, till when will Rahul Gandhi be given time to prove his merit? Or will he inherit the grand old party just because he is a product of dynastic politics?

There is also talk of time running out for Rahul. He is 41 years of age and he will be 46-47 when the next UP elections take place. Also, Akhilesh Yadav by becoming the Chief Minister of UP at the age of 39 has set a new benchmark. Nonetheless, in the Indian context where politicians never retire and are still active in their eighties, Rahul has age on his side. But the more pertinent question is - does the Congress party really think that Rahul will ever have the same kind of acceptability and following pan-India that Jawaharlal Nehru or Indira Gandhi had? It is almost like a Catch-22 situation for the Congress party – Rahul is not getting them votes but they need a Gandhi name at the helm of the party as their oxygen, even though there may be more competent leaders to lead the party and be the PM.

There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that had Congress won around 100 seats in UP, then the party would have started projecting Rahul as their prime ministerial candidate for 2014. But the disaster in UP has made them quiet. Nevertheless, as the saying goes, a week is a long time in politics. So one is never sure what is played out at the time of Lok Sabha elections – the plank on which the state elections are fought and the realities of the national elections are different. It would also give some sort of hope for Rahul to remember that post-Emergency, both Indira and Sanjay Gandhi had lost their Lok Sabha seats in 1977. But Indira came back stronger than before in the next elections.

Given the political situation today, either Rahul will be the Congress party’s PM candidate in 2014 or he will settle for a Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh kind of arrangement, if the Congress manages to come back to power. It must be added that given the scams that have hit UPA-II, the perception battle that the Congress is fighting on the issue of corruption and the policy paralysis that it has been accused of, it seems unlikely that they will win for a third time in a row in 2014 (that is if mid-term polls are not forced).

Postscript: Given that Rahul Gandhi faced a humiliating defeat in UP, will the cry to ask Priyanka Gandhi Vadra to join active politics grow? A large segment of Congress workers have often said that she has a natural charisma and connects easily with the masses. A reminder – Priyanka campaigned extensively in the Gandhi stronghold of Rae Bareli and Amethi along with her two children and husband Robert. At the end they won two out of ten seats.