The Unsaleable Brand

The Unsaleable Brand

It’s been 11 years since his entry into electoral politics, eight years since he became a Congress general secretary, and more than two years since he became the party vice-president. But the Indian people still ain’t buying.

We know that Rajiv Gandhi was a reluctant politician. Indira Gandhi’s younger son Sanjay was her first choice and heir apparent until he died in a plane crash. And then Rajiv was sworn in as the Prime Minister when his mother was assassinated.

We know that Sonia Gandhi was once unwilling to enter politics. During the period of mourning following Rajiv’s assassination, newspapers told us that middle class Italian women were like their Indian counterparts—family is their first priority. Then, as the Congress faced the risk of splintering into several inconsequential groups under P.V. Narasimha Rao’s premiership and then Sitaram Kesri’s presidency, she took charge of the party.

However, there is no such record of reluctance in Rahul Gandhi’s history. He wilfully entered the political arena in March 2004, announcing that he would henceforth contest from his father’s constituency Amethi. But since the time he was given small responsibilities in the party in 2007, Rahul has seen the Congress lose election after election, both Lok Sabha and state assemblies.

On 24 September 2007, Rahul Gandhi became the Congress general secretary, in charge of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and National Students Union of India (NSUI). The membership of both the youth bodies witnessed a dramatic rise to 2.5 million. Trouble is, let alone making the party succeed in elections, Rahul could not even protect these babies from some seniors’ manipulation. This was reminiscent of his father’s spectacular act of snubbing veterans of Indira’s coterie in 1985 and then his efforts of a revamp bearing no fruit.

Soon after Rahul’s elevation, the Congress’s youth leaders went berserk, breaking laws in Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashtra. Around the same time, wary of being unseated, party veterans manipulated the membership drive to sneak their own relatives and henchmen in as office-bearers. IYC leaders then said that the elders in the party were behind the “motivated” charges against their colleagues.

During the formative period of the Aam Aadmi Party, of which I was a founding member, when we proposed a membership drive to Arvind Kejriwal, he said, “What’s the use? Rahul Gandhi made millions members of his party. If they voted for the Congress, they would win all elections.”

A glimpse of success on the electoral ground followed, however. As the Samajwadi Party, Bahujan Samaj Party and Bharatiya Janata Party got their caste and religion equations wrong in many seats, the Congress managed to get 21 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh in 2009. This had to be a fluke, given that the party managed no more than 22 and 28 seats in the UP state elections in 2007 and 2012 respectively. Within Amethi, Rahul could win for his party only two of its 15 assembly seats.

The number of Vidhan Sabha (VS) seats within a Lok Sabha constituency can go up to 10. In Uttar Pradesh, with 404 VS and 80 LS seats, the average is above five. Going by the 2009 LS performance, the Congress should have been a formidable force in the state to reckon with, given the multiple.

It finished a poor fourth.

My psephology deliberately ignores the fact that national and state elections are fought on different issues. It’s because the middle class vote is predetermined and the Congress must show its ability to retain voters like the three other parties do in Uttar Pradesh, irrespective of the eventual results.

Later, in 2012, when the Gujarat assembly election arrived, Rahul was not made the head of the Congress’s campaign team. It clearly showed a lack of the Congress high command’s faith in his leadership qualities (or a quiet acceptance that the party would lose badly, so do not expose Rahul). The party managed 57 out of 182 seats, a marginal two higher than the previous tally.

This means that, with or without Rahul at the helm, the Congress is irredeemable in states from where it was uprooted some years or decades ago. While the sinking of the ship is not due to the first family’s scion, it is a valid question as to why he is being projected as a larger-than-life figure, which he most certainly isn’t.

Some personalities click in activism even though they fail in mainstream politics. Rahul has proved a dud even on that front. He embarked on a path of high-pitched promotion of legislative attempts of the Congress, including the Public Procurement Bill; the Prevention of Corruption Act (Amendment) Bill; the Right of Citizens for Time-bound Delivery of Goods and Services and Redressal of their Grievances Bill; and the Whistleblowers Protection Bill.

None of them created the kind of buzz one experienced in Jayaprakash Narayan’s anti-Indira movement of the 1970s, V.P. Singh’s anti-Rajiv surge in 1988-89, L.K. Advani’s Ram Rath Yatra in 1990, or Anna Hazare’s Lokpal movement in 2011.

Finally, last year, with an ailing Sonia Gandhi receding from public exposure gradually and her son being increasingly promoted to replace her, the Congress saw its worst defeat ever in its history—44 seats in the Lok Sabha.

What baffled political observers was Rahul’s mysterious grin standing alongside his mother when she was issuing a grim statement, accepting her responsibility for the disaster.

The Unsaleable Brand

Rahul failed and failed and failed…despite friendly sections of the media going ga-ga about him every time he did something “new”. There is this undeniable bid to project him as a knight in shining armour. They feted his travel by a Mumbai local train. They gasped in awe when he dined with a Dalit family. Their jaws dropped when he named a certain Kalavati during a parliamentary discourse.

They lauded his act of tearing to shreds a copy of the ordinance dealing with convicted lawmakers, which was the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s brainchild. They went ecstatic when he proposed that Lokpal (ombudsman) be made a constitutional authority. His public meetings in Bhatta Parsaul, a village at some distance from Delhi, got extensive coverage.

The pro-Congress section of the media—or, to be fair to them, the section that is desperately looking for a worthy rival to Prime Minister Narendra Modi—still celebrates this non-starter. After a sabbatical of almost 60 days early this year, when Rahul resurfaced on the scene, he accused the NDA government of being a “suit-boot ki sarkar” (a government of the rich). Another day, he raised the issue of the plight of farmers. The next day he took up cudgels on behalf of home buyers. He was also seen feeling sorry for street vendors. Then he cried hoarse over Amethi being denied a food park. Every time, prime time television and the front pages of newspapers went “wow”! To what avail?

It would do journalism a world of good if the status of all the have-nots Rahul made common cause with are re-examined, especially since he visits none twice.

The “prince” spent the night of 26 January 2008 in Sunita Kori’s mud house and invoked her plight in many public meetings to rub in the fact that Dalits were suffering under Mayawati’s rule in Uttar Pradesh. In 2012, the Dalit woman exposed the fact that he never inquired of her fate when her house was burnt down in what was perhaps an incident of caste-related hate crime. The devil’s advocate may argue that it is humanly impossible for a leader to remember all the people he once stood with, but the argument won’t wash in this case. For, Kori had contacted the Congress’ “youth icon” for help after the incident. She was royally ignored.

Kalavati Bandurkar, the widow of a farmer whose name Rahul had mentioned in Parliament in 2009, was reported to be leading a neglected life in 2011. After losing her husband, she lost her daughter and son-in-law as well to the curse of farm debt. Does Rahul care?

When the Supreme Court told the present government that the Judiciary could offer no special help to the Executive in expediting cases involving legislators and concluding them in a year, it should have reminded Rahul of the UPA ordinance he had called “complete nonsense”. He forgot and failed to intervene.

The Unsaleable Brand

Today, Lokpal has not even been instituted, forget its becoming a constitutional body. Rahul said nothing when the Bill to introduce nation- and state-level ombudsmen was passed, even as Hazare and Kiran Bedi claimed credit and Kejriwal called it a “joke pal”.

He has given only one rigorous interview so far in his career: his appearance on Times Now before the 2014 general elections. Commentator and man-about-town Suhel Seth tweeted the next day that Rahul’s sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra and then Union Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh were seated outside the camera frame, prompting him with answers. The tweet went viral. It was also reported by a few newspapers. Whenever the channel’s star anchor and chief editor is asked about the show, he laughs. The channel never challenged Seth’s allegation.

And then, if former US President George W. Bush was lampooned for his “Bushisms”, implying a propensity for bloopers, by the American and international media alike, their Indian counterparts could never muster enough courage to list how many times Rahul Gandhi sounded utterly funny and sometimes downright offensive.

“Mahilaon ko kya lagta hai? Izzat ki aapki? Bhrashtachar kiya! Balatkar, sorry, balatkar kiya!” (What do the women think? (Did the BJP) respect you? It just indulged in corruption! Sorry, rape, it just raped!) This is Rahul in 2014, almost implying the women were sexually manipulated and raped by the BJP. But he got confused between the two Hindi words “balatkar” (rape) and “bhrashtachar” (corruption).

In another speech, he said, “This morning, I got up at night.” (January 2013).

Some more gems from Rahulspeak:

When Arnab Goswami of Times Now asked Rahul how he thought Narendra Modi was responsible for the Gujarat riots, he said, “Your point about the Gujarat riots, and it is very important that women of this country (pauses) giving them true power… The real issue in hand here is empowering the women of the country.” (January 2014).

Was that an answer that meets any minimum requirements of cognitive intelligence, or even sheer basic coherence?

The Unsaleable Brand

“Agar aap yuva karyakarta se baat karen, agar aap Mahila Congress ke karyakarta se baat karen…pahli baar woh kah rahe hain ki ‘bhai, mazaa aaya!’ Aur main yeh jo mazaa hai, Hindustan ke har vyakti ko dena chahta hoon.” (If you talk to the young workers of the Congress or workers of the women’s wing of Congress… they are saying for the first time, ‘It’s fun!’ And I want to share this fun with every Indian) (interview to Aaj Tak, April 2014)

Denying people the dignity of labour, and every Indian’s right to travel and work anywhere in the country, Gandhi said during his maiden election campaign rally in Phulpur in Uttar Pradesh in 2011, “How long will you beg in Maharashtra (for work)? How long will you work as a labourer in Punjab? It will take only five years and the change will come.”

But leave alone thorough investigations into alleged scandals such as the National Herald case, the fourth estate does not even let out a guffaw at “Rahulisms”.

So, since journalists are so leery about probing the Dynasty, fringe sections of the right wing go wild, speculating what all ills Rahul Gandhi could be plagued with. For two years on the now-closed social networking site Orkut, for example, they accused him of raping a hapless girl from Amethi. Taking a cue from the allegation, Samajwadi Party’s Kishore Samrite filed a habeas corpus petition before the Lucknow bench of the Allahabad High Court, alleging that Sameeksha Singh (name changed), 24, and her parents had been “untraceable” since January 2007, barely two weeks after Rahul Gandhi and his five “foreigner friends” had allegedly assaulted the woman sexually. The case was dismissed and Samrite was slapped with a penalty of Rs 5 lakh by the court. When the former SP MLA appealed to the apex court against the verdict, Junior Gandhi told the Supreme Court through a counter-affidavit that the charge was “false, malicious and baseless”.

The New Indian Express carried a copy of the Cambridge University degree certificate of a certain Raul Vinci, claiming this was Rahul Gandhi, and asserting that the Nehru-Gandhi scion had not undergone the academic course from the university, which he claims to have accomplished. “In the affidavit, he states that he obtained an MPhil from Trinity College of the University of Cambridge, UK, in 1995, in Developmental Economics. A certificate from the University shows that not only has he got dates wrong, he has even got the name of the course he took incorrect. Worse, the man touted as a future prime minister failed one of his four papers,” the newspaper reported.

However, the copy of the degree of this Raul Vinci that the paper printed was dated 2005, by which time Rahul had already joined active politics.

Congress threatened to sue the newspaper. The Chennai-based newspaper (not to be confused with The Indian Express) said it was ready to fight the case. The matter died down.

But the fact of the matter is that, whatever the controversy or allegation, outlandish or evidence-backed, the Gandhi family appears to believe that its members (including members by marriage) have the right not to answer any questions. A right which no other citizen of India has, or should have.

Finally, Subramanian Swamy, known for his conspiracy theories, accused Rahul of being a drug addict during a campaign in West Bengal in 2012. This speculation went wild when Rahul disappeared from the political landscape for a full 59 days during which the Congress issued no statement detailing his whereabouts. On his return, some supporters of the party said he was “unwinding in Bangkok”. A party supporter uploaded a photograph showing Rahul vacationing in Uttarakhand; the party dismissed it as an old snap. And “Bangkok” was not the party’s official stand. The unanswered question only lent credence to the rumour that he was being treated at a drug rehabilitation centre.

This conspiracy theory apart, one does not know what makes Rahul’s speeches—his sentence construction in particular—incoherent, what explains his mannerism of frequent folding and unfolding of sleeves and, most importantly, his inability to dig heels into an issue and make it his leitmotif. There is not one issue—out of the long list covering subjects from an ordinary citizen’s transportation woes to caste crime—which the man has revisited. Even after his umpteenth re-launch this year, he has been shouting about one topic a day and forgetting it the next.

In the last week of July, Rahul Gandhi agreed to make common cause with the agitating students of the Film and Television Institute of India (FTII), where the government had appointed a B-grade TV actor Gajendra Chauhan as chairman. One wonders where this rent-a-cause or a-cause-a-day strategy is going to take his party. On a recent trip to Bihar during Narendra Modi’s Muzaffarpur rally, I did not encounter a single soul who was interested in the Congress. They were discussing and debating the virtues of Nitish Kumar, the vices of Lalu Prasad and the promises of the NDA coalition. Congress did not figure in their scheme of things.

Rahul is not known to be a good negotiator either. One may recall that an alliance with the RJD in the past was called off at the last minute because Lalu Prasad’s party had offered the Gandhis’ party an insulting six seats to contest. When asked why he was humiliating the Congress, Lalu Prasad had said that even those six seats were from the RJD kitty; otherwise, he said, the national party did not have the wherewithal to win a single seat in Bihar.

In that same assembly election of 2010, Sharad Yadav of the JD(U) was scathing in his dismissal of Sonia Gandhi’s heir apparent: “What does Rahul Gandhi know about politics? Somebody wrote on the paper and gave it to you and you read it out. We are an unfortunate country. He should be thrown into the Ganga.”

Since there are no permanent foes in politics, the JD(U) and RJD are today in the same camp, fighting the NDA’s formidable caste collaboration that ranges from a Dalit Ram Vilas Paswan to a Mahadalit Jitan Ram Manjhi to several Yadavs like Nand Kishore Yadav to Brahmins like BJP Bihar unit’s chief Mangal Pandey besides a Bania Sushil Kumar Modi. The Kurmi votes that Chief Minister Nitish Kumar may attract are minuscule, while the Yadavs are unsure of going with the RJD due to prohibition on Lalu’s direct participation in elections following his conviction by a lower court in the fodder scam.

Yet, the Congress (presumably) under Rahul Gandhi is in no position to bargain for a better deal from the alliance. This is yet another of Rahul’s failures; he has never been noticed in processes of striking alliances, unlike his mother. Does he even appreciate that mainstream politics is fundamentally electoral, and he can’t shy away from these exercises? How many votes would the issue of FTII chairman or the plight of home buyers in Noida fetch for the Congress?

In the meantime, Biharis are turning pro-NDA on the issue of the amendment of the law for land acquisition. As they eagerly await a regime where they can sell off their unprofitable farmland holdings, Rahul’s refrain that the Modi government has campaigned on industrialists’ money and is hence obliging them is likely to impress few or none.

The cadre gives up on him from time to time, and clamours for sister Priyanka’s entry as Sonia’s heir. However, this is never going to happen, veteran journalists Uday Sinha and Atul Chandra believe; the latter was on the Congress beat for many years, working with National Herald, The Pioneer, Hindustan Times and The Times of India. In the guest room of a television channel, they tell me that the UPA chairperson and Congress president has always been conscious and wary of Indian sentiment. She believes, according to them, that Indians will never accept the bahu of a Christian family; more so since the Vadras’ antecedents are dubious, making Priyanka vulnerable to attacks from the rival camp.

I asked some Congress leaders whom I have known since their NSUI days why a smart and charismatic Priyanka could only get a Robert Vadra, of all people, to marry. They said her social circle throughout the 1990s was limited.

This scrap dealer from Moradabad, whose loan applications used to get rejected by banks once upon a time, was among the very few men Priyanka had access to, thanks to his mother Maureen Vadra’s acquaintance with Sonia Gandhi.

“The Congress must, therefore, grin and bear with Soniaji,” a social media manager of the party told me, “and her nalayaq beta (worthless son).”

This is awful, not only for the dynastic Congress, but also for Indian democracy that will be left with no real challenger to the BJP once Sonia Gandhi fades away. One wonders whether she is thinking: “Après moi, le déluge!”

This article was published in the August 2015 issue of Swarajya. 

Surajit Dasgupta is National Affairs Editor, Swarajya.
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