Rahul Gandhi as Congress party president - does this change anything for the party and, more importantly, for the country?
In Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, Jim Broadbent’s Boss Tweed tells his underling, “Remember the first rule of politics. The ballots don’t make the results, the counters make the results. Keep counting.”
The fact that this quote from a movie about the fixed electoral process in mid-nineteenth-century America should fit so well with the recent election for the post of party president of the Indian National Congress ought to raise an eyebrow or two.
After much ado about the due process, yesterday (11 December), the counters announced that only one nomination was valid, and so Rahul Gandhi, whose mother, father, grandmother and great grandfather have all led the party at one point or other, would be the next party president. Democracy scores, yay!
For the rest of us who don’t have to pretend what Mullapally Ramachandran had to say in a press conference with a straight face, what does this appointment of the Gandhi scion to the party’s top post mean? In a televised debate that this writer participated in yesterday, the phrases ‘a new deal’, ‘a new Rahul’ were thrown around a good bit by the party’s supporters. Let’s examine this deal for a moment impartially, shall we?
To start with, let’s call this appointment what it is – a visible vocal reaffirmation of the faith that India’s oldest party has in dynasty rule. It was perhaps befitting that Gaurav Gogoi, another dynast, was one of the first persons on record to sing praises of Gandhi and reaffirming his faith in the new boss. The sight of a person who is not only a dynast himself but one who believes in it wholeheartedly must be reassuring for all the second- and third-generation politicians in Congress.
The popular opinion among dynasty loyalists is that Gandhi, as a young leader, can help the party regain some of the young voters it has lost recently. Upon closer examination, this doesn’t ring true for two reasons. One, worldwide voting patterns suggest that as voters, younger people are swayed more on the basis of issues than the age of the candidate alone. The success of a 74-year-old Bernie Sanders’s presidential primary campaign was built almost solely on the support of his young support base. Also, at 47, Gandhi, while young by politicians’ standards, is hardly young for someone in their 20s or 30s. In addition, many politicians that the Gandhi scion is expected to battle in the years to come actually belong to a similar age group.
Maharashtra Chief Minister Devendra Fadanvis and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath, two politicians who are likely to land a national role ahead, are of the same age as Gandhi (Yogi is two years younger). Even Gandhi’s direct rival, Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, is only five years older than he is. So, even making the assumption that the younger population would break towards its own, Gandhi will have plenty of competition to face.
Second, and perhaps more important, is that a large segment of this young population is what is being called ‘aspirational India’ – children from lower or middle-income groups who built a better life for themselves through the opportunities presented to them by twenty-first-century India. These people, still in their 30s and 40s, might actually resent a politician who rose to the top of his party on the basis of his surname rather than any real achievements.
The hope expressed by Gogoi junior about Gandhi helping to ‘heal’ a divided country doesn’t stand up to a semi-serious examination either. Actually, here, the incessant “Pappu” jokes made about Gandhi by the BJP supporter base on social media might have helped his cause, as the impression about Gandhi is more of a bumbling incompetence similar to a Mr Bean than of any real malevolence. But in the end, this is the same man who even without pressure of an electoral campaign, termed millions of BJP supporters like me “jobless” during an interaction in the United States. He is the same man who joined hands with fringe leaders like Hardik Patel and convicts like Lalu Prasad Yadav when it served his electoral interests. His rhetoric against Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), India’s largest social service organisation, can be seen as a tacit support of red atrocities against RSS workers in Kerala. And while he promised to maintain ‘maryada’ while criticising the Prime Minister on social media, he seems to have forgotten to pass on the message to his social media cell chief, Ramya, who called the Prime Minister a mass murderer. He also seems perfectly happy with his party banning television channels from participating in his press conferences. These are deeply disturbing signs, especially from a leader of a party out of power and given this context, it is hard to imagine Gandhi as a unifying force in these divisive times.
Electorally, the thing that should worry Congress with Gandhi as the party chief is how, in veteran journalist Barkha Dutt’s words, Gandhi is seen as an entrenched, entitled symbol of a corroded system. One of the most remarkable features of the Gujarat campaign was how easily Modi and other BJP campaigners could don the mantle of the underdogs in the fight against Congress in spite of being in power for 22 years in the state. You can expect the same in Madhya Pradesh next year, when the state goes to polls. You can rationalise it as Modi playing victim all you want, but the fact remains – it is extremely difficult for the Congress to project itself as the underdog in any battle as long as the scion of a family with 70-odd years of unprecedented power and riches at its head. The party too is not helping its cause by refusing to pin the responsibility of any electoral loss to Gandhi.
If you are an undecided voter, there are two more things about Gandhi as Congress party president that should worry you. One is that since 2014, Gandhi has forever defined himself in the context of Modi’s actions by opposing them. He has been in the spotlight of politics for over five years and yet even his best followers would struggle to articulate his economic beliefs, his ideas about governance and policies. When Modi applied for the top job in 2014, he had almost 14 years as the chief minister of a prosperous state on his resume; in absence of the same, Gandhi would need to spend more time talking policy and less taking pot-shots at Modi.
Second is, of course, this suspicion many neutrals have that Gandhi has still not accepted the 2014 defeat as a resounding rejection of the 10 years of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule and almost everything that went with it. In his US trip, he made a breezy reference to things going wrong in the last couple of years with an air of “these things happen” instead of the serious introspective mode one would expect from the leader of a party that went from 200+ to 44 in five years’ time. Does Gandhi think the people made a mistake in 2014 and is now waiting for them to come around? Is the admission of things going wrong in the last few years of UPA-2 just a concession made to encourage voters to admit that they were wrong? This is about the economic policies and corruption alone. Gandhi has been largely unrepentant about the “Saffron terror” remark of the UPA minister. His senior party functionaries were trying to pass off the murder of 166 Mumbaikars in 2008 as “RSS conspiracy”. He has also not sufficiently explained his party’s soft stand on the communist insurgency in central India. Can Congress count on the headwinds against the BJP to be strong enough for people to not take all of the above into consideration while voting in 2019?
Broadly speaking, even as someone unlikely to lean towards Congress in the near future, this writer is aware of the value of a strong opposition and if Congress under Gandhi is to provide that to India, then there are two things that Gandhi must do to set his house in order. One, he needs to get rid of the so-called Lutyens’ cabal of academics, intellectuals and media – “yes men” that his family has assiduously cultivated as part of the ecosystem. The strategy of driving unpopular ideas by controlling the communication channel is unlikely to succeed unless the country is taken back to the dark dictatorial days of emergency. Social media is here to stay, as are the many digital platforms and the out-of-step and out-of-touch left-leaning intellectuals are keeping him away from connecting with the masses.
Second, Gandhi must drive his party, relentlessly and consciously, towards the centre of the right. Ceding the nationalist space to the BJP was a costly strategic blunder committed by his party and it would take years of patient work to undo. But before that happens, Gandhi must first believe that a large majority of the Indians are reasonable, pro-justice people and hence the centre-of-right nationalism where the contribution of the largely peaceful majority is acknowledged and the violence of the fringe elements from both sides is neither tolerated nor contextualised, is the only viable path to returning to power.
It is a tall order and unless the Gandhi scion rises to it, the faithful Congress cadres are bound to be reminded of the popular Who song.
There’s nothing in the streets
Looks any different to me
And the slogans are replaced by the bye
And a parting on the left
Is now a parting on the right
And the beards have all grown long overnight
Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss!!