Beyond the retweets, it is not looking good for Rahul Gandhi. But, who will tell him this?
Earlier this week, Indian National Congress (INC) blinked once again in the face of sustained attack by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and postponed, yet again, its vice president Rahul Gandhi’s ascension to the top post in the party. With opinion polls predicting INC losing Himachal Pradesh Assembly and BJP returning to power in Gujarat, it is not hard to see why Congress chose to defer this decision. And yet, this is not the worst of problems for the Gandhi scion.
His biggest problem is this narrative, assiduously built by friendly mainstream media and his own coterie of sycophants, that INC is somehow catching up, that BJP is in decline and that it is only a matter of time that the crown prince, like some mafia don’s son in a Hollywood movie, takes his rightful place as the head of not only the party but also the country.
The problems of INC at this point of time are twofold. One, at ground level, their worker base has severely eroded due to defections to BJP and other parties, as well as due to indifference from the top brass. This is a long term, macro issue that will take many years of sustained and planned effort to improve, like BJP did after 2004.
Other and more solvable problem is with the top man himself. For the last few months, Gandhi’s communication, while slightly better on presentation, has actually deteriorated on content as well as strategy. Now this is a problem the Gandhi scion can easily solve with some introspection and may be bring about a change in his core team who is advising him on the messages.
To start with, no Rahul Gandhi, you are not doing well, your party is not turning around. Stop counting the retweets, for goodness’s sake! Today, the entire Congress team is so focused on winning back the ground ceded to BJP in social media sphere, that almost none of them remember that while social media played its part in the 2014 elections, the performance of National Democratic Alliance (NDA) had as much, or perhaps even more to do with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma and mass appeal, party president Amit Shah’s behind- the-scenes ground game and the vast network of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) volunteers that the organisation put at the disposal of the party for the purpose of elections. Without these other factors, a party with “superior” social media game might end up having a fate more similar to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) than BJP. A casual look at the Congress functionaries’ timeline would almost make one feel that the battleground has shifted to online completely. Recently, Tehseen Poonawala, the insolent Congress spokesperson warned Modi of a “social media storm” if the latter failed to speak about a journalist’s murder.
Boy! That would teach him, Tehseen!
Shifting to on ground, real grunt work is an attitudinal shift that will show Rahul Gandhi’s willingness to build a deeply broken party from ground up as well as to challenge the narrative set by the BJP led right wing. Unfortunately, for the moment the leader as well as the party seems content in letting their opponents choose the battleground.
Moving from the medium to message – any non-biased commentator would be aghast at the content and the tone of messaging from Gandhi. As SreemoyT alukdar writes so eloquently here, Gandhi’s Pidi the dog video hid a “fascinating subtext of condescension, deep entitlement and naked arrogance.” His problem was only made worse when many of his sycophants attacked charismatic BJP leader Himanta Biswa Sarma for mocking Gandhi for his video. Seeing official spokespersons asking a senior leader from another party to learn from a dog sends the message clearly that INC’s loyalty to the dynasty trumps over adherence to ideology and performance. Recently INC has started this initiative to induct professionals into its ranks. After the response of Gandhi loyalists to Sarma, any professional worth his salt will not dare to touch the party with a barge-pole.
When it comes to electoral politics, Rahul Gandhi will have to understand what Hillary Clinton learned the hard way last year – merely telling that the other candidate is bad is not enough for the voters anymore. So while dynasty loyalists applauded Gandhi for talking about NDA government’s failure to create jobs, he has hardly mentioned how his own party, if it comes back to power, will turn the situation around. When Modi was applying for the top job back in 2014, he at least had his three terms of chief ministership of a reasonably developed state to showcase. Gandhi, who has never held an elected post (other than MP) in his life, will have a much tougher job on hand.
Even more alarming is his reading of the 2014 verdict in itself. While he did admit that arrogance had caused his party to trip up in 2014, the overall tone reminded one of the relatives of an abusive husband admitting the latter’s transgressions – arrey koi nahi, ho jaati hain galti ! His admirers in social media and mainstream have taken this admission (which was really nothing more than a restating of the obvious) as an evidence of his improved messaging and candour while completely ignoring his atrocious remark about the right wing supporters viz – most of BJP supporters have no job. The obvious falsehood of this apart, this is a game-changer statement for two reasons - one, Rahul Gandhi has broken the cardinal rule of electoral campaigning – insult your opponent, not their voters. Remember Hillary’s ‘Basket of deplorables’? I will not be surprised if the statement above becomes Gandhi’s ‘Basket of deplorables’. Furthermore, the entitlement Sreemoy talked in his article is on display here as the leader who was talking about the challenge of unemployment was also mocking people for being unemployed.
The other messaging issue Gandhi faces is his party’s self-contradicting stand over patriotism and fascism. On one hand INC is hard at work to remind us that it was their party that fought and got the freedom, on the other hand they are also making fun of, or being sceptical about those who show nationalist sentiment in the current discourse. Similarly, while every INC leader including Gandhi keeps raising the spectre of fascism while talking about Modi, they have made no effort to distance themselves from their own, former prime minister Indira Gandhi, who imposed Emergency on India. In today’s information age, these contradictory positions are difficult to explain to an average voter. Will Rahul Gandhi have the guts to distance himself and his party from the Indira regime? Don’t hold your breath.
Similarly, when it comes to identity politics too, Gandhi is a mute spectator of the antics of his party motormouths, which does not speak well for his character as a leader. During his trip to the US as well as his subsequent interview with Nicolas Berggruen, Gandhi brought up the issue of the rise of identity politics and his concerns about it. But he has hardly made an effort to curb the rampant anti Hindi language rhetoric of his party’s Karnataka state unit. Similarly, he has failed to speak out against the horrific public slaughter of a calf by his Kerala workers. Just last week, Congress leader P Chidambaram batted for more autonomy for Kashmir and while the party has distanced itself from the former finance minister’s position, Gandhi himself as once again remained muted. The reason for his silence could either be complicity, failure to notice or inability to take on powerful leaders within the party. All three reasons speak very poorly about his ability to command.
With India jumping 30 places in the ‘ease of doing business’ report by World Bank and selective positive data about the economic turnaround already trickling in, the ‘Modi-led India to economic disaster’ plank is already weakening and may well be unviable by the time the general election campaign comes around. Since 2014, BJP has made significant inroads into the North East as well as at local governing council level in various states like Odisha and Maharashtra. With CBI giving a clean chit to Shivraj Singh Chouhan in the Vypam case, Congress may not have much ammunition to shoot at its opponents.
In a recent article published in Washington Post, senior journalist Barkha Dutt reminded Rahul Gandhi how his family like the Clintons in the US, is seen by many voters as an entrenched, corroded symbol of a corrupt system. Dutt went on to state that the Gandhi scion is discovering, like Clinton did, that pedigree and legacy can be a problem. She, for her own reasons, stopped short of completing this remarkable piece of comparison by stating the obvious, at least for Rahul Gandhi – pedigree and legacy can be a problem, especially if you are unable to cement them with solid, measurable achievements.
A tour of American colleges doesn’t count as measurable achievement.
Added note: After I finished the final draft of the article, I read about Gandhi’s speech in Gujarat about India’s stunning 30 places jump in the ‘ease of doing business’ report. Accusing the Finance Minister of ‘spin doctoring’ a report he had nothing to do with as well as dismissing the World Bank as a ‘foreign organisation’, speaks of either abysmal levels of political intelligence or a despondent certainty that you will never be in power again. Perhaps, it is time someone within the INC stands up and asks if the party should reconsider this scorched earth policy the current leadership has adopted.