From all accounts, the ongoing assembly poll in India’s largest state is not going to be remembered as a landmark election. There will be the usual quota of gainers and losers, but even if a government does ultimately emerge after May 11, the results will show that the contours of a caste-and-community-based polity haven’t changed. Unlike another India where economic growth has triggered a discernible shift in popular concerns, prolonged stagnation (despite pockets of affluence) has meant that competitive politics in Uttar Pradesh is mired in the pre-liberalization framework. The stagnation is so pronounced that even the main players — Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Kalyan Singh, Ajit Singh and even V.P. Singh —have remained unchanged since the election of 1993.
In theory, the situation was tailor-made for a monumental shake-up. It required an audacious political entrepreneur to throw a large stone into the stagnant pool and wait for the ripples to shake, if not overwhelm, the status quo. It is conceivable that the Congress had precisely this in mind when it chose this assembly election to launch Rahul Gandhi as a mass leader.
The heir apparent had everything going for him. In a land where the majority of the population (though not the electorate) is below 35, it made eminent sense to project a fresh face untainted by the dismal past. Most political parties, but notably the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Samajwadi Party, haven’t been sufficiently alert to this dramatic demographic transformation, preferring to persist with war horses whose sell-by date has long gone. The Congress, for all its other shortcomings, has been far more inclined to accommodate young people, notably those who have taken to politics as a family vocation. In fact, the party has unwittingly evolved a new dynastic code, which replicates old loyalties in a contemporary garb.
Thus, while the Gandhi family presides over the top, the charge of the constituencies is increasingly being passed on to relatively young politicos who have long associations with the Congress and the first family. It is interesting to note that most of the so-called ‘Generation Next’ MPs of the Congress — Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada, Milind Deora, et al — entered public life as part of their inheritance. A perusal of the Congress candidates in UP suggests that the political launch of Rahul coincided with a conscious Congress decision to forge a club of young inheritors.
Political scientists will no doubt say that such an all-round dynastic approach argues against the imperatives of elite circulation in an evolving country. India, after all, doesn’t have the requisite social stability to nurture a variant of, say, the old boy’s club of the pre-Margaret-Thatcher Conservative Party in Britain. The importance of accommodating emerging elites is lost in a system that treats entry into the political class as largely a function of inheritance.
The Congress is certain to quickly gauge the inherent limitations of such an approach — just as the BJP has learnt that membership of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh cannot be the basis of political expansion. However, in UP — where the Congress has never really recovered from the three-pronged offensive of Mandal, Mandir and Mayawati — there was no alternative to banking on pre-existing loyalties. If Rahul’s career had to take off, he had to show a dramatic improvement in the Congress’s fortunes both in terms of votes and seats. This, the Congress strategists believed, would have a multiplier effect on the rest of India in time for the 2009 election.
The extent to which the Congress chose to make the UP poll Rahul’s election can be gauged by the fact that Sonia Gandhi has kept a relatively low profile and the prime minister, Manmohan Singh, has been fielded (in the first three rounds of polling) in only one constituency where there is a large cluster of Sikh voters. The prime minister’s generous certificate to Rahul as the leader of the future would suggest that the Congress is consciously toying with the idea of projecting the young Gandhi as the new hope for 2009. In view of the Congress’s defeats in Punjab, Uttarakhand and the local polls in Maharashtra, Orissa and Delhi, there is a belief that a new Gandhi can blunt the inevitable tide of anti-incumbency and convert it into a vote for change.
Although there is a tendency for the most meticulously prepared blueprints to go wrong in politics, it would be injudicious to scoff at the Congress strategy. Rahul’s road-show across UP may not have had the same impact as N.T. Rama Rao’s Chaitanya-rath through Andhra Pradesh in 1982 and 1995 but they haven’t been flop shows. In areas where the Congress has a presence or where its candidates have a fighting chance, Rahul has attracted good crowds. But there is as yet no evidence to suggest that his endeavours have succeeded in eroding the appeal of sectarian politics.
At the end of the day, Rahul is going to be judged by his political message. Unfortunately for the Congress, this is precisely the area where he has been found most wanting.
Rahul began with the not-too-exciting plea to let developmental concerns prevail over caste and sectarian considerations. It was a safe message but was too couched in generalities to have an impact in an assembly poll. Most important, in the age of 24x7 TV, goody-goody interventions lacked sound-bite qualities. Rather than persist with the theme and chip away slowly, Rahul lost patience somewhere along the line and fell prey to headline-grabbing. His initial criticism of P.V. Narasimha Rao’s handling of the Ayodhya problem and the 1996 alliance with the BSP invited charges of impetuosity and needless irreverence. His remarks at Badayun, however, triggered a political and diplomatic storm and exposed him to charges of arrogance and ignorance. They were reminiscent of his father’s infamous “Naani yaad dila denge” bark. Even Congress loyalists found it difficult to come to Rahul’s defence aggressively. Far from giving the party a talking point, Rahul ended up embarrassing the party.
At the root of Rahul’s miscalculation is the strange belief that his political rhetoric must coincide with the framework of his strategy. Since dynastic appeal lay at the core of his status in the Congress — and the basis of a network he has tried to create — it didn’t seem out of place for him to make this the basis of his electoral appeal. Whereas both Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi made the Congress the vehicle of their political appeal, Rahul chose to put family loyalty at the forefront. This approach may work in bolstering the morale of retainers, but the fact is that voters are not retainers and shouldn’t be treated as such.
Rahul’s problems, it would seem, stem from a mindset. Not really having been exposed to the outside world, he has internalized an atmosphere where India is viewed as a family estate and politics as entitlement, interspersed with some noblesse oblige. Since the death of Rajiv, crucial decisions such as Sonia’s entry into politics, Rahul’s candidature in Amethi and Priyanka’s retreat into private life were taken by the family without any reference to the Congress leadership and simply superimposed on the party. Under Jawaharlal Nehru, the family served the party and the national movement; from Indira Gandhi onwards, the party became the instrument of the family. Earlier, the Gandhis were never explicit about this monarchical politics. To Rahul, who earlier boasted that he could have become prime minister at 25, this is the natural order of the world. His discovery of India has led to some unusual conclusions.