Fudged, Fumbled, Disconnected…
If Rahul Gandhi is a youth leader, how is he so totally disconnected from the thousands of young on the streets?
Sanjay Kapoor Delhi
Barely able to preserve its dignity after the assembly elections to Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, the Congress leadership ran into another air pocket when it found crowds converging again at India Gate to demand justice against the perpetrators of the heinous gangrape in Delhi. The UPA government and the Congress leadership, in the last one year, has acquired the experience of facing crowds at India Gate, but like in the recent past — they fudged and fumbled, yet again.
Unlike the earlier agitation on corruption led by Anna Hazare, on the issue of rape of the unfortunate girl, the administration did not display any laxity in nabbing the accused. In a space of 48 hours, the alleged culprits were arrested. Unlike other cases where the police has the reputation of picking up anyone to satisfy the media and enraged masses, this time around technology and good forensics helped in zeroing in on them. However, this did not endear them to the milling crowd of angry, young people who were brutalised, tear gassed and caned by the police.
Worse, there was an unsavoury face-off between the Delhi government and police commissioner about who should manage law and order in the capital. As the protestors began to climb the Raisina Hill to reach out to the country’s top leadership, the administration began to give an impression of losing its nerve. Images of women protestors began to feed a view that the Congress-led government was insensitive and was disconnected from the masses.
Expectations from the political leadership to display compassion were met with dithering. Clearly, the government led by Manmohan Singh and the Congress top brass were told by its advisors to hold firm and not to submit to the demands of the protestors who were city slickers. What happened after that is history, but what comes through is that the Congress has been ill served by its bureaucratic advisors who have prospered at the expense of the party.
Counselling safety and caution first, these myopic advisors have encouraged the party leadership to resort to technical solutions to revive the fortunes of the Congress rather than engage in firm, principled, conscientious politics. The best example of such sage counsel has been the strategy followed by the Congress in taking on the challenge posed by BJP leader Narendra Modi in Gujarat. Instead of attacking him on his poor record at practicing inclusive economic and social policies, they chose to outsource their fight to a BJP breakaway party led by former chief minister Keshubhai Patel. Relying on the inexact science of psephology, they had hoped that Patel and his ilk would be able to hurt Modi, little realising that their strategy was not really providing an option to those people of Gujarat who were looking for change.
And there were many who had a bone to pick with Modi! They were not just the Muslims who had been disenfranchised after the barbaric treatment meted out to them during the Gujarat riots in 2002. There were a large mass of tribals, urban poor and farming community that had been ousted by the government in trying to appease subsidised crony capitalists. In Gujarat, this correspondent heard angry noises from many who resented the phenomenal riches of a handful, especially selected corporates who are constantly eulogising Modi. Congress did nothing to mobilise the disillusioned, disenchanted and the restless. One wonders why they, or the civil society groups associated with them, could not articulate issues that would have brought people out on the streets and put Modi and the BJP on the defensive.
On the contrary, criticism of Modi was discouraged as it was suggested that it could coalesce the majority community around him and polarise the elections. A central minister who was asked to campaign in Gujarat had to go through a briefing in Ahmedabad by the state Congress bosses, where she was told that she could not “attack Modi” in any way on the issue of communalism or ignoring the tribals etc. Exasperated by such demands, the central minister wondered “why were we invited to campaign” in the first place?
The only people that could talk tough were the Gandhis --- Sonia and Rahul; strangely, the advisors wanted them to corner all the credit if the Congress turned the corner. That has proved to be a fable of sorts since the family, especially Rahul, has abjectly failed to deliver any of the crucial states in the past. After the Gujarat defeat in 2002 there was a common belief that if the party had encouraged and built the profile of a state leader with mass appeal and grassroots connect, than the Congress could have got closer to defeating Modi. This simply did not happen. The Congress leadership, especially a certain powerful advisor to Sonia Gandhi, proved utterly inept, ineffective, without imagination.
Comparison was available in Himachal Pradesh where an old war horse in Virbhadra Singh, defying age, price rise and a toxic anti-corruption campaign against him, defeated BJP convincingly. Lessons from the Himachal victory were easily analysed: it is not the leadership of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi that helps or hurts in states, but an empowered, respected, connected regional leadership.