Rahul Gandhi: THE DARK HORSE

The choice is as clear as sunlight: the fight is between totalitarian fascism and secular, democratic pluralism. There is no other option

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

When Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi breezily stepped unannounced into a rather crowded, routine ‘Meet the Press’ programme at Delhi’s Press Club on a warm September afternoon, he did not seem to know that he had walked into the former official residence of his late grandfather, Feroze Gandhi, and into a raging controversy.

As soon as Rahul raised the sleeves of his white kurta in his trademark street fighter style to interject on a key issue, about criticizing the ordinance to nullify the Supreme Court order to prevent convicted people contesting in elections, he triggered a storm. “I tell you what my opinion on the ordinance is: That it is complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown away. That’s my opinion,” he said.

That day the Congress Vice President sported a beard and a manifest desire to challenge the timidity that the party leadership had been exhibiting in the name of evolving a consensus on such issues. It was a tough act to execute, but Rahul did not blink.

Since then, he seemed to have picked up the gauntlet to lead the party to one of the most difficult fightbacks one will see in India’s electoral history. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA), in its second term, seems to have been ruined by gargantuan corruption scams, relentless inflation and a meek, indecisive leadership. Media, political observers, and pollsters — no one is now willing to give Congress the ghost of a chance to win the Parliamentary elections and least of all under Rahul’s youthful — perhaps, a little immature — leadership. Even the elections to five state assemblies seem to be loaded against the Congress. The much-vaunted intelligence reports that sustained ruling parties through their slanted and skewed estimation of the happenings in the countryside, too, paint a grim picture.

And yet, Rahul still matters. 

Ever since he muscled his way to the top of his party’s hierarchy, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is riding on a Shining Modi ‘live’ media campaign complemented by well organized public rallies in different parts of the country; they present a scale that has not been witnessed before. They are absurdly expensive, presidential and ambitious and are meant to create an aura of inevitability about his arrival in as the next prime minister of India. It is meant to persuade the fence-sitters and others who see nothing wrong in voting for a party — as long as they have the freedom to vote it out the next time. It is a tempting proposition for all those who see in an election the opportunity to give expression to their desire for change.

The BJP had played this card in the past successfully and they are aggressively pushing it again. From the swish set in the capital to the retired bureaucrats strenuously walking in the morning at Lucknow’s botanical garden — everyone seems to be mesmerized by Modi and his high-decibel, retaliatory, often rather crass, oratory.

It seems like an unequal fight between someone who has come to write the joint entrance exam of IIT unprepared, against someone who has taken intensive coaching at the famous coaching centres of Kota, Rajasthan

And then, there is the 24/7 media that is happily comparing his articulation with the Congress leader’s reluctant engagement. It seems like an unequal fight between someone who has come to write the joint entrance exam of IIT unprepared, against someone who has taken intensive coaching at the famous coaching centres of Kota, Rajasthan. In contrast to someone who has done everything possible to realize his dream to be PM, the young Congress leader is a reluctant groom. In fact, he has shied away from responsibility that many party leaders were trying to thrust on him.  However, these are still early days of this riveting contest that is unfolding on the screens near you and outside.

Fortunately, politics, especially in the huge, divided hinterland that is India, is not just obsessed with TV and spin doctoring. In a vast country of 1.25 billion, people exercise voting choices based on many factors and much of it is not driven by what someone may have done in Gujarat or Andhra Pradesh. Different regions vote for their own reasons. For a society divided by class, caste and communities — voting means protection, preservation and pride. In village communities a lot can go wrong if the person from the wrong caste or community gets elected. In other words, India is too diverse and plural to allow the manufacturers of consent to succeed. The geographically limited influence of BJP and its PM candidate is sought to be surmounted through mass media, but can such a mirage be real?

There are many who read in Rahul’s reluctant campaign the questioning of the narrative — cleverly woven together by the BJP. While pollsters — some of them obviously using very dodgy data — have not given much hope to the Congress, internal exercises by many foreign countries and their missions show a big picture to the contrary. In their reckoning Rahul, after being anointed the party’s vice president and the person who will lead the grand old party, will have major influence in the formation of the
next government.

A few weeks ago, in a world capital, Indian defence experts were taken aback when a government political analyst made a presentation about how his foreign office perceived the Indian elections. Contrary to the dominant view about which way the elections were going, the analyst highlighted the limits to BJP’s growth and how the entry of young Gandhi had helped in reviving the party in certain areas of the country. The analyst pointed  to the success the Congress party had attained  in UP in 2009 when it surprised everyone — including itself —- by winning 21 seats. Even in the elections to the UP assembly, there was an increase in vote percentage — even though the choice of candidates was extremely flawed. He gave the example of Bihar, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka, that have benefited from his quiet management. Interestingly, in all these assembly elections,  Congress won at the expense of BJP.

The submission of this analyst was that “Congress under Rahul is the dark horse” in this race. By any reckoning it is a brave analysis at a time when a contrarian voice is treated as blasphemy. 

However, it is not easy to dispute the submissions of the political analysts. There is corroboration from some serious political analysts in UP who claim that UP would have voted for Congress in the 2012 assembly elections if the party had stuck to its core constituency of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims rather than putting all effort into trying to reinvent itself around the most backward castes and ‘outsiders’. The UP loss was a cruel blow to Rahul  as he had invested a lot of time and energy in the campaign. So badly stung was he by the loss that he reportedly slipped into a long period of introspection.

The outcome of this soul-searching was the approach in Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka — where the local leadership was given the freedom to decide on candidates. Also, Rahul changed his tack. He gave up the project of rebuilding from scratch which resulted in the alienation of the old order and uncertain support of the new. In UP, Rahul’s rallies were organized by NGOs and parties’ front bodies. Old-time politicians were kept out as he did not want to be identified with them. It was an earnest, but unrealistic, exercise that expectedly bombed.

“He changed after that loss,” remembers a Congress chief minister. Instead, he worked on two things that mattered: giving local leadership precedence, plus getting the candidate selection right. He believed that an electoral victory is a sum total of many things in which getting the right candidate for the constituency trumps blind worship for cut-outs. Besides upholding the Congress values of secularism and inclusive growth, astute candidate selection will be the corner stone of Rahul’s attempt to bring UPA back to power
in 2014.

Expectedly, BJP was roundly defeated in these states even when big cut-outs of Modi were put up to attract voters; even the social media did not relent on the ‘great awakening’ that was sweeping the country. They all took it with a big pinch of salt and scepticism. What it really means is that a majority of the people just don’t believe that Modi has the smarts.

Ideologically, people might have problems about reconciling dynasty with democracy, but the Congress party has historically evolved around the secular and socialist legacy of the Nehru-Gandhis and their vast legions of followers recognize a member of the family as a unifying figure

Ideologically, people might have problems about reconciling dynasty with democracy, but the Congress party has historically evolved around the secular and socialist legacy of Nehru-Gandhis and their vast legions of followers recognize a member of the family as a unifying figure. It is due to this reason that there is a wild clamour for a representative from the Gandhi family to head the party whenever an outsider is a Congress president or a PM. The fear amongst the karta-dhartas (managers of the party) is that the Congress will disintegrate if there is no one from the family to head it.

Sonia Gandhi was pitch-forked to the Congress president’s job due to this reason. For 18 long years she has soldiered on with quiet dignity and stoic resilience to preserve a legacy that was thrust on her.  

She has been cognizant of the fact that, in the absence of internal democracy, the party is sustained by vested interests, feudal and family ties and so on. Despite all the noise about the country modernizing due to the economic reforms of the last 20-odd years, the feudal structures endure. It is from this standpoint that the emergence of Rahul was awaited keenly all these years. With him at the helm, it was possible for different interest groups, individuals and satraps to work out their quid pro quos. What gives assurance to many is the fact that age is on the side of the Congress leader.  As External Affairs, Salman Khurshid says, Congressmen have little option but to wait for Rahul to take charge of the party and the government.

In fact, after the Jaipur convention of the party where Rahul was made the Vice President, the expectation in the party was that he would return to Delhi and be sworn in as the PM; but he chose to wait. Unknowingly, he decided to make his intentions clear from a house that his grandfather, Feroze — also an establishment outsider — occupied as a tough parliamentarian, who did not even spare his father-in-law,  Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Old -time journalists still recall Feroze’s Gandhi’s rebellious streak and how he used to enjoy an excellent relationship with them. So, in some ways, Rahul’s Press Club foray made for  interesting symbolism.

His intervention was timely and wonderfully choreographed — even if its style may have been found inelegant by many of his detractors. He made his anger visible at the preposterous nature of the ordinance intended  to save the reviled convicted criminals contesting elections and he wanted the government to back off from providing any space to them. Like any consummate politician, he concealed a simple fact — he had met President Pranab Mukherjee earlier. The latter seems to have conveyed to him, and his mother, Sonia, the unviable nature of the ordinance and how it could hurt the Congress’s image further. Earlier, the President had met a group of ministers and conveyed to them his displeasure over bringing in such an unpopular ordinance.

His statement came at a time when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was in Washington  to meet President Barack Obama. He was later slated to have an important meeting with the newly elected prime minister of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly.

The BJP leadership that had trooped up to  Raisina Hill to beseech the President to reject the ordinance after they became — like all other parties — part of a broader parliamentary consensus to were stung by Rahul’s chutzpah. “How dare this young man steal our thunder?” wondered the old men of the BJP.

So taken aback was the BJP leadership by the manner in which Rahul positioned himself as an ‘outsider’ within the establishment to veto an ordinance that was proving to be extremely unpopular, that it took them a few days to put together a counterattack. They woke up to the fact that Rahul had hurt the dignity of the PM, but that was a lot of baloney  — coming from a party that has done precious little but savage him ever since Congress came to power. Built on the phenomenal network of the  RSS, the BJP unleashed a ferocious campaign against the young scion of the Gandhi family. It was apparent that his Press Club speech hurt their design to occupy the moral high ground and they were determined to turn it to
their advantage.

From Delhi to New York, where the PM was located, questions were hurled at Manmohan Singh about what he thought of Rahul’s “insubordination” or insolence. Issues hurting the pride of the PM were raised, but Manmohan Singh knows these games far better than his inquisitors and he did not fall for them. He blandly said that there was no way he could control what people said. On his return, he met Rahul and matters were resolved — as if they needed to be.

More important, though, the ordinance was withdrawn. ‘Howsoever Rahul may have done that, the fact is that the convicted criminals will not be allowed to contest for Parliament,’ became the common refrain in many parts of the country. 

Modi spent a large part of his Delhi rally subsequently trying to show how irresponsible the Congress leader was. The endeavour of his supporters has been to show that he is impetuous, irresponsible and slow to move; that he is a ‘Pappu’. Social media, serving as an instrument to shape new images, which in turn can be soaked in by the traditional media to reach out to a different audience, were full of stories of how the hyped-up Delhi rally of ‘Feku’ was a big flop. In some ways his bombastic speech was tethered to an issue on which the young Congress leader had stolen a march.

Since then there have been other issues that have been raised by the Congress leader that have been expectedly derided and ridiculed by the BJP leaders. His remarks about Pakistan’s intelligence agency, the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI), trying to reach out to the Muzaffarnagar riot victims, and how he got this information from an intelligence officer, may have been an example of immaturity, but the important message that he was trying to send out did not really escape those concerned with divisive politics. Even the much reviled figure of Azam Khan pointed out that there was some truth in what Rahul was saying.  Modi, in his characteristic  chest-thumping style, tore into this suggestion, but while he was doing that he was forced to operate within the secular framework, which his noisy supporters detest.

The Congress Vice President brought to the fore the dilemmas and contradictions inherent in an RSS worker’s (Modi) attempt to electorally succeed in a religiously plural society. Either by design or intent, Rahul is pushing Modi to mend his sharply divisive and polarizing ways

The Congress Vice President brought to the fore the dilemmas and contradictions inherent in an RSS worker’s (Modi) attempt to electorally succeed in a religiously plural society. Either by design or intent, Rahul is pushing Modi to mend his sharply divisive and polarizing ways.

If Modi is showing better reflexes in responding to the issues that the young leader is raising then it is also due to the fact that he has little regard for facts and truth. In his high-pitched delivery of speeches he passes off fiction as fact and overstates the performance of his government and that of the NDA even when facts point the other way. In love and war, they say truth is always a casualty.

In these times, the media is both a gainer in viewership, and a loser in credibility. Although the high voltage campaign of Modi has stumped the entire political class, those opposed to him are hoping that at some stage he will burn himself out. This assumption is built on laziness.

Modi has planned for this moment for years. He fits our analogy of a student who spends time at Kota to prepare for the joint entrance examination for IIT. He knows that the final exam is still far away and he is prepared for that. The only way he can fail to succeed is if he is faced with the unexpected during the examination or during the bumpy run-up. Something that he had not anticipated at all! In cricketing parlance, the moot question is whether he will be surprised by the extra bounce on a new pitch.

The young Congress leader, in many ways, is an unknown commodity. He is on a learning curve and still growing fast. With greater coherence coming into the Congress party’s working over the last few months, there will be a tougher response meted out to BJP and Modi in the coming days. The morale of the party will depend on how it fares in the assembly elections. This will again be a test of how well Rahul and the Congress have been able to absorb the lessons of the past. If Congress could retain Delhi and get possibly one more state, then the party leaders could display better self-belief. The young leader will hope that Congress’s traditional connect with the minorities and the poor would get revived once they realize the clear and present danger from divisive and Rightwing forces. The assembly election results could also bring in faster consolidation of all anti-communal forces in which Congress would be a major player. The frontal attack by Nitish Kumar against Modi suggests that there will be others who will be assisting Rahul Gandhi in the task of stopping Modi’s well-decked juggernaut.

The face-off is fraught with interesting possibilities and it could help in reshaping a country on the cusp of decay or greatness. The choice is as clear as sunlight: the fight is between fascism and secular pluralism. There is no other option. 


This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2013