Daughters can be unusually prescient: Taking a first look at my book, 2014: The Election that Changed India, she asked why the cover had pictures of both Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. “Shouldn’t you just be showing Mr Modi, he is after all the big winner, why do you need a Rahul picture also?” “Because,” I replied, “For every winner, you need a loser!”
A post-mortem of this big election year will suggest that the general elections were won by Modi’s remarkable energy and enterprise. But it is equally true that the Congress ran a very poor campaign.
Researching my book I was stunned by the faux pas the Congress had made: From misconceived advertising campaigns, to confusion over candidate selection, to a failure to anticipate the Modi challenge, to, yes, the botched-up Rahul interview. Modi ran a stunningly precise election campaign, but he was helped in no small measure by the Congress’ failures.
Almost six months later, it is apparent that the Congress hasn’t learnt its lessons. To win an election, you need to fight, or at least give the impression to your cadre that you are ready for the fight. As political scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta recently suggested, the “Congress is being defeated by defeatism”. In both Haryana and Maharashtra in the recent state elections, the Congress gave up the battle even before it had begun. One of the Congress candidates in Maharashtra even told me: “Why should I waste money on an election I know I am going to lose.”
The Congress soldiers are dispirited because their generals have gone missing in action. In 1999, the Congress was in a similar predicament: AB Vajpayee had just won a re-election, and there was a feeling that the Congress was now ‘finished’. Between 1999 and 2004, Sonia Gandhi addressed more rallies, did more roadshows, confronted her opponents on the foreign origins issue and ensured that her MPs in Parliament kept the heat on the NDA government whenever possible. The final verdict in the 2004 elections might have been a bit of a fluke, helped in no small measure by the BJP getting the key southern states of Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu wrong, but at least Sonia and her ‘aam aadmi’ plank helped galvanise a demoralised party.
In 1977, the Congress was again written off after its post-Emergency election debacle. This time,
Indira Gandhi showed the capacity to fight back, and the dramatic image of her on the back of an elephant reaching the flood-hit Bihar village of Belchi became a symbol of political fortitude. The Congress at the time was helped in no small measure by a blundering and divided Janata Party government, but it still required a leader of Indira’s stature to galvanise the party’s rank and file.
In the last few months, it has become increasingly obvious that Rahul Gandhi is not Indira Gandhi; he is probably not even a Sonia. Both his mother and grandmother appeared to relish the idea of a fight when written off. Rahul has done just the opposite: He has retreated into a cocoon, refused to engage with the media and even with senior partymen, has barely addressed a handful of election rallies and hasn’t initiated any mass contact or mobilisation programme.
It almost seems as if the Congress leadership believes that politics is cyclical: That the NDA may be in power for five years, possibly even for 10, but that eventually the wheel of political fortune will turn in its favour. And 10 years from now, Rahul will still be in his early 50s, still young enough to hope for an extended shot at power.
What this cyclical argument fails to grasp is that Narendra Modi is not Morarji Desai, he is not even a Vajpayee. He is a 24X7 politician who has understood the changing demographics of the Indian electorate better than most, is a genius at political communication and has at his disposal a highly committed army, which will keep pushing harder in every election. To expect Modi to simply wither away like some of his non-Congress predecessors is to once again underestimate the nature of his political challenge.
Which is why Rahul has no option but to either summon up the ideas, energy and courage to look Modi in the eye or else be prepared to fade away into the sunset. That he didn’t take up even the leader of the Opposition role in Parliament was the first sign of trouble for the Congress; that he hasn’t since made any meaningful impact on the national discourse suggests that he has almost abdicated his responsibility to pose a robust alternative to the Modi juggernaut.
Dynastic privilege in the Congress probably ensures that there will be no immediate threat to Rahul’s position as the heir-apparent. And yet, while Congressmen are loath to be seen as rebels, Rahul needs to win their respect at least. Indeed, he is probably the first member of the Nehru-Gandhi family that has presided over Congress fortunes for six decades who has been unable to yet win the respect of his party colleagues. That will come only when he shows that he is willing to lead his troops from the front, not leave it to the Bhupinder Hoodas and Prithivraj Chavans to fight losing battles.
Contemporary politics has no place for item numbers: The days of Rahul flitting in and out of politics are at an end. Either he stays the course, or finds a political CEO willing to do the business for him.
Post-script: I still don’t know why Rahul is not on Twitter or Facebook, engaging with a younger India.
I am told that he prefers direct communication and doesn’t like the idea of an impersonal social media interface. And he doesn’t have the time to respond to every comment. The logic of this explanation still confounds me.
This column first appeared in Hindustan Times