Family magic fails Rahul Gandhi

March 12, 2012

Rahul Gandhi arriving in Maldives. Photo by Mauroof Khaleel

Questions are being raised over Rahul Gandhi’s fledgling political career, even as the prime ministerial candidate for India’s 2014 elections took responsibility for the Congress Party’s defeat in polls across five states where voters voiced staggering disenchantment with the country’s oldest political force.

The sweeping anti-Congress wave pushed the party to last place in a four-cornered fight in Uttar Pradesh, the party’s heartland, snatched away Goa and gave Punjab back to the Akali Dal - the first time a state government there has bucked incumbency in more than 40 years. Even in Uttarakhand, the Congress victory was tenuous as India’s oldest party struggled to unseat the fractious Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government there by the tiniest margin of one seat. (The right-wing BJP bagged 31 seats, against 32 for Congress in the 70-member assembly.)

Victory in tiny Manipur brought Congress little consolation.

In such a dispiriting scenario, the party is fending off embarrassing questions over the effectiveness of Rahul Gandhi, its 42-year-old scion of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty and a political star whose relentless campaigning in Uttar Pradesh failed to resonate with the masses in India’s most populous state. After promising a spectacular performance, Gandhi’s abysmal tally of 28 seats in the state after addressing 218 election rallies in 48 days can hardly be flaunted as electoral “success”, analysts point out.

“People were indifferent to the Gandhi family magic. This is not the complete rejection of dynasty, but voters proved that the magic of Rahul Gandhi can work only if it is backed by a strong organization,” analyst Sabyasachi Basu Roy Chowdhury told Inter Press Service.

If anything, it’s a dramatic downward spiral from the lead the party established in 96 assembly segments in 2009. It had then grabbed 21 Lok Sabha constituencies in Uttar Pradesh, surprising pollsters and surpassing its own expectations.

This time, Congress managed to take only two of the 10 assembly segments in the constituencies of Amethi, represented by Gandhi, and Rae Bareli, represented by his mother, Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), the ruling coalition of center-left parties.

By contrast, in 2007, Congress had romped home victorious with seven of the 10 Assembly segments.

The humbled son said that the defeat in Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to the 545-seat Lok Sabha or lower house was a good lesson for him. ”I led from the front in UP and the blame is entirely mine,” he said.

Gandhi emphasized his party’s need to “strengthen its organizational structure” in Uttar Pradesh, where it limped in last in the race between itself, the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP), Samajwadi Party (SP) and the BJP.

Rahul Gandhi is the son of Rajiv Gandhi and grandson of Indira Gandhi, both prime ministers who died at the hands of assassins. Congress leaders annointed Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv’s widow, to lead the party after he was killed in 1991.

Political pundits say Gandhi will require much more than a simple acknowledgment of his party’s failure to catapult himself into the prime minister’s office. Even as fawning Congress leaders tried to create a buffer zone for him, blaming the party’s defeat on organizational lapses and lack of grassroots mobilization, the writing on the wall was ominous. It is clear that both Congress and Rahul Gandhi will need to urgently introspect and re-engineer their campaigns for 2014.

Will the tawdry showing jolt Congress into action so that it can regain its bearing? Or will this exercise serve as yet another chapter in Rahul Gandhi’s never ending political education?

After all, ballot boxes among the 200 million people of Uttar Pradesh often determine who will inherit the throne in New Delhi.

And on this basis alone, the verdict has been unambiguous from all the five states, three of which have unequivocally given a thumbs down to the Congress.

The party’s failure to leverage the strong anti-incumbency sentiment against the corrupt Mayawati government was a sore point with critics. Congress was unable to seize the moment, or the anti-incumbency vote, say experts, because it lacked a coherent local-level leadership. Though Gandhi took personal charge of the campaign in Uttar Pradesh, reiterating his personal commitment to the people’s welfare in every speech, he failed to see the big picture.

That the electorate - angry with Mayawati’s tardy administration - was not looking not for `benevolence’ but solid governance and strong representation.

Gandhi, on the contrary, scarcely moved out of his comfort zone to engage successfully with the aam aadmi (common man), his party’s mascot.

In a way, therefore, the countdown to 2014 may have just begun. Gandhi has accepted defeat gracefully and is willing to do a thorough introspection. As a senior Congress functionary put it, “Rahul is a good leader and a sincere worker but he needs to extricate himself from the power brokers and sycophants in the party masquerading as ‘leaders’ to gain the confidence of the people.”

Analysts are unambiguous in their verdict that if Gandhi is serious about his prime ministerial ambitions, he will have to be grounded in the grievances of the state where he is contesting and make his party a regional force first. Also, to taste victory, he will need to contest as an “insider” rather than as an empathetic outsider bestowing largesse on people.

“Rahul Gandhi’s magic failed because of his disconnect with the masses. The illiterate people of Uttar Pradesh, which is one of the most backward states of India, could not relate to Rahul’s sophistication and high ideology,” Alka Pande, a political commentator from Uttar Pradesh, was quoted as saying by IPS.

As columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta writes in Indian Express, “the voters…are choosing empowerment over patronage, the future over the past, performance over rhetoric, sincerity over cynicism, rootedness over disembodied charm, measured realism over flights of fantasy. They are carefully assessing alternatives through the prism of local circumstances. Identities still matter, but voters are no longer prisoners of those identities.”

There’s no denying that Congress was not seeking a victory for the party in Uttar Pradesh. It wanted a triumph for Rahul Gandhi so that he could be anointed king at the center in 2014. Had the party wrested Uttar Pradesh, it would have bestowed electoral credibility upon Gandhi, facilitating his take over of the party and government’s reins whenever he wanted.

In that sense, the Uttar Pradesh election was a litmus test for Gandhi who was keen to cement his own authority, and that of the government, on the wave of an electoral victory. But the elections upended his apple cart and now both need a makeover.

What will be the ramifications of this Congress rout at the center? Enormous, say pundits. Firstly, the party will face a stiff opposition to all its policies (particularly those related to foreign direct investment).

Secondly, anti-Congressism will become more pronounced making tasks like formulation of the Union Budget (coming up later this month) arduous ones.

Already, the ruling UPA dispensation is buffeted by a policy paralysis and is facing a remarkable erosion of authority. Its credibility has taken a beating; its capacity for negotiating with regional parties has been undermined. So its ride to the 2014 polls can best be described in one word: tumultuous.

But hopefully, the party will have the good sense to identify its Achilles’ heel and its lackluster performance will be put under the scanner by its leaders.

For what’s at stake is not only the party’s future in the Hindi heartland of UP but also the political fortunes of the formidable Gandhis in the world’s largest democracy.

Asia Times Online (www.atimes.com)

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