Why Rahul Gandhi failed to move India

On the evening of May 16, the Congress chief, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi addressed the media briefly at the party headquarters.

Mr. Gandhi spoke first. He said that as the party’s vice-president, he accepted responsibility for the debacle. Ms. Gandhi spoke after him, taking the blame on herself. As she spoke, Mr. Gandhi stood two steps behind her with a smile that was in contrast with his mother’s words. While she said she accepted the people’s mandate with humility, the smile Mr. Gandhi wore on his face was anything but humble. It was very random and out of place.

This progressive randomness of Mr. Gandhi has contributed significantly to the party’s drubbing in the election.

In 2004, when he was declared the party’s candidate from Amethi, it surprised many, including some old Congressmen. In their minds, Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra was more suited to lead the party for various reasons, one of them being her resemblance to Indira Gandhi.

But then, Mr. Gandhi was presented as the son who had left a lucrative career abroad to help his mother. When he decided to fight elections, no one doubted his victory.

In 2004, power was not poison. It was a means to “help people get on track.”

People believed him. For many Indians — most Indians — Mr. Gandhi was the boy who had held on to his father at his grandmother’s funeral in 1984. He was a “victim,” who was forced to lead a barricaded life. In Uttar Pradesh, that had sent his great-grandfather, grandmother and both parents to Parliament, people were hopeful about him. There, the Muslims had become tired of the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav and had begun to snap at the sheer mention of the Congress’ Salman Khurshid. Many among the Dalits had begun to ask whether the Bahujan Samaj Party chief, Ms. Mayawati cared more for them or her statues.

Promise of future

In 2004, Mr. Gandhi was 34; he was young and he was talking right. He came across as an honest person who accepted he was at his position because he belonged to the Gandhi family.

Around this time, Mr. Gandhi also began touring villages. He portrayed himself as the poor man’s friend; as someone who would always be ready to bear a poor man’s load. But in the end, it was all reduced to a farce.

In January 2008, four months after he was made the party’s general secretary, Mr. Gandhi spent a night in Amethi in a hut belonging to a Dalit woman, Sunita. During the recent campaigning, she told mediapersons that after Mr. Gandhi’s visit, a job had been offered to her husband from which he was later thrown out. She said she managed to meet Mr. Gandhi after many failed attempts, but he wouldn’t even recognise her.

In January 2009, Mr. Gandhi went to another Dalit woman’s hut in his constituency, this time accompanied by the then British Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. “Look at me, I’m here to end all your woes,” Mr. Gandhi told a shivering Shiv Kumari. The Congress workers brought fresh mattresses and pillows for the two VIPs to sleep on. When they left the next day, these too were taken away.

In 2012, speaking to journalists, Ms. Kumari’s family members said the family was in bad shape and unable to pay an agricultural loan of Rs.50,000.

Mr. Miliband has, in the meantime, moved on after failing to win the elections in 2010. According to a 2013 Financial Times report, his earnings since he left government were £9,85,315 — from “lucrative directorships and speaking roles” (The report said that as a speaker, Mr. Miliband commanded a fee of up to £20,000).

Vote for surname

According to the affidavit submitted by Mr. Gandhi before the Election Commission of India, the value of his assets has doubled in the last five years. In Mr. Gandhi’s case, though, it is quite doubtful if there will be someone willing to pay to hear him speak – except loyalists like Satish Sharma or Rita Bahuguna.

This month, Mr. Gandhi completed 10 years in Parliament. But even after getting elected from Amethi for the third consecutive time, a majority of votes that made him victorious were essentially cast for his surname. Why is it so hard for Mr. Gandhi to understand this? Why is it that even after 10 years of attempting to prove that he is not incompetent Mr. Gandhi still comes across as one?

The problem lies in the randomness with which Mr. Gandhi took up issues. The problem is that he chose to take shortcuts for everything, including the prime ministership. The truth is that he thought he would paradrop himself in the middle of a “cause” and leave his mark.

Initially, when Mr. Gandhi would get down from his SUV and roll up his sleeves, people thought he meant business. But gradually, they lost hope. Mr. Gandhi came and saw and thought he had conquered. But he had not. The coterie of party sycophants that surrounded him never told him so.

In 2009, 15 Congress leaders, keen to exhibit their loyalty, decided to do a sleepover at Dalit houses. But they turned it into slapstick. Most of them brought their own food and plates. In Kanpur, the minister, Sriprakash Jaiswal brought his movie equipment along with his food and bedding to a Dalit’s hut and left many hours before sunrise.

In October 2013, Mr. Gandhi said the Dalits needed “escape velocity” of Jupiter to achieve success. But instead of offering them that impetus, he kept revolving in his own orbit of vacuousness.

It is with the same lack of follow-up that Mr. Gandhi approached other serious issues. In October 2011, he urged the Union Health Minister to visit encephalitis-hit Gorakhpur. The command was followed. But next year, 557 people died of the disease — the maximum fatality in five years. We never heard a word from him.

All these years Mr. Gandhi spoke about the social schemes the Congress party had introduced in a manner similar to how quacks at roadside Himalayan dawakhanas speak of their “herbs” to cure venereal diseases. In the last few months, his laying down his vision for a better India became a comic spectacle. He referred to poverty as a “state of mind” and commented that “the poor can’t eat roads.”

As a result, the Congress party has suffered a humiliating defeat.

Sometime in the future, Rahul Gandhi may get another chance. For that to happen, he should return to Uttar Pradesh and stay put.

And he should keep his sleeves down.

rahul.p@thehindu.co.in

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