In 2004, when Rahul Gandhi contested his first election from Amethi, and campaigned for fellow Congress candidates in Uttar Pradesh, it was a blur of frenzied crowds, rose petals, marigold garlands and gulal : he was an instant hit. Those who lined village roads and filled the balconies of mofussil towns didn't want to know what he stood for, or whether he had a vision for U.P. A young good-looking Gandhi again symbolised hope, and the promise of the return of a family that had served the people well.
Unlike the average aspiring politician, Rahul began his political career on a high, his very appearance generating huge expectations. And it wasn't just the people and the celebrity-chasing media; the Congress party machinery itself created an aura around him, with the heavy security cordon its physical manifestation. The contacts Rahul made with “real people” were carefully choreographed by his minders for maximum impact, making it almost impossible for him to get any unfiltered feedback.
“Rahul Gandhi was forced to fight above his weight,” a young journalist in Basti told me during a recent election trip to U.P., “He is a lightweight, pushed into the heavyweight class because the Congress branded him as the PM-designate the day he joined politics. That's made the task of winning back U.P. even more difficult for him.” Indeed, today, seven and a half years on, those attending Rahul's rallies, as this reporter saw in Unnao last month, are no longer as wide-eyed, nor his own party workers in Amethi or elsewhere, as worshipful.
Today, by placing Rahul consciously at the centre of its election campaign in U.P., emboldened, apparently by a pre-poll survey, the Congress has ensured, once again, for itself the sort of real time TV coverage that other political parties only dream of. Not surprisingly, it has again generated heightened expectations that the party, halfway through the polling and campaigning, is now seeking to dampen. Over the last few days, Mr. Gandhi has been promising electoral audiences across U.P. that regardless of the results, he is in to for the long haul — something he had said in 2007, too — and that his goal is the transformation of U.P., not a mere victory at the hustings.
For Congress-watchers, this is déjà vu: during the last assembly polls, too, as the media frenzy surrounding Rahul mounted, party leaders began to tell journalists that it was the “effort”, rather than the actual “result,” that counted. The party's “limited objective,” a minister said then was “to reinforce the Congress appeal and increase the party vote.” Rahul himself introduced a note of caution: “The Congress has not fought a serious election in U.P. since 1991. And in the 1996 elections [when the Congress gave 300-odd seats to the BSP in alliance] there was a total sell-out; it destroyed the organisation. We lost the ability to create leaders at the ground level. That will change now. You will see a difference in these elections, and a much bigger difference in 2009.”
In 2007, the Congress won just 22 assembly seats, three less than the 25 it got in 2002. But just two years later in 2009, it scooped up 22 Parliament seats in U.P., shocking its competitors. Rahul was credited at the time for galvanising the youth vote, perfectly complementing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's image as the man who had steered India through a global economic downturn. It was the perfect launch pad for Rahul to build on the U.P. electorate's verdict.
The youth wings
Instead, he got caught up rejuvenating the party's moribund youth wings, whose charge was assigned to him in late 2007 after he became general secretary. Then, the Centre mismanaged the Anna Hazare campaign and the issue of corruption reverberated through U.P., reversing the goodwill for the Congress. Though Rahul's role in backing the farmers' agitations in Bhatta Parsaul and Tappal began to pay the party dividends, his interest in the subject waned, and the momentum the party had gained was frittered away. Finally, by the time he turned his attention to U.P. 24x7, it was too late to create the sort of committed cadres and core vote that the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) have.
The Congress could have offset these shortcomings — and blunted the anger of party workers at a substantial slice of tickets being given to recent entrants — through a dramatic announcement, such as making Rahul, already the face of its campaign, its chief ministerial candidate. The idea was apparently discussed and rejected as the party didn't want to risk a failure. “Rahul is our Prime Ministerial candidate,” a senior functionary said, “So why should we confine him to U.P.?” It is this risk-averse, unimaginative planning, at odds with Rahul's own stated dreams of transforming Indian politics, that is at the heart of the Congress strategy in U.P., a party willing to wound, and yet afraid to strike.
Once in the fray, Rahul took his inspiration from Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar and tried, belatedly, to stitch together a coalition of mahadalits and most backward castes, left out in the cold by the BSP and the SP.
But Beni Prasad Verma, the Congress's answer to Nitish Kumar in U.P., has neither his appeal nor drive. Worse, he attracted jeers from the audience at two recent election meetings, watched at one by a grim Rahul and at the other by an aghast Congress President Sonia Gandhi.
But as he learns by trial and error, Rahul and his mother have publicly stressed that the Congress will not tie up with any other party after the elections. Party Congress General Secretary Digvijay Singh has even hinted at the possibility of President's Rule in case of a fractured mandate. Now senior party sources confirm that the party leadership is even willing to risk the stability of the central government, but is determined not to join forces with either the SP or the BSP after the elections in U.P., as it would destroy the Congress's chances of recovering the ground it is gradually trying to recover, even if incrementally.
Rahul, party sources add, is realistic: the base on which he is building his new edifice is the eight per cent vote share the Congress got in the 2007 Assembly elections, not the 18 per cent it secured in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. Age, he believes, is on his side and he is willing to plough a lonely furrow for another decade to get the party back on its feet in U.P. On Saturday, addressing an election rally in rural Kanpur, he said, “The SP and the BSP are only targeting the Congress because they know the day the Congress stands up, they are finished.” And in that lies the key to Rahul's strategy for the Congress in U.P.
Will it work? Only the future will tell. Meanwhile, the party leadership needs to give him more space — and freedom — to chase his dreams.
Rahul Gandhi's central role in the Congress campaign in U.P. has generated high expectations that the party is now scaling down.