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Reading Rahul Gandhi’s hand

By pitching a politics of love in opposition to a politics of fear, he may have just hit upon a winning narrative

Until a few months ago, a politician could speak of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ and expect to be taken seriously. It was an eventuality that seemed both possible and probable. A few days after the Gujarat election results, it would seem that the spectre of a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ has been exorcised for the time being.

Four factors

One could discern four factors behind the upswing in the Congress’s fortunes in Gujarat, and these may well constitute the core ingredients for a pan-India revival too.

The first is Rahul Gandhi’s comfort level in a leadership role. Never before has he looked as relaxed and confident as he did leading from the front in Gujarat. For long he has been mocked as a bumbling neophyte lacking the commitment necessary for the rigours of electoral politics. But as he travelled across Gujarat, addressing nearly 30 rallies, gone was the diffident dilettante mouthing ghost-written speeches. Instead, what the people saw was a politician who was earnest, did not act like the entitled dynast he was said to be, and was eager to listen.

 

The second is Mr. Gandhi’s capacity for self-effacement, which enabled him to bring together competing political egos for a larger cause. Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani are massively popular, ambitious youth leaders representing different constituencies and whose political agendas are often mutually contradictory. What united them under the auspices of the Congress was their readiness to trust Mr. Gandhi. It is difficult to think of another Congress politician who could have pulled off this remarkable social coalition — remarkable because it was based not on a cynical caste calculus but on substantive issues such as employment, educational opportunities, unfair taxation, land rights, and agrarian distress.

The third element, unlike the others, is a work in progress: organisational presence on the ground. The Congress mostly managed this by drawing on pre-existing mobilisations such as the Patidar movement. But one instance where it came a cropper was Surat. The textile city had become the epicentre of anti-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anger in Gujarat. But the crowds that turned up for Mr. Patel’s rallies in Surat did not translate into votes. The Congress’s near-absence at the ground level and the BJP’s superiority in booth management and financial firepower made all the difference as the latter swept the city, winning 15 of the 16 seats. The Surat phenomenon is bound to repeat itself unless Mr. Gandhi fixes the rot in the middle and lower rungs of the party and turns them into reliable cogs in the organisational machinery.

Last, and most critical to the Congress’s electoral prospects, is the articulation of an alternative politics that is credible, imaginative, and connects with the masses. And it is here that Mr. Gandhi has surprised everyone.

His speech after taking over as Congress president offered the clearest glimpse to date into his vision of politics. Though not a full-fledged narrative, the outline suggested by his pronouncements has the potential to serve as an alternative pole of mobilisation and affective investment.

Sets of binaries

By now, the contrast between Mr. Gandhi and Prime Minister Narendra Modi is apparent to all. In terms of stature, popularity, charisma, and accomplishments, the former is a David up against Goliath. But David may have found a way to make the contrast work in his favour.

If Mr. Modi exudes power and authority, Mr. Gandhi personifies a low-key civility. If one evokes admiration and awe, the other has the ability to inspire affection. If one is a great speaker, the other presents himself as a great listener. Interestingly enough, of late Mr. Gandhi has shown a penchant for expanding these sets of binaries in a manner that further sharpens the contrast between himself and Mr. Modi.

 

The binaries invoked in his recent pronouncements include a politics of love versus a politics of anger; brotherhood versus hatred; truth versus falsehood; dialogue versus monologue; listening versus speechifying; arrogance versus humility; pluralism versus uniformity; diversity versus homogeneity; and above all, a politics of kindness versus a politics of fear.

His speeches in Gujarat were riffs on these themes interspersed with caustic commentary on the Gujarat model, ‘Vikas’, the Rafale deal, demonetisation, the goods and services tax, and so on. However, he astonished everyone by insisting that though the BJP wanted a ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, he did not want a ‘BJP-mukt Bharat’ since the BJP was also an expression of the aspirations of the Indian people. Though he did not agree with their politics, his love, he said, extended to BJP supporters as well. These are shockingly unusual sentiments in the dog-eat-dog world of Indian politics.

So much so that even the Nehruvian liberals are bamboozled. After all, what kind of a modern politician talks of love? Love? Who votes for love and kindness in the age of gratuitous social media cruelty? Has he gone crazy?

Less puzzling and more unsettling has been his infamous ‘temple run’ in Gujarat. Mr. Gandhi stands accused of conceding political ground to the Hindu Right by highlighting his Hindu identity during the Gujarat campaign. Some have called it ‘soft Hindutva’, citing the strategic use of vermilion on his forehead and his silence on minority issues.

 

This is a misreading, not unexpected from a puritanical streak of liberalism that is susceptible to confusing form with substance. Mr. Gandhi’s temple run needs to be understood in the context of a new political reality: India in 2017 is far more communally polarised than it was in 2009, and Gujarat more so than any other State, with religious identity overriding all else at the time of voting. The Congress has little chance of winning elections unless it reverses this mass ‘Hinduisation’ or neutralises it at election time.

Ejecting communal toxins from the body politic is a long-term project, best pursued as a social movement or when the reins of power are at hand. With 2019 not far away, the only viable political option in the short term is neutralisation. Mr. Gandhi seems to have understood this.

Smart secularism

His temple visits, from this perspective, are not ‘soft Hindutva’ but ‘smart secularism’ — one that acknowledges the religious identity of the majority without lapsing into majoritarianism or compromising on the constitutional rights of the minority. This is a tricky tightrope walk, and it remains to be seen how well he keeps his balance. While it is debatable how many extra votes it garnered, one indication of its efficacy was the panic it caused in the BJP ranks.

The Congress’s performance in Gujarat has given Mr. Gandhi what he has lacked so far: credibility as a helmsman, which is kind of hard to establish when you have inherited your position at the helm. Second, it has demonstrated that the Congress can take the BJP head-on and win. This rise in the party’s ‘winnability quotient’ would put it on a stronger footing when negotiating alliances. It would also draw back into its fold the minorities in other States who traditionally vote for the strongest secular party.

All said and done, by forcefully pitching a politics of love in opposition to a politics of fear, Mr. Gandhi may have just hit upon the nucleus of an alternative narrative that the Congress has been searching for. The future of Indian democracy may well be decided by a fierce battle between fear and love, fought in the hearts and minds of the Indian voter.

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This article has been updated for grammatical errors.

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Printable version | Feb 17, 2020 6:05:59 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/reading-rahul-gandhis-hand/article22261340.ece

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