The limits of Rahul as Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi  

Rahul Gandhi’s fitful detours into politics continue to excite his opponents and supporters, followed by predictable reappearances of old obituaries of the dynasty. Mr. Gandhi has met the meltdown in the Congress party in Rajasthan, close on the heels of the collapse of its government in Madhya Pradesh, with cameo digital performances on unrelated topics. Meanwhile, a new chorus for his return as the party president is being orchestrated. An aspiring rebel trapped in the body and privilege of a preordained dynast, Mr. Gandhi’s infectious confusions have disoriented his opponents, supporters and observers alike.

Dynasties are everywhere

The dynasty’s rivals and ringmasters make points that are excusable, but an expert argument that the Gandhis are the sole reason for the absence of a viable non-BJP politics is obtuse. If the dynasty is so bereft of ideas and following, as it is said to be, how can it muffle anyone? What are those who cannot walk over a withered dynasty worth in taking on the BJP and its formidable leader Narendra Modi? The Nehru-Gandhi dynasty could not stop the emergence of an Arvind Kejriwal right under its nose, when it was in power. The Gandhis can be criticised for their inadequacies, but they are not by any long shot responsible for the failure of those who are independently impotent in meeting the Modi challenge.

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That the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty is blighted is evident, but the reasons for it are not. The notion of a widespread antipathy towards elites is overstated in the Indian context. From Kashmir to Kanyakumari, dynasties do not merely continue to survive, but flourish in all fields, including politics and cinema where direct public approval is essential for success. In the BJP, the Scindia dynasty, across two generations, hold the veto power in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. One reasonable explanation cites Arab scholar Ibn Khaldun who said dynasties flounder by the fourth generation. Mr. Gandhi is fourth generation — or may be fifth — and hence detestable, while all others — the Scindias, Naveen Patnaik, Jagan Mohan Reddy, the Gowda family, the Karunanidhi family — all become acceptable. It is indeed true that Mr. Gandhi has lost the original qualities of his forebears, but that is only one, perhaps a minor, factor in his inability to take off.

Modi versus Rahul Gandhi

Mr. Gandhi’s unpopularity is understood better in comparison with Mr. Modi’s popularity, both uneven across the country. Where Mr. Modi is more popular, Mr. Gandhi is more unpopular. Mr. Gandhi is most derided in the north and the west and among upper castes and new middle classes. His residual popularity comes from the south and among the poorer sections in the BJP strongholds, and religious minorities.

One explanation in 2014 for Mr. Modi’s popularity was that he represented aspiration and hard work and had proven abilities of governance, while Mr. Gandhi represented entitlement and inexperience. That does not explain the regional and class variations. But this theory still held some water, though then too, Mr. Modi’s promise of development, employment, national honour and security came wrapped in Hindutva. The current situation does not merely offer an alternative understanding but demands one. By 2020, the Modi package has been unravelled layer by layer, and all that remains of it is the wrapper — i.e., Hindutva. If Mr. Gandhi is unreliable because he is untested, has Mr. Modi passed the test of governance? If Mr. Modi remains as or more popular than he was in 2014, the only explanation could be the strident cultural agenda that he has delivered on. All frills shorn, the distinguishing feature between the two is Hindutva — while Mr. Modi is its proponent, Mr. Gandhi is its antagonist. If Hindutva can reinforce the popularity of Mr. Modi despite his governance record, is it possible that Mr. Gandhi is the target of a cancel campaign because of his opposition to it, and irrespective of his other attributes, including being a dynast? Mr. Gandhi is being attacked even by Congress leaders for his positions on Jammu and Kashmir, sedition, and the Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act, among other things.

Comment | Should the Gandhis disengage from the Congress?

Mr. Gandhi is constrained by environmental factors, primarily the mass appeal of religious majoritarianism, but his inherent deficiencies aggravate them. He believes that the power of his convictions is so strong that he does not need to do anything else, even as he continues to pay the price for those anachronistic beliefs. He bears the cross for all the sins of his forebears but gets no laurels for their contributions. The change has to be in him first, which will in turn enhance his capacity to alter the environment. Assuming that he does not want to become a substitute player of majoritarianism as Mr. Kejriwal has turned himself into, what can Mr. Gandhi do?

Mr. Gandhi has wasted half his life in silly experiments to democratise the Congress, when he should have earned some experience as a Union Minister. He can get his way in the Congress if and only if there are a few thousand Rahul voters in each Assembly constituency. The challenge to his authority within the party can be tackled only through attaining that strength, not by whining about the old guard. Ahmad Patel is responsible for the fall of the Congress only as much as the Gandhis are responsible for the emaciation of opposition politics in India — both equally unreasonable and self-defeating arguments. Mr. Gandhi wants to be the moral force of the party — perhaps like M. K. Gandhi or what his mother Sonia Gandhi used to be at one point. But the moral perch of Indian politics is occupied by his primary opponent, Mr. Modi, who is worshipped as a demigod by a considerable section of the Congress’s erstwhile voters. The only avenue before Mr. Gandhi therefore is one of drudgery.

Also read | The young versus the old divide in Congress

What Rahul needs to do

His self-perception of being a grand visionary and moral force has meant outsourcing of HR management and knowledge processing — allowing others to act and think on his behalf. If he wants to be in politics, Mr. Gandhi needs to pay attention to who gets the ticket and who is appointed. Assuming that he is as altruistic as he would like the world to believe, he must learn to deal and live with the pelf and perfidy of politics, starting with his own party. He needs to know what the average Congress worker in U.P. and Bihar thinks; he needs to pay attention to details of policy and not merely headlines. He cannot be an ordinary Congress MP as he tries to make it appear. He cannot stand at the door with one leg in and let people walk out of it. Either he leads or he quits. For a dynast there is no midway. A dynast has a baggage to carry; he also has advantages. For instance, the only political family in India that is not identified with a particular religion, caste, region, or sect is the Gandhis. Who knows when that might be fashionable again, after the current sectarian turmoil! Mr. Gandhi could find his moment. But he has no choice of being the home quarantined moralist; he has an outside chance of making it as a workhorse.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 6:03:08 AM |

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