The one clear indicator that marks the extent of Rahul Gandhi’s failure to make a dent in the recent Uttar Pradesh assembly elections is the poor showing of Congress candidates in Amethi and Rae Bareli, the Gandhi family pocket boroughs. Since 1977 when Sanjay Gandhi made a failed attempt to capture its Lok Sabha seat, Amethi has been mainly held by the Gandhi family. Rae Bareli’s antecedents are even older since Feroze Gandhi won the seat in the very first General Election in 1952. Currently, Rahul Gandhi is the MP from Amethi and Sonia from Rae Bareli.
But in the recent state assembly polls, the Congress won just two of the 10 assembly segments that constitute the two Lok Sabha constituencies, and even stalwarts like Amita Singh, wife of former Amethi MP, Sanjay Singh, came second. In four of these constituencies, the Congress nominee came third. Had there been a wave against an incumbent government such a loss would have been understandable. But the Congress has, even if marginally, actually improved its overall position in the state.
No, this was a defeat of the Gandhis, plain and simple. These were the constituencies which were the special focus of Priyanka Vadra, who is more of a natural politician than her brother. In fact on February 13, at a rally in Rae Bareli, Ms Vadra had declared that “we will get 10 out of 10 seats in my home area.”
The rejection of the Gandhi brand, is a major development which could influence the course of Indian politics in the future. The question in many minds is: Why? Just why have the voters been so unkind to India’s first family? All of them put in considerable efforts in the campaigning and because of them, the Congress effort in the UP elections did not want for funds or, as Sonia Gandhi put it in another context, leaders.
The reason seems to be that
Mr Gandhi and Ms Vadra did not appear as credible figures to the UP electorate which has changed and is changing in recent years. Neither of them make any bones about the fact that they live in Delhi and use UP as a political playground. They periodically foray into the state and expect that their aura will do the rest. While the average voter is, no doubt, awed by the Gandhis, he or she also sees them as alien figures who do not touch their everyday lives. By way of contrast, there is Akhilesh Yadav, a boy who grew up in the state, went to the local school in Saifai, later military school in Rajasthan, and who married a local Lucknow girl. Instead of showing up in UP in publicised visits from his MP’s residence in Delhi, he spent long stretches of time in the state traveling extensively on bicycles and his Kranti Rath caravan, systematically rejigged the party organisation and revitalised it by leading protests against Mayawati’s rule through 2010 and 2011.
Another factor seems to be that none of the issues that Rahul seems to take up ever has a clear outcome. Nothing came out of visits he made, such as the one to Medhki village near Jhansi in October where he ate dinner at a Dalit’s house, also holding a chaupal where there was a discussion on issues like the availability of water, power and fertiliser.
His dramatic Bhatta Parsaul foray last year, too yielded nothing—the Congress candidate lost to the candidate of the Bahujan Samaj Party, whose government was accused of all manner of atrocities there by Rahul and others. People complain that there is only hype that accompanies his visits, no substance.
The third reason for Rahul being unable to gain traction in the state lies in the very style of Congress politics. The party seems to believe that people want doles, rather than opportunities to better their prospects. Instead, to paraphrase social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta, voters prefer empowerment over patronage.
The Congress strategy seems to be to spell out a string of sops which they think will attract the voter. In the case of the recent elections, one of the sops was the 4.5 per cent quota in central jobs for the minorities, and the promise of 9 per cent reservation for Muslims within the existing 27 per cent quota for the OBCs. As the results showed, the Muslim community was not too impressed and voted in large numbers for the Samajwadi Party.
In all fairness, some of these issues are beyond Mr Gandhi’s control. It is too late for him to develop a sense of rootedness in the state. In fact, many would say he is not rooted in Delhi either, staying as he does in a cocooned atmosphere and interacting only with a select group of friends and cronies who frequently holiday abroad. Where friends and the extended family play a major role in the life of an average Indian, the Gandhi family seems to be a unit unto itself with seemingly little interaction with its larger Indian kin group. In great measure this is the outcome of the multiple tragedies the family has suffered—Indira and Rajiv Gandhi’s assassinations. But the family needs to compensate, rather than wallow in this.
But where Mr Gandhi can change things is in the approach of his party. He needs to abandon the feudal Indira and Sonia Gandhi approach of giving doles to the people, and instead focus on the politics of empowerment where people are provided opportunities to overcome poverty and illiteracy to better themselves, rather than be handed food, jobs, health care and education as patronising sops.
Rahul has been suitably humble and forthright in saying that “this (the election defeat) has been a very good lesson for him.” If the learning process is genuine, there is no doubt that defeat can be turned into victory. It would be foolish to write off any politician in India; ask Mayawati, who virtually termed Mulayam as the dead man walking, after the SP’s defeat in the 2007 state assembly elections.
Mail Today March 15, 2012