Speaking Of Asia

Rahul Gandhi elected India's Congress party leader: A dynasty's dead cat bounce

It was meant to be a time of renewal, and rejuvenation. Indian National Congress, the country's oldest political party that led the fight for independence, was seeing a passing of the baton. Mrs Sonia Gandhi, the nation's dowager duchess who emerged from unexpected widowhood to revive its fortunes and for a decade effectively steered the coalition government from backstage, was making way for her 47-year-old son, Rahul.

The transition, anticipated for years, took place on Dec 16. The frenetic Indian media had become weary of being both bullied and ignored by a prime minister who has shown he can reach over their heads to access the people directly. Now, they seemed to be in a hurry to build up the massively pedigreed Mr Gandhi, whose father, grandmother and great-grandfather were prime ministers, as a worthy rival.

Two days after the Congress transition - "succession" is perhaps a better word since Mr Gandhi is the fifth generation dynast to lead the party, putting the Gandhis two ahead of North Korea's Kims - results of two state elections were announced.

In snowbound Himachal Pradesh, the people ousted Congress to hand Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party a resounding victory. In Mr Modi's home state, Gujarat, they retained BJP, which has ruled the place since 1995, with a reduced majority.

As I write this, a lot of acreage in Indian media is devoted to complimentary references to the vigour Mr Gandhi showed on the campaign trail in Gujarat, his measured speech and his change of persona from reluctant politician to enthusiastic combatant. Although there is a 22-seat margin between Congress and the victorious BJP in the 182-seat Gujarat state House, the results are being portrayed as a "near victory" for Congress.

In their haste to talk up a man who just three years ago was unfairly dismissed as a Pappu, or genial dunce, the commentary overlooks some points and fails to highlight others.

In the first place, Indians have a penchant for anti-incumbency and Gujarat, after 22 years of BJP rule, was prime territory for an anti-BJP wave. While Mr Modi's dominance over the province was total in the 12 years he directly ran the place as chief minister, things have slipped since he moved to New Delhi. In those three years, the state has had two chief ministers, both anodyne figures with none of Mr Modi's grasp or efficiency.

Second, Mr Modi entered this campaign with a handicap. Long touted as the "development man", two stumbles in economic management within the space of a year had robbed him of his sheen. The introduction in July of a nationwide Goods and Services Tax had been painful to producers and consumers alike, not just because of its complexities but also because it curbed tax evasion in a nation whose businessmen are markedly averse to coughing up money to the authorities.

While Mr Modi could be blamed only for its implementation - much of its planning was done by Congress when it was in power - the rash move in November last year to abruptly cancel high-denomination currency notes was entirely his own doing. It delivered a huge shock to the economy, particularly in rural India where cash is king.

The audacious "demonetisation", announced after Mr Modi locked up his Cabinet in the name of secrecy, initially ran a thrill down the collective Indian spine since it was touted as an anti-corruption measure targeting the venal rich. The practical difficulties that followed the measure as ordinary people too found themselves strapped for cash were extremely painful. While the government took its time to replace old notes, thousands of businesses closed. In the hinterland, farmers often had difficulty paying for seed.

In Gujarat, particularly in its farming districts such as the Saurashtra region, there were added factors fuelling anti-incumbency. Low prices of cotton, groundnut and other commodities had caused misery to both marginal farmers and kulaks, many of them easily recognised by the caste name Patel. For this contest, Congress had won the endorsement of a charismatic Patel who'd seemed to galvanise his community by agitating for them to be included in a caste category that would earn them sequestered seats in higher education and the civil service.


ST ILLUSTRATION : MANNY FRANCISCO

And finally, there was age. Mr Gandhi is 47 years old while Mr Modi is 20 years his senior. With more than half of Gujaratis below the age of 40, Mr Gandhi's relative youth and good looks should have been a pull with voters. At least in Gujarat, therefore, this had been Congress' election to lose.

How then did it snatch defeat from the jaws of victory?

The easy explanation is that Mr Modi's charisma still holds sway in his home state and that his relentless campaigning in the final weeks before the election possibly swung many a fence-sitter. The BJP's careful grassroots work also undoubtedly helped. Undeniably, the party was saved by voters in Gujarat's four biggest cities; of the 55 state seats from these cities, BJP took 46.

But there are larger questions that need to be asked of Congress and its new president, Mr Gandhi, as the party prepares to challenge BJP in six state polls (India has 29 states, of which 19 are now in BJP control) scheduled to be held next year. There's also a chance that Mr Modi may call a snap national election in the second half of 2018 to catch the opposition by surprise.

For one thing, Congress, which under Mr Gandhi's great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru stood for a robust secularism, needs to ask of itself what exactly it represents today. Under Nehru's daughter Indira Gandhi and her son Rajiv, Rahul's late father, Congress had always been mindful of Muslim sentiments. Indeed, it was this that led to BJP gaining ground by highlighting that Congress was pandering to minorities and indulging in "pseudo secularism".

This time, under pressure from sections of the old boy herd of Congress elephants to play to the sentiments of the majority community, it seemed to have given the go-by to that steadfast secularism which even Mrs Sonia Gandhi, Rahul's mother and predecessor as party president, had sought to preserve.

Mr Rahul Gandhi visited dozens of Hindu temples during his campaign, thus trying to eat into Mr Modi's majoritarian-nationalist vote bank. In the 2012 Gujarat state election, Congress had fielded seven Muslim candidates; this time it fielded one fewer.

A BMW performance car must not look like a Jaguar, for it would then not only lose its own identity but flatter Jaguar with the imitation. Congress paid the price; there are 20 Gujarat constituencies where Muslims are said to outnumber Hindus. BJP, the party of Hindu nationalism, which hasn't fielded a Muslim candidate since the 1998 state polls, took 13 of those. Only the rest went to Congress.

Muslims outside Gujarat - they are 19 per cent of the population in the vote-rich state of Uttar Pradesh and present in sizeable strength in almost every Indian state - will surely take note of Gujarat as they weigh their votes.

It also needs to be asked whether in contemporary India, political dynasties have the same allure as they once did. Even in Amethi, Mr Gandhi's pocket borough in Uttar Pradesh state, the clock is ticking on the dynasty. The parliamentary constituency has four state assembly segments. Congress does not hold a single one of those while three are with BJP. In the 2014 national election, Mr Gandhi's victory margin in Amethi was cut to 100,000 from the previous election's 370,000.

 
 

Rising incomes, aspirations and improving educational standards have left today's Indian youth more inclined to look to leaders who project a modern vision that soars above the nation's old caste-ridden politics. Congress has plenty of such men and women but, since they don't belong to the Gandhi family, face a glass ceiling.

On the other hand, as Gujarat showed, the enduring Gandhi instinct is to lean back towards old formulas of agglomerating castes. While these have short-term uses - Congress improved its Gujarat tally by 17 seats, after all - the gain could be short-lived and, in any case, comes with a social cost.

Besides, its grassroots links are weakening. With every passing year, the party has fewer and fewer feet on the ground. Today, if you visit the heartland states of India that Congress controlled in the first three decades after independence in 1947, local people have difficulty pointing you to the district Congress party office. Powerful regional groups representing specific sections of society have replaced the umbrella organisation that was Congress.

That said, India needs a strong opposition and there could indeed be some traction for Congress under a Gandhi who shows sincere commitment to his job, rather than the entitled scion who two years ago disappeared abroad for 57 days at a stretch. It wasn't entirely an empty boast for Mr Gandhi to exult that Mr Modi had received a "jhatka" - rude shock. Certainly, even if the Gujarat showing was a dead-cat bounce, he managed to get under the Prime Minister's skin, bringing out the worst in him, including the penchant to dog-whistle at the patriotism of minorities as he looked to corral the Hindu majority's vote.

Until a while ago, it was thought that Mr Modi would prefer Mr Gandhi to be his principal opponent in the next election, since the Prime Minister's barbed tongue and sneers about family politics and elitism would find an easy target in the dimpled dynast. After Gujarat, he may be slightly less certain.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 22, 2017, with the headline 'India: A dynasty's dead cat bounce'. Print Edition | Subscribe