ON APRIL 2ND, JUST BEFORE noon at 24 Akbar Road, headquarters of the Congress party in Delhi, Rahul Gandhi looked like a well-rested runner ready for an ultra-marathon. Except, he was not in sports gear, but a set of white, spotless kurta-pyjamas. But then, two years ago on a poll trail in Chotila, a temple-town in Surendranagar district of Gujarat’s Saurashtra region, when he ran up 1,000 steps to the Chamunda Devi shrine at breakneck pace in just 15 minutes, he was in a similar neta-style outfit.
Now, the occasion for wearing the same attire on a scorching summer day in the national capital was as historic as it was crucial— the release of the 2019 poll manifesto of the 134-year-old party that is currently languishing at its lowest electoral tally ever in the Lok Sabha. No other previous party chief has had to contend with as many challenges as this 48-year-old in the face of competition from the rival, ruling BJP, which has, this time, placed national security and nationalism as campaign slogans to pull in votes from a large segment of Indian society that appears far more polarised along religious lines compared with any previous election.
Amid such massive roadblocks, the manifesto had to be compelling enough to connect with the public.
No wonder, his party colleagues Rajeev Gowda and P Chidambaram had taken a year, steering more than 20 different panels to finish the painstaking work on the manifesto. At the launch event, the duo elaborated on the contents of the document— which highlights jobs, rural distress and women’s security as the three core concerns of the people. After initial formalities, Gandhi was on his feet, as though he had steel chips for breakfast and was experiencing a runner’s high, dwelling at length on the targets outlined in the manifesto, which he said were viable ones as opposed to the unmeetable promises made by the party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the 2014 election. Gandhi repeatedly ascribed the “failure” of the pre-poll guarantees of the BJP spearhead in the run-up to the polls of five years ago to “lies”.
The Congress manifesto was prepared following 121 public and 53 private consultations with people from various walks of life. Gowda, for his part, remembers that one of the sessions on education held in Bengaluru went on for three-and-a-half hours with the Congress leaders present mostly remaining receptive listeners. That was the deal, he proposes: to hear people out. So was the agenda of a meeting with sportspeople where the participants, including Olympians, Paralympians, financiers, officials, sport medicine experts and so on, offered their views on enhancing Indian sport. Such a rigorous exercise was possible thanks to Gandhi’s mandate for the manifesto committee: that the inputs for it should come from the public, not from a closed room at the party HQ. It was not that the Congress president was unsure of the talents of some of the bright people within, but he felt it was important to cast the net wider. “It was a meticulously executed plan,” Gowda, lawmaker and Congress spokesman, told Open in an interview. Even Yogendra Yadav, an academic and politician critical of Congress’ policies, called the manifesto a ‘cogent’ one in his column— though he had other objections to it.
Former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke on the occasion about how the Congress will strive to create wealth and finance welfare. Gandhi, who until he took the stage following Singh’s speech, was seen waving, smiling and nodding approvingly— in a friendly way—at those in the audience that included Congress heavyweights, senior leaders including his sister Priyanka, and the media. The moment he took his position behind the lectern his composure changed and his typical mellowness turned into belligerence. He lost no time in training his guns on Modi and invariably criticised the Prime Minister in each of his sentences for giving false hopes and stating falsehoods. He lashed out at the BJP for going back on their 2014 poll promises and launched into a blistering attack that has become characteristic of him throughout his election campaign—where he is known for a generous use of jibes such as “Gabbar Singh Tax” (to refer to the Goods and Services Tax) and “Chowkidar Chor Hain” (a riposte to Modi’s high-wattage campaign projecting himself as the ‘Chowkidar’ of the people of India).
Public display of aggression has earned Gandhi many admirers and foes alike. His demeanour, symbolised by him rolling up his sleeves as though he is ready to wrestle his way through the rough and tumble of Indian politics now dominated by the BJP, has doubtless energised a section of Congressmen who find an assertive leader in him. They view him as the tireless campaigner who has engaged in tit-for-tat replies to the Prime Minister. Himself a victim of endless mocking and name-calling, yet undeterred by the storm of rebukes brewing around him, Gandhi has, according to many poll pundits, consistently raised people’s issues and hit out at Modi for focusing merely on national security as a ruse to cover up for the shortcomings of the NDA Government on various fronts, especially the creation of jobs and what Gandhi describes as suicidal financial decisions of the Government that have put India’s economy in a spot.
Gandhi is the next-door boy on one occasion and a no-holds-barred campaigner on another. Interestingly, at the launch of the poll manifesto, he was seen, in a mark of a grand gesture, helping Manmohan Singh unwrap the envelop that had in it the 55-page document, which proposed various schemes if the Congress is elected, including one to bestow more powers to mayors to fight urban poverty, shortage of housing and related problems. The manifesto also envisages a separate ‘Kisan budget’ akin to the former Railway Budget, scrapping of the sedition law and flexible norms for starting new businesses.
Gandhi, in fact, didn’t let the opportunity for baiting the BJP pass when he spoke at length about the manifesto in response to queries from the media. His comparison of Congress’ promises of this year and that of the BJP in 2014 brought to the fore the deep hostilities and competitiveness that have marked elections in recent years. Besides, Gandhi compared his proposed minimum income guarantee (NYAY, short for Nyuntam Aay Yojana) flagship programme to offer Rs 72,000 a year to India’s poorest 20 per cent with the “hollow” Rs 15 lakh Modi had promised to deposit in the bank accounts of each Indian after unearthing black money.
He also mocked the Prime Minister for not disclosing job data and taking shelter under unverified claims of jobs being created in the unorganised sector, which, thanks to the demonetisation of November 2016, had suffered a huge setback. In early March, Gandhi—who got on board Lt General DS Hooda, the army general who oversaw the cross-border surgical strikes of September 2016, to work on a comprehensive report on national security for the Congress—poked fun at National Security Advisor Ajit Doval for setting Jaish-e-Mohammad chief Masood Azhar free in a “special plane”. He was speaking at a rally in Adalaj village of Gandhinagar district after a meeting of the Congress Working Committee.
Meanwhile, in an interview with Open, General Hooda says he was impressed by the fact that “Rahul had a lot of time for him to discuss the subject”. He adds: “We must give credit to the Congress because it is important to have a full-fledged national security strategy. I really enjoyed writing the report. [Gandhi and I] had very useful discussions on the subject.”
SINCE TAKING OVER AS PARTY president in 2017, Gandhi has played the role of a combative opposition leader to perfection. The Congress has argued that Modi has undermined democratic values and has routinely used crass expressions to attack political rivals, including calling Gandhi “Shahzaada” (prince) and Sonia “Mrs Maino”. Lately, Priyanka has also been the butt of misogynist jokes from rivals. “When there is an attempt to vitiate the social and political atmosphere of Indian politics by one party, it is natural that others retaliate too,” says a senior Congress leader, justifying personal swipes against their political opponents.
In his first statement after being named president of the Congress party in December 2017, a position that four members of his family had held before him, Gandhi sharply criticised Modi for reportedly taking India to medieval times due to his emphasis on religious nationalism and for allegedly conniving at the atrocities committed against Dalits and Muslims by self-appointed custodians of the Hindu faith, also referred to as the ‘loony Hindu fringe’.
“The Congress’ respect for all Indians extends to even the BJP. We do not fight hate with hate. They crush voice, we allow the most vulnerable to sing. They defame, we respect and defend,” Rahul had said, adding that “no amount of hugs can repair the damage done to this great country of ours.”
Over the next few months, he also showed adaptive skills and refashioned his poll campaigns to suit local needs, much to the delight of the Congress party that was looking for a leader to take on someone of Modi’s stature. Though any comparison of the two would be unfair, the Congress party felt emboldened by Gandhi breaking barriers and showing flexibility. For instance, to tap provincial affinities in Gujarat, Gandhi decided to visit the state’s famous temples; skip the thorny subject of the 2002 Gujarat riots; speak of the sacrifices of the likes of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and the Mahatma and not of his own family; and eschew anything that would go against the typical Gujarati mindset. He was also successful in roping young men like Hardik Patel and OBC leader Alpesh Thakor to be part of the anti-BJP campaign.
Then came the Karnataka state polls where he gave the green signal to his lieutenants to stitch up an alliance with Janata Dal (Secular). The sole idea was to keep the BJP out of power by all means. It worked and also ensured that the Congress was in power in a large state. Gandhi had already changed tactics—he zealously used a soft- Hindutva campaign so that the BJP could not fall back on Hindutva and accuse the Congress of pandering to minorities. This was meant to cope with new challenges and also to try to neutralise what Professor Faisal Devji of Oxford University had said is the advantage that Modi has in Indian politics. According to Devji, Modi, much more than anyone else before him, “made Hindutva into a public and national phenomenon rather than the product of secret societies as it had been in the past”.
“In a situation as vicious as this one in India, Gandhi thought it wise to adopt that stance to keep the BJP at bay,” justified a Kerala-based senior Congress leader who avers that Gandhi also brought in a lot of discipline in the organisation and allowed lateral entries to key positions besides revving up the women and youth wings of the party. Affirms lawyer and All India Congress Committee Spokesperson Aishwarya Mahadev: “Rahulji merely looks at your work and rewards you for that.” Daughter of a legislator who is no more, she insists that it wasn’t her political roots that helped her land the position. “Not at all,” she says.
Gandhi was also instrumental in reviving a near-dormant social media cell of the party that saw rapid growth under the leadership of former Mandya MP and Congress leader Divya Spandana, a leading actress in south Indian movies. The Congress president did not stick to retaining the whole of the old guard in the party, as is always the convention, and brought in a set of new leaders to assist him. People very close to him include Randeep Surjewala and KC Venugopal besides his sister Priyanka, whom he recently appointed as general secretary in charge of eastern Uttar Pradesh.
As party president, Rahul’s next big break came after last year’s polls in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Mizoram. His party wrested power from the BJP after the fiercely fought polls. He proved those who had underestimated him to be wrong.
Certainly, the electoral resurgence of the Congress in the Hindi heartland was a huge gain in terms of optics for the country’s electorate at large. The party also got in its kitty cash-rich states such as Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan ahead of the General Election. Open had reported earlier that, to his credit, Gandhi delegated authority to all three Congress leaders in Madhya Pradesh—Kamal Nath, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Digvijaya Singh—in such a way that their interests did not clash during the poll campaign.
He also didn’t interfere with the selection of candidates in their strongholds in the state. In Rajasthan, Gandhi’s instructions worked. Though the rivalry between followers of Sachin Pilot and Ashok Gehlot was for all to see, Gandhi warned them that neither should try playing a hand of one-upmanship during the campaign. This helped (‘A Challenger is Born’, December 28th, 2018).
THE CONGRESS PARTY HAS AN energetic leader in Rahul, admits Sanjay Kumar, professor and director at New Delhi think-tank Centre for the Study of Developing Societies. But, he says, notwithstanding the style and tenor of Rahul’s campaign, the party he heads has not been able to send across an unambiguous message to voters of opposition unity. He attributes this to Congress’ failure to cobble together alliances in states where it could have entered into a pre-poll pact to project a grand anti-BJP coalition to stay ahead of the game in terms of perception.
The Congress, as Gandhi said on April 2nd, has been able to form alliances in some key states such as Maharashtra, the second biggest state by Lok Sabha seats; Tamil Nadu, where it has aligned with the formidable Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam; Jharkhand; Bihar; and so on. “Even in Bihar, an alliance happened thanks to the RJD pleading for a tie-up,” says an RJD leader.
Kumar adds that the Congress has failed to form a pre-poll pact with allies in West Bengal where talks fell through with the Left and also the Trinamool Congress. In Telangana and Andhra Pradesh, the story is no different. In Delhi, regional satraps came in the way of a pre-poll agreement with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). “If the high command wanted clarity as regards an alliance, it should have discussed matters with leaders in Punjab and Delhi and concluded a deal or decided against it without making much noise. Here, we saw the national leadership not being decisive enough,” Kumar notes. However, Gowda and Mahadev are of the view that any alliance is also a ‘two-way traffic’. The party that has to ally with the Congress also has to take the initiative, reasons Mahadev. “The question of alliance is not the sole priority of the Congress alone,” she argues.
Kumar isn’t convinced. He feels that the message a voter gets is that of confusion, especially with Gandhi contesting from Wayanad in north Kerala against a Left candidate in a constituency where the BJP hardly has presence. “What message will it give to the people of this country?” Kumar asks. Various Congress leaders that Open spoke to also contend that tie-ups should have been made in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh and that they did not happen thanks to the ‘myopic approach’ of Congress leaders. Points out Milan Vaishnav, director and senior fellow, South Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, “The Congress has made two big mistakes as far as 2019 is concerned. First, they have played a hard bargain with potential allies when the facts don’t seem to back up their case. Second, they have kept things for the last minute, which handicaps candidates and on-the-ground coordination. In contrast, Modi and Amit Shah have methodically stitched up alliances, even ceding more seats to their alliance partners than they may have needed to.”
As with the Left, Gowda says, “The communists are dogmatic and there are differences within the CPM. Any alliance with them had to be a post-poll one because there are two camps within the party.” In West Bengal in 2016, the CPM and the Congress, two arch-rivals, fought the polls together from which the Congress gained more than the CPM. Talks this time failed, much to the anguish of CPM General Secretary Sitaram Yechury, who has often taken a pro-Congress stance as opposed to the ‘equidistance’ (from the BJP and Congress) policy of former party chief Prakash Karat.
Various political analysts that Open spoke to note that if the Congress had taken a decision not to align with any party, that wouldn’t have created much confusion in the mind of the voter. “But dilly-dallying over alliances does result in chaos and confusion,” says Kumar.
In September 1998 in Pachmarhi in Madhya Pradesh, the Congress leaders huddled together to discuss the future of Indian politics. It was modelled on the Narora camp of 1974 organised at the behest of Indira Gandhi. The purpose was to chart out the future course of action for the party, ideologically and organisationally. The delegates at the Congress conclave discussed, among other subjects, a crucial point: is Indian politics getting divided along secular/non- secular lines? The summit saw a debate over coalition, as it appeared back then that the era of one-party rule was over. However, there was resistance among a large section of partypeople about tying up with regional or smaller parties; they thought it was better for the Congress to focus on strengthening itself. A few did argue for alliances and a very small section even favoured alliances with parties bigger than Congress in the regional scheme of things. The session ended without chalking out short-term strategies.
A Congress leader tells Open, “It is a pity that there are still people within the party who live in the distant past without realising that the ground beneath us is slipping away. The idea should be to forge alliances everywhere to batter the BJP. That should be the short-term goal.” He rues that the Congress is not aligned with any secular party in several states.
Meanwhile, Gandhi is leaving no stone unturned in his outreach programmes. A message to professionals Gandhi sent through LinkedIn Pulse, the online professional networking service’s news feed, on April 2nd said, ‘The 2019 elections present the people of India with a stark choice. They can either continue, as before, to remain free from fear, free to live, work, pray, eat, love and marry according to their wishes. Or, they can allow a pernicious ideology to trample on people’s rights, on institutions, on conventions and on the very idea of diversity and plurality. An ideology that is anti-knowledge, anti-scientific and thrives on fake news and divisiveness.’ Forceful statement indeed. But it is yet to be seen whether or not his tactics will yield electoral dividends at a time when the burden of expectations on the main opposition party to play a leadership role in dislodging the BJP sooner or later is exceedingly high.