Rahul Gandhi can’t seem to stop smiling. With Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, and Rajasthan under his belt after the recent assembly polls, and the otherwise fractious Congress party uncharacteristically united behind him, India is looking at the possibility of a power change at the centre in 2019 after the general elections. That prospect was unlikely a fortnight ago.
Although it is true that in Madhya Pradesh, veteran Congress leader Kamal Nath, whose swearing in as chief minister, took place on Monday, was primarily responsible for the successful campaign, the glory belongs rightfully to Gandhi. In Rajasthan, senior Congress leader Ashok Ghelot would take charge as chief minister for his architectural role in victory. In Chhattisgarh, a Congress warhorse Bhupesh Baghel would lead the cabinet of ministers. All three are Gandhi’s choices. Or, so they are pitched.
Unlike the BJP campaigns, run mostly on the image and charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and resources gathered and marshalled by his party president Amit Shah, the Congress seemed to have hit upon a strategy of empowering the local chieftains, provided their political credentials and loyalties to the Gandhi family are in place. In short, Gandhi seems to have decentralised power effectively while retaining his shot-caller status conferred on him by both design and chance.
Gandhi has had to learn the ropes on the job and in full view of the public. He has had disasters, and he committed gaffes that would have normally sealed the life of a politician anywhere. But he has weathered them — not often with great grace, but always gamely. Last week, Gandhi said, the 2014 elections were the “absolute best” that ever happened to him because of the learning involved in the crushing defeat of his party.
Open to criticism
Right after the BJP victory then, the old guard in the party — which he now seems to have won over, considering the dispensations installed in the three states post assembly elections — had rebelled against him. Gandhi rode the storm. But the credit also partly goes to the Congress party strongmen that they came around to the view that their fortunes were not different from those of the Gandhi family.
Gandhi’s earlier arrogance has given way to a style of functioning where he is open to criticism. This is in stark contrast to what is currently the tradition and character of the BJP. The Modi cult has paid rich dividends for the BJP. Not only did it pay off in 2014, but also in the years following, both in terms of poll verdicts (the North-East in general, Goa, and Uttar Pradesh assembly elections) and enforcing unpopular reforms like demonetisation. But in the absence of feel-good that a people are entitled to expect at the end of demanding processes, the politics of cult that the BJP has benefited from until now seems to have run its course.
Indian politicians tend to say they will ‘introspect’ when they experience defeat. This is a platitude whose purpose is to buy time and save face. Post the recent assembly polls, the BJP has to have a new campaign strategy in place if 2019 is to yield happier results. It is in this context, that Gandhi and the Congress party come across as having peaked at the right time.
The return of the Congress in the three states and the rewards that Gandhi is now reaping as the undisputed leader of his party are not all due to a shift in emphasis in politics and personality. Anti-incumbency has played a significant role, too. In Madhya Pradesh, corruption and scandals have been rife. In Rajasthan, the state BJP has been on a colliding course with the national leadership, leading to confusion among the ranks. In Chhattisgarh, the BJP administration had given the impression it was unaccountable to the public. Gandhi merely made good use of the resentment.
Compared to the kind of scams that marked the earlier Congress governments under Dr Manmohan Singh, the present regime is clean. But that is not enough either as last week’s results showed. When social and cultural expectations outpace economic development, frustration levels soar. The Congress party said its mandate is to perform where it has won power. Alas, this is yet another platitude. It is not as if those in the fray do not know performance is the yardstick. Why else are they in the business of governing? Surely, the point is to move from platitude to practice.
India is a functioning democracy. Its people are as cunning as they are just. Nothing else explains the way they deliver telling judgements election after election. But voting is one thing. The ballot merely records a potentially great people’s opinion. Validating it means a change in the character of governance. Gandhi has worked on himself to present a new, fair and accessible image as a leader. And he displays a new sense of urgency. If India’s moment is not to be missed, those around him must follow suit. As must his rivals.
C.P. Surendran is a senior journalist based in India.