Congress leader Rahul Gandhi during party's Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Nanded, Maharashtra Image Credit: ANI

There are times when politicians resign from positions of power, either public office or a prized party post. They do so thinking the public will appreciate their great act of self-sacrifice. After all, who in his right mind gives up power?

Turns out, voters, at least in India, don’t appreciate such sacrifice. They see it as running away from responsibility, as accepting defeat rather than fighting another day. Voters also see it as betrayal: after all, they want access to power through their favourite leader.

At least three recent examples will bear this out. In 2013, Arvind Kejriwal became the chief minister of Delhi for the first time, with the support of the Congress party.

After 49 days, he resigned from the post, ostensibly because he wasn’t able to have his way with the central government in enacting key laws. Yet everyone could see he wanted to free himself from Delhi and fight the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.

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Soon he ended up neither with the Delhi government nor any national presence, with the Modi-led BJP winning a clear majority in the Lok Sabha. To win the 2015 Delhi assembly elections, Kejriwal had to fight the “bhagoda” or runaway image. He had to go across Delhi repeatedly apologising for the mistake of resigning in 2013 — a rare occasion in Indian politics when we saw a leader say sorry. It worked, and he won a historic 67 out of 70 seats.

The second example also pertains to the same 2013-15 period. In 2014, Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar decided to break his Janata Dal (United) party’s long-standing alliance with the Bhartiya Janta Party over the BJP’s choice of Narendra Modi as the prime ministerial candidate.

The gamble backfired in Bihar’s 40 seats in the Lok Sabha: the JD (U) won only 2 seats, the BJP won 22 and its ally LJP won another 6.

After this fiasco, Nitish Kumar said he was taking moral responsibility and resigning as CM. He installed a Dalit, Jitan Ram Manjhi, as the chief minister. This act of sacrifice did not do any good to Nitish Kumar, he soon realised. It did not create any great sympathy wave for the JD (U) leader or party. In no time Nitish Kumar was plotting to get rid of Jitan Ram Manjhi.

A long sulk

The third example has to do with Rahul Gandhi. After the 2019 election defeat of the Congress party, he decided to resign from the post of party president. This resignation did not improve his ratings.

On the contrary, his ratings only fell, suggesting that even those who had so far been supporting him were now disenchanted. Anecdotal evidence supported this idea. I met many who used to defend and support Rahul Gandhi but said they were disappointed by his resignation.

In retrospect, the worst decision Rahul Gandhi ever made was to resign as party president and go into a sulk, disappearing from public life, even during critical times like Covid.

With the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which he is leading, Gandhi is back in the saddle as the de facto party president. He has also made his mother, Sonia Gandhi, resign as party president in favour of a non-threatening Mallikarjun Kharge.

The result is reflected now in an interesting new survey by Cvoter, a polling agency, which says that Rahul Gandhi’s ratings are rising in the states the Yatra is passing by.

No, his ratings are not rising enough for the Congress to significantly dent the popularity of Narendra Modi or to start winning elections. “What we are seeing here is Rahul regaining the ground he lost after 2019,” Yashwant Deshmukh of Cvoter tells me.

Regaining lost ground

Take the case of Kerala, from where he is a member of parliament. In January 2019, a few months before the Lok Sabha elections, nearly 69% respondents in Kerala said they were satisfied with Rahul Gandhi’s work and performance as a leader.

By September 2022, right before the Bharat Jodo Yatra entered Kerala, this satisfaction rating fell to 56%. About 2 months into the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which has already passed through Kerala, his satisfaction rating in Cvoter surveys is 64.5%, nearly back to what it was in January 2019.

With a high percentage of minority votes, Kerala is perhaps the wrong state to look at. Let’s study BJP-ruled Karnataka. From January 2019 to January 2022, his ‘satisfaction’ ratings fell sharply from 62% to 39%. Right before the Bharat Jodo Yatra entered the state, they were at 56.5%. Now it’s touching 60%, almost the January 2019 levels.

Moral of the story: when you spend time among the public in India, the public responds. You can’t blame the public for not responding when you are hiding in Tughlaq Lane or European cities.

These findings also tell you that Rahul Gandhi’s decision to not take the Bharat Jodo Yatra to poll-bound Gujarat and Himachal is a mistake. In Gujarat his satisfaction rating is at 38%, much lower than the January 2019 figure of 53%.

Taking the Yatra to Gujarat and integrating it with the state election campaign could have saved the impending decimation of the Gujarat Congress at the hands of the Aam Aadmi Party.

This is reflected even in the ‘PM choice’ question. In January 2019, 31% respondents in Gujarat wished to see Rahul Gandhi as prime minister. Today it’s only 13.5%, as 16% respondents in Gujarat say they would like to see Arvind Kejriwal as prime minister of India.

Time for permanent campaign

The all-India numbers paint a similar picture. Rahul Gandhi’s satisfaction ratings were 54.6% in January 2019. In January this year, they were only 40.4%.

As of today, they are 48%. It won’t be surprising if, by the end of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in March, the ratings exceed the high point of January 2019.

The lesson here is clear. If there’s one thing that’s worse than failing, it is not getting up and start running again. Rahul Gandhi wasted two years just sulking.

Instead of resigning, he should have been on a permanent campaign, questioning the government on Covid management, lockdowns, economic relief packages, jobs and inflation.

It is quite possible that by the end of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi may again disappear from public life for a year and return only before the Lok Sabha elections in 2024.

In the age of permanent campaigns, on-and-off campaigning is not a luxury anyone can afford.