What do you do when you throw everything, including the kitchen sink, into an election, and yet find voters evidently reluctant to offer their support and remain immune to your charms?
Why, of course, you go into “expectation management” mode, which is management jargon for shifting the goalpost so as to make a defeat seem like a victory.
Rahul Gandhi, who is spearheading the Congress campaign in Uttar Pradesh, has lately had a spring in his step. From as early as two years ago, he has been campaigning like a man possessed, making repeated trips to the State, and addressing countless meetings. And his desperate effort to revive the Congress’ fortunes in India’s largest State, where it has been reduced to a shadow of its former self, has been backed up by extraordinarily generous loan waiver schemes and welfare measures by the Central government timed specifically for these politically significant elections.
This election is not just about who secures power in Lucknow. More, much more, is riding on it, including Rahul Gandhi’s own political fortunes, given all the manufactured chatter from within his party about his inevitable ascendance as Prime Minister. If the Congress fares well in Uttar Pradesh (more than in the other States that too are holding their Assembly elections), it will be the cue for diehard dynasty worshippers to start chirruping about why this modern-day Chanakya of Indian politics is better suited to head the Delhi durbar.
But increasingly, for all the upbeat messages at campaign rallies, it appears that the Congress is bracing for the possibility of defeat in Uttar Pradesh, and is keen to limit the damage by “managing expectations.”
On Saturday, Rahul Gandhi had a breakfast meeting with a few media editors, but since it was an “off the record” interaction, there are no authenticated accounts of exactly what transpired. Yet, piecing together second-hand accounts of the proceedings, it appears that the Congress and Rahul Gandhi are getting in ahead of the game to reposition the narrative in the event that the Congress fares considerably worse than expected.
According to one such account, at the breakfast meeting, Rahul Gandhi said that he would consider his electoral exertions in UP a success if the Congress could double its popular vote in the State – from the 8 percent that it won in the 2007 Assembly elections. He also appeared indirectly to concede that even such a performance – if it does come about – may not be enough for the Congresss to secure a large enough chunk of Assembly seats.
According to Rahul Gandhi, the electoral arithmetic of UP dictate that only when a party secures in excess of 20 percent of the popular vote will it translate into substantial representation in terms of Assembly seats.
He now argues that his effort is to revive the Congress in UP over eight to 10 years.
The manifest attempt to tamp down on excessive expectations is not without reason. If the Congress fares badly, or even comes in only slightly ahead of its performance in 2007, it will be construed as a personal defeat for Rahul Gandhi, who has invested far more of his time and energy in this campaign than any central-level Congress leader has in any previous elections in UP. And if even a two-year-long campaign, such as Rahul Gandhi has waged, and the most brazen pandering cannot help him secure a victory, doubts will increasingly be raised about his ability to be a “game-changer” for the party.
Just as important, a poor verdict for the Congress in UP will render the Manmohan Singh government even more of a lame duck than it is currently.
From all accounts, the situation on the ground in Uttar Pradesh isn’t too propitious for the First Family of Indian politics. Even in the family’s traditional pocketborough of Amethi, there are signs that Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka’s charm aren’t having an effect, writes Prarthana Gahilote in Outlook magazine.
“The Congress is on a weak foot in its own bastion, reportedly likely to not win any seats in Sultanpur, lose most in Amethi and all four seats they had won last time in the Rae Bareilly district including Rae Bareilly Sadar. In Amethi district, sitting MLA and Gandhi loyalist Amita Singh faces a strong anti-incumbency and a stiff fight from the Samajwadi party candidate,” notes Gahilote.
Even psephologist Yogendra Yadav, who sees the Congress as the one party in UP that offers “undiluted hope to ordinary voters” and claims that Rahul Gandhi “gets an appreciative nod” all around, concedes that this may not translate into votes because the Congress candidates do not appear to be “in the race” in a large number of constituencies. “Nor is the Congress in a position to convert votes into seats in a large stretch of eastern UP,” he adds.
Which may account for why for all the new-found verve in Rahul Gandhi’s campaign speeches, there are a few strands of grey in his beard. The view from the grassroots in UP has given cause for worry to the man whose acolytes had been looking to leverage a victory in UP for bigger things at the Centre. Right now, he is busy shifting the goalpost – and redefining what he considers success.