"It’s not make or break for Rahul and always the credit for victory will be ascribed to him and failure will find a ready loyal scapegoat. The family charisma shall be propped up with some flimsy excuse," said Pushpesh Pant on Zee News, echoing conventional wisdom on the UP elections.
Of course, he's right. The chorus of Congress spinmeisters is already in full swing, offering a variety of flimsy reasons why Rahul is a big winner in UP – irrespective of pesky disappointments like vote shares or seat gains. In one of this morning's more incoherent TV moments, Abhishek Manu Singhvi told Times Now: “Not even Rahul Gandhi‘s worse enemies are calling his leadership into question. Rahul Gandhi was outstanding. He was there for 2 years. If it doesn't translate, it doesn't translate. His shoulders are broad enough. He is in it for the long haul. He wants Congress to stand on its feet."
So will Rahul remain the Congress heir apparent despite the UP debacle? Yes. Will he be saved from the facing the extent of his electoral humiliation by a Samajwadi Party alliance? Most likely. But all the spin in the world will not save Rahul from the one great catastrophe birthed by the UP elections: the rise of Akhilesh Yadav.
Akhilesh is Rahul's doppelganger, the smarter, more capable, articulate and talented alter ego who haunted his every move in UP. Rahul's every speech, tactic or strategy drew the inevitable and unflattering comparisons. There's the polite version, where "Rahul's appeal and interaction" is deemed "sophisticated," while Akhilesh "is direct, personal and earthy."
Then there's the less diplomatic take offered by Pant: "The most impressive campaign was conducted by Akhilesh- restrained yet forceful, relying on reason rather than emotion, not abusive or abrasive. It stood out in sharp contrast with Rahul Gandhi's histrionics reminiscent of B grade Hindi films."
Rahul has always been the A-for-effort student, the political rookie graded on a more lenient curve. Even the more flattering reviews of his UP performance emphasised his 'education':
Suddenly, the Congress general secretary's rallies are no longer aloof. They have become participatory events where both the crowd and the candidates are drawn in; he has learnt how other politicians behave on the election trail. This was not so even during the initial phase of his campaign for the Uttar Pradesh elections. Then, there was little interaction with either the crowd or the party candidates on the dais... His earlier speeches seemed like recitations; now they are delivered with a lot more emotion and gesticulations, a favourite move being thumping the fist in the air to emphasise a point.
But all that fist-thumping may not cut it any longer. With a natural born talent sharing the national media stage, Rahul now just looks like a slow learner. In one fell swoop, Akhilesh destroyed the overused he's-just-learning defence. He is 39 years old and entered politics in 2000 – a mere four years ahead of the 41-year old Rahul. Yes, UP is his backyard but it is also the traditional stronghold of the great Nehru/Gandhi dynasty. Yes, both are young, modern and progressive, but it is Akhilesh bhaiya who single-handedly changed the image of his father's "goonda raj" party. Rahul's supporters are left making excuses about the lack of ground support or weak grassroots organizing.
The really bad news: Akhilesh is not intimidated by either the Gandhi name or their national clout. Nor is he weighed down by a giant chip on his shoulder about dynastic privilege. On the campaign trail, he mocked Rahul over and again – but with wit and charm. When Rahul resorted to histrionics, tearing up the SP manifesto on stage, Akhilesh just laughed: "Rahul seems angry. Earlier he used to get angry by folding hands, then he got angry by tearing up paper. Who knows, next time he might jump off the stage in anger."
Akhilesh is the little scion who could, unlike the bada beta who has not – not now, not yet, maybe never.
While Gandhi haters rant about 'dynastic politics,' Rahul's raj kunwar status has mostly worked to his benefit. Until Akhilesh came along, he was the only modern, young politician of royal political lineage to hold the national media attention. The other possible contenders were either tucked safely out of sight within the Congress fold (see: Jyotiraditya Scindia); weaker aspirants to the Gandhi surname like Varun; or had little hope of taking on a national role a la Omar Abdullah. The UP elections has thrown up the first genuine rival who possesses the talent and independent base – in a state like UP, no less – to mount a national challenge in the long run.
Irrespective of what happens in the aftermath of the results, Akhilesh is a nightmare that will not go away – not unless his party fails to deliver once in power. The more successful he is in UP, the more he will be favourably compared to Rahul. The UP elections may be over, but the battle of the scions goes on.