For those with an inclination to learn, there are sermons even in stones. After being humbled by the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, Rahul Gandhi was a picture of contrition on Tuesday, stepping up to take responsibility for the Congress’ poor show, and acknowledging that the verdict offered him much to ponder about.
“It’s a very good lesson for me,” Rahul Gandhi said during a brief interaction with the media in New Delhi. “I think it will make me think in detailed ways, which I like to do.”
The defeat must have been especially galling for Rahul Gandhi, since so much of his own political progression was invested in a revival of the Congress in UP. If he had ‘delivered’ UP, he would have added some weight to the vacuous claims of dynasty worshippers that the prime ministership is his for the taking.
Of all sad words of tongue and pen, the saddest are these: “It might have been…”
But sweet are the uses of adversity. If Rahul Gandhi is really earnest about learning lessons from the debacle in UP, there is much that he can learn. Here are five lessons.
Politics of identity is a loser. For all his claims to wanting to take the high moral ground and changing the political discourse, Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh rested on the most regressive pandering to caste and communal identity.
It’s true, of course, that caste and religious affiliations run strong – and not just in Uttar Pradesh. But repeated invocations and reinforcements of that identity, in the manner that Rahul Gandhi did, was particularly unimaginative, and eventually proved a losing proposition. For instance, in Ramabai Nagar, where he invoked telecom guru Sam Pitroda’s caste affiliation evidently to pander to backward class constituencies, the Congress did not win even one seat.
The experience of other Congress leaders who too resorted to ‘identity politics’ is also illustrative. Salman Khurshid’s repeated pandering to Muslim voters with the Congress promise of sub-quotas for Muslims – even daring the Election Commission to hang him for violation of the model code of conduct – proved fruitless. Khurshid’s wife finished fifth in a four-way race, which takes some doing. The Congress failed to win even one of the four Assembly segments in Farrukkabad.
If Rahul Gandhi wishes to learn a lesson from this, it is that the era when identity politics alone could win elections is over. Change the idiom.
Grassroots work pays, not gimmickry. Rahul Gandhi’s campaign in UP was high on theatrics and low on grassroots-level earnestness. Whether it was his shrill campaign in Bhatta Parsaul, his showcase visits to Dalit homes, his resort to padayatra politics (a throwback to the 1980s), they symbolised an effort to rule the news cycle of the day, not a sincerity about addressing genuine problems.
While such interventions were doubtless made for television, and may have earned him more airtime, they also fed a creeping cynicism that focussed on the hollowness of his core campaign theme. In Jewar Assembly constituency in Bhatta Parsaul, the Congress candidate lost to the BSP. Likewise, in Aligarh, where Rahul Gandhi’s padayatra ended, the Congress lost to the SP.
Even the visual of Rahul Gandhi tearing up the Samajwadi Party’s manifesto promises at a Lucknow rally made for riveting footage, but in the end it didn’t count for much: among the nine Assembly seats in Lucknow, the Congress won only one.
Lesson for Rahul: go easy on gimmickry; they make for good television, but show you up to be immature.
Walk the talk on corruption. One of the supreme ironies of this campaign was that it was Rahul Gandhi who, more than the Samajwadi Party, highlighted the corruption in the Mayawati administration, which was a key campaign theme that led to her downfall. But it was the SP that harvested the fruits of that backlash against the Mayawati government.
Given the record of the Congress – the monumental scandals at the Central level and its manifest attempt to beat back Team Anna’s efforts to draw up a strong Lokpal Bill – Rahul Gandhi’s anti-corruption rhetoric lacked credibility.
If there’s a lesson for Rahul Gandhi, it is that you have to walk the talk on fighting corruption. Both in UP and in Punjab, the ‘big ticket’ corruption scandals at the Centre swamped the ‘low level’ corruption in the States.
There are limits to welfare politics. During his campaign, Rahul Gandhi made much of his efforts to secure a Rs 7,000 crore welfare package for weavers in Uttar Pradesh. The UPA government also rushed a fiscally ruinous Food Security Bill through, manifestly with an eye on the UP elections. But the results show that while voters are not unmindful of such welfare measures, they don’t repay that gratitude with their votes.
In fact, as the experience in Tamil Nadu last year showed, even limitless freebies and cash handouts aren’t enough to sway voters: they take the freebies and the cash – and then vote the other way.
It’s a lesson that Rahul Gandhi can profit from: throwing money from the public exchequer around as if it were the family khazana is both irresponsible and unrewarding.
Sycophants do more harm than good. The ceaseless chatter among sycophantic dynastic worshippers about Rahul Gandhi’s prime ministerial destiny proved too much of a distraction – and may have triggered a backlash. As former Indian Express editor BG Verghese notes, “The issue for the Congress has been whether Rahul’s whiskers will grow by half an inch rather than whether the central government can move forward. They have their priorities hopelessly wrong.”
Leaders like Digvijay Singh, who come out batting for Rahul Gandhi and ostensibly shielding him from the big bad world of politics, actually do more harm than good. It does no good for Rahul Gandhi to be cocooned from bad news, particularly when filtering it out only leads to a flawed understanding of reality on his part.
The lesson for Rahul Gandhi: silence the “chalisa chanters” and break out of your cocoon. You will find that reality is a parallel universe that, while not always appreciative, is a lot more honest.