Editor's note: This is a multi-part political diary that features interviews with and observations about young voters in Madhya Pradesh
“He says some of the most absurd things. Did you see his aloo ki factory video?” asked a young voter in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh, about Rahul Gandhi.
He was of course, referring to a video of the Congress president which went viral in 2017 where Gandhi appears to be telling an audience in Gujarat that he would build factories where you insert potatoes on one side, and receive gold on the other. This is infamously called the ‘aloo ki factory’ video which was shared widely on social media and used to mock Rahul Gandhi.
Except that Gandhi didn’t actually say that. He was criticising Prime Minister Narendra Modi for promising voters such an aspirational (and unrealistic) vision for India, that even potatoes could be used to create products as valuable as gold.
Yet, the truth couldn’t matter less. It all fed into a narrative of Rahul Gandhi as being an unqualified, gaffe-making politician who could not be taken seriously. This began years ago, when sections of the BJP, amplified by the media, began derisively calling him a ‘Pappu,’ essentially dismissing his credentials as a serious leader. And Madhya Pradesh’s young voters are happy to buy into the BJP’s carefully-constructed “Pappu” image.
Traveling around the bigger cities and smaller towns of Madhya Pradesh made it clear that the Congress party has an image problem. Its leadership is not being taken seriously.
More than harbouring strong feelings towards the Congress scion, voters are simply puzzled about how anyone can vote for him, given the presidential nature of Lok Sabha elections and the bipolar nature of the contest in Madhya Pradesh, where BJP versus Congress means Modi versus Gandhi. One of the most common questions, posed in different iterations was, “how can I vote for Rahul Gandhi? What has he ever done?”
Despite being considered a “young” leader in Indian politics, Gandhi is failing to excite young voters. This should be particularly worrisome for his party since Madhya Pradesh is a state where the Congress is a direct challenger to the BJP for power. Regional parties do not wield much influence in the state, and the personality-driven nature of this ongoing election makes it crucial for party flagbearers to have decent public approval.
In 1971, Indira Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, cruised to re-election on a ‘Garibi Hatao’ slogan, a clever response to the Opposition’s ‘Indira Hatao.’ Her grandson, whose party was reduced to its lowest ever numbers in the Lok Sabha in 2014, is campaigning on a Garibi Hatao 2.0 plank.
NYAY, short for Nyuntam Aay Yojana, was announced as the Congress party’s bid to eliminate poverty in India and refocus the election rhetoric from national security to the economy, which is underperforming.
But NYAY has failed to take off, and in many areas, has backfired in the state. Middle-class and well-educated voters are wary of the programme, viewing it as an inevitable wealth tax which they will need to pay.
“The poor can vote for the Congress, but educated people must vote for the BJP,” Aradhna Shukla, a student of a coaching center in Indore told me. “The Congress only cares about the poor who don’t do any work. This will only make them lazy.”
However, even among the poor, NYAY has not been the elixir the Congress might have hoped for. And that is because most don’t know enough about the program. A large number of daily wage earners who had gathered at Bhopal’s ‘Dus Number’ market looking for labour work were not aware about the centerpiece of the NYAY promise: that a Congress government would give them Rs. 72,000 a year as a guaranteed minimum income. “I will vote for the Congress because my family always votes for them. I am not politically involved,” Suresh, a 26-year-old day labourer who originally hails from Gwalior, told me.
When asked about NYAY, Suresh replied that he had not heard about the program. He is illiterate, so he could not read the few signboards scattered around Bhopal which featured the NYAY promise. “I don’t know much about Rahul Gandhi. Scindia Maharaj is the only Congress leader I like,” Suresh continued.
He was talking about Jyotiraditya Scindia, member of Gwalior’s royal family, and one of only two Congress Members of Parliament who managed to keep their seat in the 2014 Modi wave in the state. The other member, Kamal Nath, is now the Chief Minister of Madhya Pradesh.
And this is another big problem the Congress is facing around the state and the country. That many of its leaders are individually popular but they are not given enough leadership or responsibility. “I would vote for Congress if Rahul Gandhi were not leading the party,” another day labourer chimed in.
While the Congress is in power in Bhopal, its vote share was identical to that of the BJP in the state Assembly elections, an indictment of the fact that the party failed to fully capitalise on 15 years’ worth of anti-incumbency, a dire agricultural crisis, high unemployment rate, and a faltering state economy.
And the state election was localised. Many who had chosen the Congress in December are now voting for the BJP, in a desire to see Prime Minister Modi reelected. “Kamal Nath is good for the state, but Modi is better for the country. Rahul Gandhi cannot lead,” a 29-year-old engineer in Bhopal described how he chose the Congress for the state, but the BJP for the center.
Looking at the response to the Congress campaign and Rahul Gandhi’s messaging, it becomes evident that they are failing to fire up young voters. The ‘chowkidar chor hai’ sloganeering has not succeeded in damaging the prime minister’s incorruptible image, and the party has not been able to weaponise real feelings of economic distress among voters who bought into the ‘acche din’ promised in 2014 and might do so again due to the lack of a credible challenger.
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Updated Date: May 17, 2019 19:52:19 IST