In interview after interview Congress president Rahul Gandhi has talked about spreading love to conquer hate. Coming bang in the middle of a bitter campaign, one could be excused for thinking Rahul is fighting elections on another planet — perhaps Jupiter — which means that in addition to hate, he has also conquered escape velocity.
For his minders within the party, tasked with reading profound meaning into Rahul's philosophical nothings, this might be enlightenment itself. Eager to announce the end of the Congress president's long journey from boy to boss, they are pumping up the volume of their canned applause.
Good for them. But it isn't good for Ratnakar Tripathi, 55 and thousands like him. A card-carrying campaigner of the Congress since 2002, the Varanasi worker is totally unimpressed.
"Rahulji began the Congress campaign with the "chowkidar chor hai" slogan and the promise of sending Prime Minister Narendra Modi to jail on charges of treason. Now, he is giving it all a philosophical twist with stuff like 'hate in Modi’s heart but love in my heart' and winning the political battle against Modi by 'spreading love'. What should I make of this? Should I start loving Modi or treat him as a bitter enemy?” he asked, torn between anger and amazement.
In the 2004 parliamentary elections, the BJP, seeking a return of the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government, hit the campaign trail with the self-deluding “India Shining” and “feel good” slogans. The Congress, which was considered in no shape to take on the BJP, pulled the rug from under the latter's feet with a humble “Congress ka haath aam admi ke saath” counter. It got a great deal of traction and the outcome of that election wrote a fresh chapter in Indian political history.
Cut to 2019. If Rahul has done anything successfully in this election, it is that he has spread his own confusion through the rank and file with great efficacy. After working on the "chowkidar chor hai" slogan for more than a year, it was logical to think that corruption would be the centrepiece of the Congress campaign. But Congress' counter to “Modi hai toh mumkin hai” and “phir ek baar Modi sarkar” was not an extension of "chowdikar chor hai", but a throwback to the socialist slogan of “ab hoga Nyay.”
Rahul and his team congratulated themselves on this “game changer” of an idea. But even the best idea needs time to sink in, spread and explode. Rahul gave it all of a week. After traveling extensively in Uttar Pradesh and getting a sense of electoral churning in the heartland, one can say with a sense of certitude that NYAY has been the biggest dud of the 2019 polls. Its appeal is restricted only to party offices and campaign banners. It has had no resonance among the public. Their response is either of ignorance or ridicule.
However, that biggest dud was not the only dud.
A similar trajectory was followed in the matter of injecting Rahul's sister, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, into the campaign. After months of trying to project himself as the central figure of the fight against Narendra Modi — to the chagrin of many potential allies — Rahul suddenly sprung the Priyanka surprise.
Priyanka was projected as the Congress' `Brahmastra', the mythical, all-slaying weapon. Now, Modi would just wilt and wither away. She ended up undermining Rahul instead because it is a tacit admission that Rahul is not the party's 'Brahmastra' and needed desperate reinforcements.
Worse was to follow. Having drawn the 'Brahmastra', Rahul did not know how and where to deploy it. If the intention was to demonstrate that the Gandhi family would take pole position in taking on Modi, he did not go through with its full expression either. Priyanka playfully asked Congress workers in Uttar Pradesh "lad jaaun Varanasi se?" (shall I contest from Varanasi) raising hopes of setting up the mother of all battles. She then dilly-dallied, saying her brother would decide. And on the day Modi rocked Varanasi with his road show, Rahul quietly set up Ajay Rai, local expended don, for slaughter.
This kind of confusion has been the hallmark of the Congress campaign.
Uttar Pradesh and Bihar account for 102 seats of 543 seats in the Lok Sabha. Even here, as in the rest of the country, the Congress has been noticed more for its absence. Worse, Modi kept laying traps for the Congress and it kept walking into them blindfolded. A case in point is the way Modi drew the Congress out on the issue of Rajiv Gandhi's image as late as the sixth phase of the election. He forced the Congress to start defending Rajiv rather than sharpening its `chowkidar chor hai’ attack. Sam Pitroda then handed the issue of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots on a platter to Modi.
Around the same time, Rahul drove the last nail on the coffin of Congress' campaign by tendering an unconditional apology to the Supreme Court for attaching the 'chowkidar chor hai' slogan to it. With Rahul at the helm, the Congress has a problem on two levels. At one level, while the party expects him to be decisive and inspire confidence in the cadre, Rahul is content with playing the role of a face-reader or image consultant, talking about how he can see from Modi's body language that the latter has already lost the election. Even this Friday, at the campaign-wrapping up press conference, he spoke about having completely dismantled Modi.
At the second level, instead of bringing out all his ammunition against Modi, Rahul turned to philosophical mumbo-jumbo of love and hate. Every election has been one big disappointment for his supporters and workers who have had to perpetually sell the idea of an emerging “more mature, more confident” leader.
They would surely have wished to see him building rhetoric that could have given them talking points to take to the people like Modi has done throughout the campaign. Instead they got a suffocating overdose of this: “The truth also is, you can’t hate another person without hating yourself… I don’t associate myself with his anger… The anger is his and is harming only him. It only does damage to me when I grab it and embrace it. I refuse to do that.”
Even here there is confusion.
Rahul who was a “janeudhari Hindu” at the time of the Gujarat state election and “ananya Shiv Bhakt” by the time of the election to Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh, has now become a Vipasana-practising Buddhist philosopher.
Another issue relates to the vigour and energy invested by Rahul. That the Congress campaign got swamped by the BJP's is understandable to an extent because of the larger than life image of Modi. It was a given that Rahul would come a cropper for national media prime time in a direct face-off with Modi.
But, as late as Thursday, with just one day left for campaigning for the last phase, the Congress allowed itself to be completely knocked out of even the Opposition space by West Bengal chief minister Mamata Banerjee. The TMC chief — fighting hard to retain every inch of her domain — and Modi-Shah were locked in a tense last-ditch battle.
As temperatures soared on the last day of the curtailed campaign, Modi landed up in Bengal for two rallies (after doing three in Uttar Pradesh) and Mamata held two road shows after being completely on the offensive through the day.
Quite in contrast, Rahul started his day with a visit to Rajasthan where polling was completed on 6 May. He visited a Dalit rape survivor, whose husband has claimed the police delayed acting on the complaint — fearing an adverse impact on the Congress campaign — until the Lok Sabha polls in the state ended.
Rahul then had three events, one in Kushinanagr (Uttar Pradesh) and two in Patna. He had a road show in Patna Sahib and a a rally in Pataliputra. For the president of the Congress, for whom time is votes, to spend time in two neighbouring constituencies shows an insane lack of planning.
Sister Priyanka did one better. As Modi and Mamata were dominating the national news, she landed up in Varanasi for a purposeless road show. Both the Gandhis got practically zero air time at a critical point in the campaign. Tripathi told me in Varanasi that it is time for Rahul to change his campaign managers. And for those managers to tell Rahul that it is time he embraced the core philosophy of elections: Be in it to win it.
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Updated Date: May 18, 2019 16:12:38 IST