Rahul Gandhi's fatal flaw: The Santa Claus who never delivers
His critics attack him as elitist. In truth, however, all good Indians know, it's the bade log who make things happen. It's when the powerful don't deliver that their big name pedigree becomes a huge problem.
"For the Gandhi family, UP elections have always been a big picnic. Brother, sister, mother and now even brother-in-law come for outings, sometimes with foreign friends," Mayawati told the Al Jazeera TV channel.
Samajwadi Party scion Akhilesh Yadav, is just as eager to reinforce the bade log image: "He [Rahul] is a bada neta from a bada party with bada resources. We are small people with no resources. I wish him the best."
The elitism charge is just par for the course in any election that involved the Gandhi family. And yet, to the vast irritation of their critics, the family's lofty pedigree has never been a burden come election time. As all good Indians know, it's the bade log who make things happen. It's when the powerful don't deliver that their 'out-of-touch' image becomes a problem.
The fatal flaw in Rahul Gandhi's UP campaign is apparent in the very first paragraph of Outlook's cover story. A small example tells the bigger tale:
Birgha has experienced the thrill of becoming a photo opportunity in the Uttar Pradesh trail of Rahul Gandhi. Three years ago, the young Congress scion had come to the Harijan basti of Ghisauli in Bundelkhand, stopped at the hutment of the 70-year-old, and asked him, as leaders often do, what his problems were. “The roof of my hut has fallen and I don’t have a BPL card,” Birgha told him. Pictures were clicked, live TV captured the moment. Three years down the line, the roof of Birgha’s house is still unrepaired and there is no BPL card in sight. The Congress party structure is so poor that there has been no one to follow up on Rahul’s promises. Birgha is not voting for the Congress.
He is even less likely to vote for Congress precisely because the young raja came to his home, asked him what he wanted, and then failed to grant his wish – either because he is indifferent or, worse, ineffectual.
The pattern repeats itself ad nauseam across UP, and most glaringly so in the so-called 'Gandhi family belt.'
The more the family belabours it 'special' relationship with its natives, the more glaring its failures on the ground. In Amethi, the villagers bluntly tell Priyanka, “[Congress MLA] Sanjay Singh will not fetch you votes. Raja, Rani have done no work. Remove them or else we will not vote for the Congress.”
Yet Rahul plods on, making the same tone-deaf speeches: “I don’t have a political relationship, but a family relationship with you. UP is slowly becoming a home. But Amethi is my first home.” A home that reaps little benefit from its most famous son. Even a wage worker in Mumbai – armed with that famous begging bowl, no doubt – knows that's just not done.
The Gandhi connection rings equally hollow in his mother's constituency. “Soniaji is a saansad from Rae Bareilly, yet we get only four hours of electricity in a day, sometimes even less. The 24-hour electricity supply from the NTPC power plant that Soniaji promised still hasn’t materialised. The Gandhi charm works in Lok Sabha, not Vidhan Sabha, elections.” says Madho Prasad Dwivedi, a tea shop owner.
In truth, mere charm works in no election, be it at the state or national level. Much as the urban middle class may complain about caste politics, it endures because for the poor Indian voter, it remains the best available hope for redress. Vote for the big man in your community, and he may offer you a share – albeit a very tiny one – in his largesse. Yes, there is parochialism at work, but also material calculation. A caste leader who doesn't bring home the dal-roti won't last long.
Yogendra Yadav offers a popular over-reading of caste politics in a separate, more upbeat essay in the same Outlook issue:
The media focus on political games in Delhi and Lucknow and its old habits of reducing elections to caste vote-banks prevent us from noticing how this election, more than any recent one, is about governance and development.
This election in Uttar Pradesh is about a credible vision for the future, plausible promise of development and reliable track-record of governance. It is easy to miss this, for these grand themes present themselves in quotidian forms: electricity for the powerlooms, cement roads within villages, government recruitment, availability of NREGA employment, sugarcane prices, accessibility to functioning schools and of course getting ‘kaam’ done in tehsil, thana and kachahari. The voters weigh every issue in their own local context.
But the contrast between caste politics and this new governance paradigm is overdrawn and misleading. This desire for "governance" or "development" is hardly new. In the old paradigm, the best route to address these issues – roads, powerlooms etc. — was to vote for your caste leaders. At best, Yadav can argue, the UP voter is now open to the possibility that a politician may be willing and able to deliver the same benefits – even in the absence of caste obligations.
Contrary to Yadav's cheery claims, however, Rahul does not inspire that kind of assurance.
"Eschewing the staple language of caste-community equations, he has raised issues of development. In a party that had given up on the poor and the disadvantaged, he has brought back the language of social justice. The ‘Rahul factor’ is about aligning his party with the changing mood of the times," writes Yadav in a wrong-headed analysis that confuses rhetoric with results. In reality, it doesn't matter whether Rahul talks caste or development. All that matters is whether he and his family can deliver. The evidence thus far is that they cannot. And that's all that will matter, come election time.
No one knows the bottomline better than 70-year-old Jwala Singh, a veteran Congress worker in Rae Bareilly, who wisely asks, "Why should the Congress win? What work do they have to show here? Where is the average worker on the ground? Assembly elections are about candidates and work done on the ground not about helicopter trips."
And most certainly not when the Santa Claus in the helicopter never delivers.
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