It has been one year since Rahul Gandhi assumed the presidentship of the congress party. In a piece I wrote for this website in December 2017, I had underlined the three principle challenges Mr. Gandhi faces as he attempts to challenge Narendra Modi. As India welcomes 2019 and enters the electoral season, it is time to dispassionately evaluate how successful Mr. Gandhi has been.
The first question: could Rahul Gandhi affirm that he is a serious politician? It is a marker of how trivial Mr. Gandhi’s political journey has been that this was considered a serious criticism. Nevertheless, a year later, the fair answer must be a resounding yes. Three points.
First, Mr. Gandhi has posited that he is seriously engaged in politics as a full time vocation. The mysterious disappearances and holidays which vexed even his supporters are a thing of the past. Mr. Gandhi has finally accepted that in the age of social media, true privacy is a luxury no politician can afford. Faced with the Modi-Shah duo perennially politically engaged, Mr. Gandhi has acknowledged that he simply can’t engage with politics on his own conveniences. The masses no longer find the old Nehru-Gandhi family persona mystique alluring but consider it deeply offensive in an era where everyone from Bollywood superstars to cricketing gods are a mere tweet away.
Second, Mr. Gandhi is permanently engaged in issues he considers important instead of considering them ephemeral flirtations. Three issues immediately come to mind: the Goods and Services Tax (GST), the Rafale deal, and rural distress. One may not agree with all his policy prescriptions—-more on this in a bit—but there is little doubt that he has built sustained pressure and managed a task which appeared hitherto impossible: forcing the prime minister on the back foot. A man who appeared perennially on the offensive has not only been forced to offer the straight bat but often to tweak his policies in response to sustained criticism—-GST stands out as a stark example.
Third, Mr. Gandhi has emerged as a much more forceful public speaker. While he may lack Mr. Modi’s preternatural abilities as a politician, his social media posts are much sharper—-a recent analysis in the Times of India demonstrates that his tweets draw significantly higher engagement—-while his election speeches have little resemblance to the rambling and often confused Rahul Gandhi of 2013. The significantly improved 2.0 version has learned some important lessons from the cataclysmic defeat the congress party suffered in the 2014 general elections.
Let’s move on to another topic where Mr. Gandhi’s performance is much more checkered. The economic challenge or as this writer had described it: ‘craft an agenda which marries Congress’ left-of-center narrative with an appeal to the more aspirational India.’ The issue is that Mr. Gandhi is not merely conveniently Left but ideologically so. And his true believers not only reject any semblance of sane economic politics but actively disdain the middle class for having embraced the 'fascist' Mr. Modi. For them this is an opportunity to show the middle class how electorally insignificant they are.
Adopting this attitude as an electoral strategy would be utterly foolish. As any analysis of the recent Madhya Pradesh polls would show, BJP significantly suffered in the urban areas and may not have done as badly in the rural areas as ideological echo chambers would suggest. In 2009, one of the principle reasons why Congress and its allies emerged in the majority was because they swept virtually all major urban configurations except Bangalore. Surely, they were not all secular in 2009 and suddenly turned Hindutva-vadis in 2014! The majority of Indian voters are less ideologically driven than people who draw their electoral salience from the US think.
Despite the noise he has made about GST, this is a constituency Mr. Gandhi has almost completely ignored. No one is arguing that Mr. Gandhi should resurrect as the Milton Friedman of 2019. Nevertheless, he should embrace a more aspirational, and not just a more angry India and address their desire for improved opportunities; better infrastructure; and yes, a stronger India which finally claims its promised place in the nations of the world. Merely stoking resentment on how the India which has surpassed the so-called Hindu rate of growth has robbed the 'real India' may end up delivering even in the medium term. In the youngest major nation in the world, everyone wants to better their stations in life including those who fear they have been permanent left behind. This is the constituency which embraced Mr. Modi in 2014; can Mr. Gandhi assuage their disappointments and stoke their desires?
Finally, the secularism question. Many liberals have criticized Rahul Gandhi for his temple hopping; he has let down India’s beleaguered minorities already feeling adrift in a country which they increasingly struggle to recognize. Or so the argument goes. They are missing the point. In 2014 and its aftermath, the Congress party was not only labeled pro-Muslim but actively anti-Hindu. Therefore, it was important for Mr. Gandhi to address this argument by not letting his opponents exclusively define what Hinduism truly means. (The critics have also conveniently ignored that he has visited many non-Hindu places of worship as well.)
But there are two dangers here. First, the Congress party may be drawn into a battle to out-Hindu the BJP—-an argument which it will find almost impossible to win. Batting on the pitch the opposition has prepared can be a short-term tactic but invariably not a successful long term strategy. Ask the late Mr. Gandhi! Second, it is an argument much easier to make as an opposition party but not as a ruling formation governing some of India’s largest states. Building a few cow shelters may be unexceptionable in itself but how will the Congress party address incidences of cow terrorism? A recent incidence in Alwar, Rajasthan—-a state which the congress now rules—-where a Muslim man was assaulted for alleged cow smuggling raises serious questions about the party’s abilities to deliver both governance and justice.
If the Congress party can’t deliver on an issue as essential as cow terrorism then it simply can’t argue that it is a preferable option to those Indians who view such incidences as an intolerable abomination. No excuses are acceptable here and certainly not those appealing to political understanding.
This is the Congress party’s principle challenge as it becomes a governing unit and can no longer rely on the soothing rhetoric of an opposition formation. It must relearn the ability to navigate the Indian version of secularism in a polity which has decidedly moved towards the Right.
Mr. Gandhi has accepted the most important lesson of a democracy: victories matter. There are no more quixotic attempts to run primary elections to pretend inner party democracy—an issue which no one except the commentariat care about—-but a belated acknowledgement that elections are the essential vehicles to influence and shape policy. The compromises he has made in states like Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh indicate a leader who has finally imbibed the tough lessons Indian democracy dishes out to those unwise enough to take it for granted.
Does it mean that Mr. Modi will necessarily be defeated in 2019? The answer is a clear no. Prime Minister Modi is still reasonably popular and remains the front runner especially in a national battle which he would position as a presidential election as his consigliere Arun Jaitley recently argued. Especially as opposition leaders sense his vulnerability and jostle as the next potential prime ministerial candidates. Perversely enough, Mr. Modi’s less domineering role in Indian politics makes it harder for the opposition to rally around a single candidate. The old antagonisms are rekindled; the new ambitions are sharpened.
Mr. Gandhi must prepare for both possible futures: that he may be in a position to fashion a broad alliance in case he exceeds the most optimistic prognosticators or he may be tasked to hold together a dispirited and contradictory opposition if his party falls short as many recent polls have suggested. There is always a 2024 as the BJP (and Congress to its chagrin), discovered after a 10 years hiatus in 2014. But in case, Mr. Modi returns in 2019, can Rahul Gandhi convince the opposition to present a united front against a leader and party who will leave no stone unturned to convince the disbelievers that they are a permanent majority?
Mr. Gandhi has traveled a long distance since the dark days of May 2014 where his party was reduced to a virtual cipher; May 2019 will answer if the distance he has traversed is significant enough. India and its equally magnificent and exasperating democracy await that answer.
Rohit Pradhan writes about politics and policy. He tweets as: @retributions