There is an image from the 2004 election which was not widely seen but remains in the minds of the leaders who came together to dethrone the BJP. It is of Sonia Gandhi walking, on foot, to the home of Ram Vilas Paswan to ask for his support for the United Progressive Alliance.
“The Congress always used to be a high-handed, superior party,” a top leader of a Left party told me. “But when she symbolically walked to his house – she was willing to show a degree of humility.”
That was in late May in 2004. The Congress had already returned as the single largest party in the Lok Sabha. Still, Sonia left nothing to chance: Her lack of conceit and warm outreach to Left and socialist leaders like Lalu Prasad Yadav sealed her post-poll alliance.
The result was a new decade of Congress rule in India.
It’s the coalition, stupid
A month from today, India will know the results of the 2019 election. Rahul Gandhi will not have the advantage Sonia had on the same day in 2004. Yet he is displaying more pride, and less of the canny humility that she used to return to power.
In recent weeks, Rahul Gandhi has been busily aiming and firing at the wrong target – at winning over the masses instead of winning over rival leaders who might actually have scored a majority in parliament.
The manifesto was woke, but the strategy is broke. Opposition parties, including the Congress, are being massively out-spent and out-manoeuvred by the BJP, on the field and in the mass media. And the stakes of victory or defeat could not be higher.
Last year, it seemed like every headline in 2019 would open with ‘mahagathbandhan’. In states like Uttar Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir, and between state parties, historic political bridges were being built – linking up a potential, pan-Indian opposition to defend pluralist democracy from the Modi-Shah machine.
A year ago, Mamata Banerjee, chief minister of West Bengal, urged Sonia Gandhi to ensure a “one-to-one” fight across the states – a single opposition candidate against the BJP in every seat.
By November, Rahul was meeting N. Chandrababu Naidu, promising that “all opposition forces are going to work together to defend India, our institutions and our democracy”.
It was a silver bullet. The returns from potential seat-sharing could exceed any gains from the campaign slog, from manifesto promises, from endorsements or governance records – either Modi’s or their own. By consolidating the anti-Modi vote, they could actually challenge a ruling party soaking in money, media control and will to power.
A closed hand is a fist
November now seems very long ago.
The Congress’ narrow hat-trick in December’s three-state polls gave it the excuse to pivot from one priority – defeating Modi – to two others, which did not quite align: regroup in states where it has been routed, and electing Rahul Gandhi as the next PM.
It cannot do all three, and so, it will probably do none.
Congress began to flake on the mahagathbandhan parade. On January 16, neither Rahul or Sonia deigned to appear at Mamata’s grand gathering in Kolkata. Since then, the Congress has dropped chance after chance of consolidating with regional leaders who are ardently defying the BJP, like Mamta Banerjee in West Bengal (42 seats) or Naidu in Andhra (25 seats).
It has also left out anti-Modi mavericks who are now primed to cut its vote at various scales – Prakash Ambedkar in Maharashtra, Kanhaiya Kumar in Begusarai, or Prakash Raj in Bengaluru.
Today, in the party finally shrugging off its talks with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. The Congress, which got wiped clean twice in Delhi in 2014-’15 – winning zero seats in national and then state polls – refused the terms of a secular party that had won 67/70 of the Delhi assembly seats at a time Narendra Modi seemed invincible.
AAP had demands, possibly excessive, of sharing seats in Haryana as well – but to make that a deal-breaker was penny-wise and pound-foolish. Now they will undercut each other in both states; the BJP is poised to sweep Delhi.
One snapshot from this slow-mo disaster: A month ago, in his desire to save the Delhi gathbandhan and those seven seats, Maharashtra leader Sharad Pawar personally intervened to try and broker an agreement.
At the time, Rahul Gandhi was off pounding the pavement in Arunachal Pradesh – campaigning for an improbable victory rather than choreographing a more probable one.
In Uttar Pradesh, the Congress protests that it was Mayawati who refused to parley. This ignores factors from December’s assembly polls, as well as the Congress’ declared intention to rebuild itself in UP. Thus Priyanka Gandhi has stepped out, to great applause and fascination, to undercut the SP-BSP gathbandhan, the single strongest bulwark against Modi’s re-election.
Indira’s lost lessons
At the heart of this losing strategy is, it seems, an error of identification. Rahul Gandhi was raised in the afterglow of his father’s lineage, and he sees his legacy coming from Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, who were practically deified in the eyes of the Indian electorate. Today, however, it is Modi who campaigns from on high, his face imprinted in the public imagination.
Rahul’s real political legacy is his mother’s.
Like her, he has the mystique of belonging to the family, but without commanding the same mass appeal. Sonia knew, in 2004, that she wielded only the residual power of the haath chaap – just strong enough to magnetise a motley coalition, if she walked to the gate of mercurial Bihari politicians for their four extra MPs.
In 2019, Rahul Gandhi is operating with even less residual power, but acting much more from pride.
In 2004, Sonia knew that her aim of defeating the BJP did not align with the aim of making a Gandhi the PM: That too remains the same today.
Far from campaigning like Indira, Rahul needed to adjust like the Janata leaders. I’ve written before about the Grand Alliance, way more disparate and contradictory than any mahagathbandhan today, which defeated Indira in 1977, and formed India’s first non-Congress national government.
To underscore the single, piercing insight from that election: Even immediately after the Emergency, and the defection of Jagjivan Ram, Indira won a higher voteshare than Modi in 2014. In 1977, the Congress won 34.5% of the national vote (against the BJP’s 31% five years ago). Yet it was decimated in Parliament by the Janata Alliance – because they did not split the vote.
This was a pivot in his party history that Rahul Gandhi should have spent many hours meditating on – not from the perspective of his grandmother, but her nemesis.
Instead, as former BJP finance minister Yashwant Sinha observed:
BJP has given up sitting seats in Bihar and Jharkhand to have alliances. The opposition parties are not ready to compromise even on non existing seats. Good luck to them.
— Yashwant Sinha (@YashwantSinha) March 11, 2019
In December of last year, I wrote, “The question of whether Rahul Gandhi deserves to lead the Congress cannot wait for the results of 2019 to be decided. It will be decided before the polls, based on his success holding together a band of parties – many of which regarded the Congress as their nemesis ten years ago.”
At the time, the outlook for a united opposition was as bright as it would ever be.
Today, it is largely in pieces, at the feet of the figure of Rahul Gandhi on the stump. There he stands, challenging Modi in the presidential format – his every word distorted or drowned by mass-media manipulation – making high-minded promises he will not have a chance to deliver.