Both processes and results of elections reflect institutional robustness and the resilience of parties, aside from the numbers in legislatures, and processes of power perpetuation and transfer. Equally, they show the endurance and innovativeness of the political leadership.
From these perspectives, both India’s grand old party and its leader Rahul Gandhi have been on test for the past nine years. Striving with limited success against the Modi-Shah BJP, they are on test in assembly elections in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Mizoram, Rajasthan and Telangana. Earlier, the Congress had a morale boosting victory in Karnataka, which was lost to ‘Operation Lotus’ in 2019. The local leadership, Mallikarjun Kharge’s mature handling and the impact of Rahul Gandhi’s Bharat Jodo Yatra, in that order, brought about the win.
The political narrative has been dominated by the cult of Modi, Hindutva and economic freebies such as free electricity (courtesy Arvind Kejriwal), free food grains for the poor, cash transfers to poor women, free bicycles and laptops, the revival of the Old Pension Scheme, loan waivers, subsidised fertiliser and enhanced MSP for farmers. A new dimension has been added with the caste census in Bihar and tweaked job quotas.
The GOP has resolved the issue of a non-Nehru-Gandhi party president with the election of the shrewd and low-key Mallikarjun Kharge. It has changed its public perception, ending the uncertainty caused by Rahul Gandhi’s relinquishing the post in a huff in 2019 and the return of Sonia Gandhi as interim president. Kharge’s organisational skills have been visible in Karnataka and Rajasthan. But the larger task of rebuilding the party district by district, state by state, needs gigantic steps. No wonder, busy with election-bound states, he is unable to attend to party issues countrywide.
Since Rahul Gandhi continues to be projected as the leader, there’s little room for others at the top. The official party website still has pictures of the three Gandhis – Rahul, Priyanka and Sonia, before that of Kharge.
It highlights five issues – Farmers of India, Neighbourhood Lost (foreign policy), Job Destruction, Demonetization and GST. Manifestos for the five poll-bound states are missing online. In any case, the poll manifestos released for three states do not project it as the party with a vision. It is fire-fighting with populism. Rajasthan, the most challenging state, has made promises like cash transfers to women heads of families, laptops or tablets for college students, buying cow dung (sic), the restoration of the OPS, and so on. In Chhattisgarh, it promises a caste census, loan waiver to farmers, Rs 500 subsidy on gas cylinders, free education to students up to the postgrad level, free electricity up to 200 units and other subsidies. Such populist offers are also in the Madhya Pradesh manifesto.
With local variations, the Telangana and Mizoram manifestos are also full of populism. Telangana promises 10 grams of gold and Rs 1 lakh financial assistance for the marriage of poor girls. Mizoram promises health insurance coverage up to 15 lakh.
It is still not clear if any of the manifestoes, on which state leaders have worked with Kharge, reflect Rahul Gandhi’s vision, too. Debuting in politics in 2004, his leadership record is sombre. In 2019, he contested from Kerala. apart from Amethi, which he lost. He abruptly resigned from the party presidency in 2019. His BJY was indeed a major initiative but by all accounts, it has had limited success and very little impact on the organisation. The coming elections would show if the BJY has established him.
He has shrugged off the ‘Pappu’ image that the BJP’s media cell has projected at great cost since 2004, but his acceptability as the alternative national leader is untested. Even though lately, the GOP has reportedly collected comprehensive data on the country’s socio-economic situation, his speeches rarely reflect those. Aping Modi’s Hindutva, he and his party leaders go to temples, and he allows his party leaders to court controversial seers, even build tall statues of the Hindu divinities.
Lately, beyond attacks on the Adani-Modi nexus, he has spoken aggressively, offering to emulate the caste census of Bihar in the poll-bound states. Describing the process as an X-ray or MRI of society, he aims to attract the OBC votes. He has pointedly highlighted that less than 0.5% of secretary and joint secretary level officers in central government are OBC. He has promised to correct such anomalies if the Congress is elected.
Yet he ought to spell out his party’s policy perspective on education, employment, the misuse of institutions such as governor and reform of the highly politicised police and civil service. As a national leader, his perspective on foreign policy also needs clear expression. Obviously, even though he is more visible and has greater public acceptance, his advisors need to work on these aspects of his leadership persona.
Media reports have indicated internal contradictions within the BJP, governance deficit and corruption in BJP-ruled Madhya Pradesh, which may help the Congress to win at least three states. The Bharat Rashtra Samiti in Telangana is also reeling under corruption charges. These could help the Congress. However, a win by default is no long-term solution to the Congress’s own weaknesses. If Rahul Gandhi is the person to lead the GOP, his vision needs sharper public projection.
Ajay K. Mehra is former Atal Bihari Vajpayee Senior Fellow, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, 2019-21.
This piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been updated and republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.