Rahul fails again: He was there but not there

The Congress tally stood at 51 seats at the time of writing, a total increase of seven seats as compared to its 2014 tally. The party was unable to win a single seat in over a dozen states and Gandhi himself lost in the family pocket borough of Amethi to BJP’s Smriti Irani. (DH Illustration)

Congress chief Rahul Gandhi mounted a voluble, high-profile campaign against Narendra Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, perhaps his personal best, and yet managed a come a spectacular cropper. The Congress tally stood at 51 seats at the time of writing, a total increase of seven seats as compared to its 2014 tally. The party was unable to win a single seat in over a dozen states and Gandhi himself lost in the family pocket borough of Amethi to BJP’s Smriti Irani. The Congress vote share figures were set to go up by a nominal two to three percentage points but the damage to the party and its leadership cannot be salvaged on the basis of this one underwhelming feat.

Gandhi cannot be faulted for not trying. He spoke at a total of over a 100 rallies across India over a three-and-a-half month campaign. He pulled out all the stops: Priyanka Gandhi was introduced into the mix, although her entry was late and somewhat restricted in terms of where she campaigned; the Congress promised a minimum income guarantee scheme that would put upto Rs 72,000 in the bank accounts of India’s poorest; the party had a well-thought out manifesto that presented its position on a range of issues; there was a build up of support for him among a section of Indians, most clearly visible on social media, who projected him as the main challenger to Narendra Modi’s politics of “hatred”.

And yet. After five years of having nothing else to do other than work towards taking the Congress to a respectable tally in the 17thLok Sabha, Rahul Gandhi failed. Gandhi is clearly not the man who once came across as utterly incidental to politics and lacking in political talent other than the fact of his birth. He is a more confident public speaker and makes an effort to appear accessible both online and on the ground. He interacts with the media more often in one-to-one settings and has managed, in the words of Brands Vonsultant Santosh Desai, “to flesh himself out” as something of a counterpoint to Modi.

Yet why did Rahul Gandhi fail to click with voters? Even more so in an election which presented him with a ready-made template for capitalising on anti-incumbency. Why indeed did Rahul Gandhi fail to turn the Congress into a serious challenger to Modi’s BJP?

The answer perhaps lies in the fact that he failed to read India’s political situation for what it is. And this would point to a serious unsuitability to the job he has been marked out for. In effect, taking on the biggest national-level mass politician that India has seen in recent times.

This is no easy task, but becomes an unapproachable one for someone like Gandhi who appears disconnected from the exigencies of realpolitik despite spending a decade-and-a-half in active politics. His campaign, in his own words, was centred on ripping Modi’s image to pieces as he told India Today. To that end, he was the dog with the bone on corruption in the Rafale deal – an issue that seems to have had no widespread resonance or appeal given the prime minister’s personal credibility. In fact, after the Balakot air strikes in February, it only went up further. Why then was Gandhi not able to sense that he had the wrong issue in trying to challenge Modi?

According to Desai, Gandhi was never quite able to emerge as a concrete counterpoint to Modi because a counterpoint requires that you position yourself as strong where the other person is weak. This is exactly what happened with the attempt to project himself someone who practices a ‘politics of love’ as against Modi’s supposed barbarism and lack of decency. “While this may be something that appealed to a section of people, for most people who like Mr Modi, this is not a particularly important aspect,” Desai said, noting that Gandhi came across as “soft” whereas Modi had a compelling narrative as a strong, nationalistic leader.

If in terms of branding Rahul failed to emerge as someone who represented a “new voice” and a “new dimension” of politics, then he was poor when it came to playing by the old playbook of politics on striking the right alliances. “The Congress did not deal with the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi, the Samajwadi Party and Bahujan Samaj Party in UP and had a no-deal with Mamata in Bengal. The election results might not have been as one-sided had all the parties come together against Modi as they had done against Indira Gandhi in 1977,” said MD Nalapat, Professor, Manipal Academy of Higher Education.

Beyond that, what appears to be missing in the Rahul case is an ability to actually connect with voters. This is the ‘X’ factor in politics that is either a natural talent or something that can be picked up if one spends enough time practising the art. Yet, Gandhi continues to be a stranger to the world of concrete political realities that face him. “It’s as if he is a simulation....He doesn’t manifest. He’s there but not there. He’s a flighty presence, a cloud, whereas Modi is all rock and materiality,” Desai said.

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