How Rahul’s Wayanad foray undermines his image makeover

United Democratic Front (UDF) workers participate in a rally after Congress president Rahul Gandhi declared that he will contest from Wayanad Lok Sabha seat, in Wayanad, Monday, April 1, 2019. (PTI Photo)

There have been many opinions expressed on whether or not Rahul Gandhi should have decided to contest from Kerala’s Wayanad, his second seat in the Lok Sabha polls after Uttar Pradesh’s Amethi.  
Of the arguments against the move, the strongest is the one that holds that the South is no longer a safe bet for Rahul, as it once was for his grandmother, Indira Gandhi (Chikmagalur in 1978), or even his mother, Sonia Gandhi (Bellary in 1999), both of whom contested from Karnataka. Among the weakest arguments are those that claim that it will send out the impression that Rahul Gandhi is running scared of a loss in Amethi. This line of attack can be most easily countered by asking why anyone should arrogate to themselves the right to know what the electorate in Amethi or anywhere else thinks about a candidate. 

But the reason why the Congress chief should not have opted for a fight from Wayanad has nothing to do with the strength or the weakness of the party in UP or Kerala. It is a bad move because it shows that it will be Priyanka Gandhi and not him who will be shouldering the weight of taking on Narendra Modi in the big, dirty fight for power in the Hindi heartland, especially in Varanasi, which has become a kind of metaphor for the on-going election contest.  
Before anyone asks how this argument stands given that Rahul will continue to remain a candidate from UP, let us look at what the Wayanad decision does in terms of its political messaging: It says Rahul can no longer just be identified with the Gandhi family pocket borough of Amethi but should be seen as a national leader who can command support from any part of the country he chooses to stand from. 
But in the absence of either the Congress or Rahul actually having a real national stature, what the move does is build in a layer of separation between Rahul and the politically-significant state of UP.  
After Rahul Gandhi’s decision to appoint his younger sister Priyanka as the All India Congress Committee general secretary in-charge of Uttar Pradesh East, this new twist has the effect of suggesting that it is Priyanka and not Rahul who is the primary challenger to Modi in UP.
Even if she does not contest the parliamentary polls from UP in 2019, Priyanka’s journey down the Ganga as part of the Congress' electoral outreach, and her decision to canvass on foot across parts of Eastern UP, have invoked the makings of a Priyanka vs BJP showdown in the heartland. In the coming days and weeks before the final vote is cast, this could well turn into a Priyanka vs Modi showdown. 
Rahul’s Wayanad candidature gives him an excuse to keep out of this picture. While this may be part of a larger Congress strategy to keep Modi engaged in UP by getting Priyanka to snap at his heels, it does not bode well for a candidate who wants to be seen as a serious contender for prime ministership. 
The standards of what it means to be taken seriously as a mass politician has skyrocketed in the Modi era. Modi has set the bar so high that few in the Congress or the BJP can qualify. Ironically, this is the one department where Rahul Gandhi is the most short on talent. But neither he nor his party seems to have feared for Priyanka. There seems to be a general consensus that she can hold her own against Modi.  
If this election were being contested at a subliminal level, the one place where everyone would be glued to is Varanasi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s seat. By deciding to use the Ganga to make her way around parts of the state, Priyanka Gandhi has signalled that she knows that the river is not just a symbol of holiness. It can do more. It can change the course. And the course of events. The Ganga that Modi seemed to have established a claim over since the 2014 general election is now no longer just his. 
This is how the story will be read at a deeper level: Rahul Gandhi making way for his sister to do the difficult job of countering Modi politically, while he can speak about the technical and managerial aspects of what the next government should look like. 
The Congress’ managers and Rahul himself, personally, have spent years trying to change his image and project him as a serious political figure and candidate worthy of leading India. All those efforts have received a setback because of a badly thought-out decision. Why fault those within the Congress who will wonder: If this is how power is to be shared between the brother and sister, then why shouldn’t she, rather than he, be the face of the campaign? 

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How Rahul’s Wayanad foray undermines his image makeover


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