Gujarat results: Rahul Gandhi has earned his spurs, but has to spell out his agenda, ‘cool’ nothings won’t do

The last three days have been a lot about Rahul Gandhi. And, justly so.

File image of Congress president Rahul Gandhi. AP

Even as a chronic critic of the Nehru-Gandhis, I concede that Rahul has finally earned his spurs. He deserves to be congratulated both on his elevation to Congress president and the party’s impressive show in Gujarat. This is not a convenient change of heart. But, I do believe Rahul has come of age.

Let us accept, at this juncture, the Congress did not have another leader to take over from Sonia Gandhi. The succession question could not be put off any longer given reports about Sonia’s health. It was pretty much a “now or never” moment for the family.

It is to Rahul’s credit that in the last few months he worked hard to increase his acceptability as his mother’s heir. He was no longer a default option but emerged as a natural choice under the circumstances. The dynasty issue can be a subject of a separate on-going conversation.

About Gujarat too, there is much for Rahul to feel happy. For the first time, he carried a marathon campaign on his own shoulder. A leader has to inject energy into the team, instill confidence, generate enthusiasm and develop a ‘can do’ spirit. Rahul scored high on all these counts.

In the absence of a credible state leader, without Rahul leading from the front, the Congress would not have reached anywhere close to its final tally of 77. There was a rich crop of anti-incumbency waiting to be harvested on the ground. But, Gujarat Congress did not have the wherewithal to translate them into votes. Rahul was the mascot they needed.

The Congress strategists could have chosen to treat the Gujarat elections as another provincial battle. A victory would have been a prize plume on Rahul’s cap. But, they sensed greater opportunity. There were multiple factors working against the BJP: Agrarian distress, caste fault-lines, Patidar unrest and palpable disenchantment in the trading community on Goods and Services Tax (GST) and demonetisation. It looked like the perfect pitch for the debut of a new skipper. Rahul’s advisors decided to up the stakes and launch him as the official challenger to Narendra Modi in 2019.

Still, team Rahul could have chosen to restrict the fight to local issues. But, having billed it as a David versus Goliath act, they wrote the script as a mid-term referendum on Modi’s three-year record as prime minister. Thus, instead of talking about what affected ordinary Gujaratis, the focus shifted to GST, demonetisation and Modi’s alleged pro-capitalist and anti-poor policies. In hindsight, by doing so, Rahul may have walked straight into the Modi-Amit Shah trap.

Once the battle turned personal: Rahul brought out the best and the worst of vintage Modi. Perhaps, getting a bit carried away by the tail-wind of his early outings and buzz on social media, Rahul overestimated his ability to beat Modi in his own game, on his home turf.

The final tally is now before all to see. It would be pointless to do a counter-factual analysis to ask if the outcome would have been any different had Congress taken any other approach. I think ’77’ is possibly the best Congress could have achieved under any scenario. But, BJP being held below the century mark at 99 and the very close calls in several seats is surprising even with a lowered bar. There are serious lessons in the results for both sides to mull.

Talking of the Congress first, it must realise there is no further dividend to be reaped by flogging GST and demonetisation. The villagers of Uttar Pradesh showed demonetisation was a non-issue for the poor. Urban Gujarat’s message to them is smart businessmen know how to adjust to a new normal and move on.

Brand Rahul must have a clear and consistent positioning. Stakeholders need to know what he stands for. Clever quips can tickle his Twitter fan club and catchy Gabbar Singh Tax dialogues may get him applause at rallies but is not enough to win elections. He needs to go beyond taunting Modi and spell out his own agenda.

It is time for the Gandhi dynasty to understand that the poor no longer look for dole or charity. They want empowerment. Promises of loan waivers, subsidised meals, free healthcare and other socialist-era sops have less appeal to the masses.

Religion and caste cards have to be played carefully after weighing the longer-term implications. One-night stands with shady bedfellows, based on iffy quid-pro-quos such as “quotas”, can return to bite you later. “Janeu Dhari” cannot be put on and taken off as per convenience. It is fine to visit temples but be mindful of the blessing you seek. A boon in Gujarat may turn out to be a bane in Karnataka.

“Mr Cool” does not impress the youth. Millennials are an impatient lot. They know the world will not wait for them. The young are seeking opportunities and not jobs. They will want to know your vision and inanities like how each time an Indian youth takes a ‘selfie’ someone in China gets a job will leave them cold. You need to speak to them in their own idioms.

The list for BJP is even longer. It has to realise that, the old record of what the Congress did or did not do in 70 years is sounding tiresome. People will now look at BJP’s own four-year report card.

Governance is key. Surely, Modi knows Gujarat was not well managed since he left. But people gave him the benefit of doubt having seen his track record in the previous three terms. At a subliminal level they still think of him as their godfather and their own man in Delhi.

But other states may not be so forgiving. Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and, certainly, Rajasthan will face huge anti-incumbency challenge. Having already expended much of his political capital on demonetisation and GST, it will be a Herculean task for Modi alone to carry these states across the finish line.

Modi’s own clean image has to be reflected by leaders down the line. The poor people in villages do not read Pew Surveys and World Bank reports. There is general consensus that corruption has gone up manifold since Modi left Gujarat. The situation in other BJP run states may not be any better.

Despite ad-nauseum talk about scams in the UPA regime, no big fish has yet been caught in the net. Discredited politicians, their cronies and family members still strut around freely with cock a snook attitude, often spewing venom at the Modi sarkar. This will hurt credibility of the government about its seriousness to act against the corrupt.

Implementation is as important as intent. The Modi government has to get a better handle on bureaucracy. The proverb goes, once bitten twice shy. The public has already been twice bitten: First during demonetisation and next over GST. Another roll-out fiasco or ham-handed execution can be seriously career limiting.

By all accounts, there is a lot of good work happening around the “JAM” trinity: Jan Dhan, Aadhaar and Mobile. Direct Benefit Transfer and schemes like Ujala, Ujjwala, Crop, Health and Life Insurance act as multipliers. But, like justice, welfare has to be seen and felt as much as much as it is done. For that, ensuring last mile delivery is crucial, which again goes back to governance and administration.

There is a perception that a section of the bureaucracy are still hedging their bets against Modi, hoping he will not get a second term and are, therefore, not fully aligning with him. Whether the Gujarat verdict will further embolden them to stay aloof one does not know. This is one of the biggest challenge before Modi, and for which, he will have to bring to the fore his legendary CEO skills that made him successful in Gujarat.

Victory is as good a time, if not better than defeat, for introspection. While BJP may be left with a bittersweet taste in the mouth, Congress had a chance to savour both the mithai and farsan of Gujarat. So, both could do with some honest postprandial soul searching now.

Narendra Modi does not believe in taking holidays. But, for once, no one can grudge Rahul Gandhi a Christmas and New Year break should he decide to go on one. 2018 will be a year of hectic action for both.

Published Date: Dec 19, 2017 03:22 pm | Updated Date: Dec 19, 2017 03:33 pm

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