Cut & Thrust: SISYPHUS REDUX
From burning issues like growing unemployment to rising prices, from vigilantism leading to mob lynchings to acute rural distress, Rahul Gandhi seems to be mis-reading the tea leaves to focus on Rafale as an election issue. Does he have the intellectual heft and stamina to topple an indefatigable Narendra Modi

Back in 2009 when the Congress returned to power with 206 seats, many political pundits reckoned that Rahul Gandhi had left his imprimatur on the hustings with his party bagging 21 seats in UP. It was considered a seminal moment in Indian polity for the Prince who had assiduously wooed the UP electorate appeared ready for his coronation. Left leaning liberal journos read the verdict with great optimism that the GOP and its dynastic succession plan was in safe hands. Over the last 10 years since, this has now been dismissed as malarkey. The optimism has become a burden, often leading to deep anger and resentment, for many think that he has no skin in the game. The underlying credo now being that he is the Prince who ran away from his coronation. As I write this, a resurgent crude oil overseas has meant the local pump prices are once again spiking. Simple things like a loaf of bread or peas (mattar) are more expensive than ever. And yet, there is no organised protest on the streets. This may be dismaying, for elections in India have been won and lost on the price of onions. All is not kosher with our economy as the rupee is being buffeted, feeling the deleterious impact of a double whammy of dollar capital outflows and an incessant rise in crude. Bullion is once again safe haven among asset classes as the current account deficit widens with the oil import bill soaring. Inflation, which mercifully has remained in check, has also begun to inch higher with elevated crude prices and a hike in MSP yet to be factored in.

MISPLACED PRIORITIES

Despite this grim scenario with people paying stratospheric amounts for petro products, there is no kerfuffle, in fact not a peep on the streets. Life goes on as usual. The principal opposition party instead is busy flying a plane, obsessing over something that is yet to arrive in India. Misplaced priorities or deliberate strategic intent is something that will be known only after the 2019 general elections. Deep down within the BJP apparatus, there are derisive whispers that Rahul is RaFail, a pun on the fighter jet Rafale with which he is busy attacking and targeting the PM with. Helped by leaks emanating from France which  come with unerring regularity and uncanny timing, I don’t think the common man is impressed with this strategic imperative. He would rather have his affiliated political party make a shindig over rising prices or farm distress or lack of employment opportunities or Dalit bashing or Islamophobia and Muslim bashing. Unfortunately, there is only quietude greeting us on these issues as majoritarianism grabs mind space. Moreover, if he is a student of history, he may remember that his father Rajiv Gandhi was tormented with calls of Gali Gali Mein Shor Hai, Rajiv Gandhi Chor Hai over Bofors. His own Cabinet minister V P Singh targeted him over corruption charges and yet in a bruising election of 1989, the Congress managed to get 197 seats while the National Front led by Singh, a wide variety of heavy hitting regional satraps, could only cobble up 143. Ironically, in a unique experiment with truth, the Indian Left and Right supported a Centrist V P Singh from outside to form a minority government which was then brought down over BJP leader L K Advani’s arrest over his Rath Yatra.Rahul Gandhi has repeatedly frittered away positions of strength with peculiar behaviour. Bofors saw much muck being raked up, but there was never any substantiated charge which stuck.

GRANDSTANDING

After grandstanding in Parliament with his most aggressive speech ever where he targeted the PM, he resorted to hug and wink politics and looked like a juvenile schoolboy. Failing to capitalise meaningfully on social equity issues after raising Cain on them has been his biggest bugbear. Bhatta Parsaul was a dynamic moment in his realpolitik lifespan, but he squandered away an opportunity of a life time. In the dust bowls of these Greater Noida towns, Rahul Gandhi cut his teeth challenging the Behenji Mayawati government at the peak of the violent anti-land acquisition protests in 2011. Riding pillion on a motorcycle, he sneaked into Bhatta Parsaul incognito on May 10, 2011 and was later arrested. He anguished over Dalit killings which turned out to be cow dung subsequently, losing face. His biggest inability has been the lack of administrative acumen on his CV, he could have used UPA 2 to take up a Cabinet position and understand the mechanics of government and policy play. He failed to do this, even as his political rival in UP — Akhilesh Yadav — became CM in 2012. That Yadav was hamstrung with four uncles and other assorted family members is another story. The bottom line is that Yadav remained CM for five tumultuous years and fought his father and Machiavellian Shivpal Yadav in a replay of Mahabharata, replete with all its grandeur and conspiracy. Gandhi’s experiments in Indian Youth Congress have misfired, even as party president, he has not put together his own Dream Team, it is a curious mix of old and new. What is perplexing though is the hawai jahaz stratagem which has confounded the hoi polloi. Why go for broke when there is a whole catalogue of weighty and pithy issues dominating the political discourse. As the president of the Congress party it is incumbent on him to be at the vanguard of issues of import, the ones that determine the daily lives of people. Mandsaur could have been a rallying point in MP, not once but twice, he has overlooked a gift horse in the mouth. Innumerable opportunities on Dalit/Muslim mob lynchings have been thrown away recklessly. These social equity issues connect with the electorate, but they have gone abegging. Against this he has peaked too early in both Gujarat and Karnataka, where the PM has blitzed the opposition with concentrated bombardment in the last week or so. He took a huge gamble bordering on risk in the Chief Justice Dipak Mishra’s impeachment movement , instead he could have targeted the government on Aadhaar and how it was becoming an instrumentality in a surveillance state. The list is long and endless. But like Yuvraj Singh, Suresh Raina and Rohit Sharma, to use a cricket analogy in Test cricket, he keeps getting opportunities.

RURAL DISTRESS

Farm distress and pricing power for crops are two consequential issues that have remained steadfast over the last three and a half years. Mandsaur was the epicentre of the farm revolt as middle India’s kisans gathered in large numbers from  various contiguous areas to rail against government policies. After the usual lightning strike patented by him on the British special forces SAS stylebook where the best trained teams go behind enemy lines and strike, Rahul Gandhi chooses to make a statement and then loses interest. From Bhatta Parsaul to Mandsaur, Rahul Gandhi’s playbook is stocked with guerrilla tactics used by special forces to bushwhack the enemy, but this requires closure with purposeful planning. Searching for his Belchi moment, which continues to elude him, he should learn from his grandmother, the incomparable Mrs Indira Gandhi. Media reported how in August 1977, as many 11 landless Dalits were burnt alive in Belchi village of Raghopur district in Bihar. It was Bihar’s first caste carnage post-Emergency. Former PM Indira Gandhi visited the village, riding an elephant, since it was the only option to get past waist deep water and slushy roads. Her gesture lifted hopes of the Congress. Unfortunately his SAS strikes resemble photo ops and nothing beyond that. In October, 2015, he visited a Haryana village where a Dalit family had been burnt alive and lost his temper when quizzed by the media on whether it was merely a photo op? “Why is it a photo opportunity? People are dying left, right and centre in this country, what do you mean by photo op? I will visit again and again.” A qu­ick temper is another of his problems.

SAS STRIKES

Instances of such strikes are commonplace in the Raga playbook. Media reported last year — after the horrific tragedy in the hospital of the Baba Raghav Das Medical College in Gorakhpur, the Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, visited the city. The Adityanath administration’s culpability in the deaths of so many babies and young children had placed it on the backfoot. Here was a chance for an ambitious, energetic, politician to focus attention on the failures of the state government. Such a campaign would have had countrywide resonance. For Uttar Pradesh is India’s largest state. And it happens to be Rahul Gandhi’s home state as well. Yet, he spent merely a few hours in Gorakhpur and UP before returning to Delhi. Shortly thereafter he proceeded to Europe... The behaviour was in character. Back in June, five farmers were killed by the police in Madhya Pradesh. They had been part of a protest demanding loan waivers and better prices for farm produce. The agrarian sector was in deep crisis, partly or largely because of government policy. As Aman Sethi and Punya Priya Mitra wrote of the Mandsaur agitation, “the policy’s effects are visible: demonetisation has disrupted every aspect of the rural economy — land markets, credit networks, procurement, and crop prices”. Notebandi was a policy that was entirely the making of the prime minister, Narendra Modi. And, as the tragedy in Mandsaur showed, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government had not handled its fallout adequately. Here, again, was a chance to campaign in a sustained fashion and put the state and Union governments on the mat. What did Rahul Gandhi do? He visited Mandsaur for a few hours, came back to Delhi, and flew away to Europe.

CUT THE UMBILICAL CORD

When he was finally appointed party president, it was believed that he had cut the umbilical cord with the GOP’s old guard, one thought for starters he would reinstate the Congress value system based on egalitarianism. Far from that, one has not seen a single realpolitik manoeuvre on his part. Hamstrung as he was by the presence of elders, he has not really consigned them to the rubbish heap of history. Nor has he empowered the so called young turks, his apparatchik peers in the party who have been waiting to come to the forefront of the neo Congress fold for a decade now. Symbolism and imagery are part of a politician's construct, but as the face of the national opposition to PM Modi, he has to do more. He has to be grounded and rooted in the hurly burly of daily politics, he has to show more intent. He cannot up and leave whenever he wants to. Politics is a 24x7 job, is he really cut out for it? His McKinsey playlist more often than not is like a fiery Michael Holding bouncer, it transmits overhead only, failing the grey matter of the common people. In many ways, he must be one of the most stressed human beings in India for before every election, the clamour goes up - Now! Gujarat and Karnataka are two recent instances. The 2012 UP assembly election was viewed as an epic, it had thundering hooves, chariots, and stopped short of being called Ben-Hur. The result was a cataclysmic setback for Rahul Gandhi. Like Sisyphus, he continues to roll the boulder up the slope (a legendary king of Corinth condemned eternally to repeatedly roll a heavy rock up a hill in Hades only to have it roll down again as it nears the top. His punishment was to endure an eternity of hopeless struggle.)

An inflection point in recent Congress history was the 2009 election where it ended up with a gain of 61 over its 2004 winning number. It made them arrogant, complacent, indulging in self open and naked aggrandisement, becoming masters in the art of loot and scoot. Congress under Rahul Gandhi obsessed with a hawai jahaz has to realise that it has to structure alliances by working around football field sized egos of regional chieftains to stay in the hunt for 2019. On its own, it will at best manage anything between 90 to 100 seats. His people and alliance partner management remains suspect. Behenji has flown the coop, Aklhilesh has lost patience and without a structured Mahagathbandhan which includes these two along with Lalu Yadav, Mamata Banerjee and Chandrababu Naidu, the art of war will turn into fog of war in 2019. GOP has to recalibarate its strategy by looking at people issues, something that Sonia Gandhi did so well by bringing in a farm loan waiver, creating a safety net with MNREGA, alleviating the woes of agriculturists by invoking the Land Acquisition Bill with its accompaniments of Relief and Rehabilitation (that it will deindustrialise India is another matter). She had a plan and a people connect. This is Rahul's biggest failing, a short attention span, driven as he by his coterie of advisers. Pursue the quarry relentlessly, stay and stick with an idea, show that you mean business and that you are seriously invested in politics. For good. This is only way, Rahul Gandhi will be taken seriously.

BIPOLARITY

Bipolarity of opinion and pluralism are the lifeblood of any functioning democracy, more so in the Indian context where a credible opposition and sagacious leader  at its hem are vital. Rahul Gandhi cannot fail this mandate anymore given the number of opportunities he has had, it is time that he displays adequate intellectual heft and a calm demeanour to lead the GOP out of this morass of utter mediocrity that it finds itself in.

Equally it is said that fear is deadly and panic is healthy. They are two separate emotions.The difference between panic and anxiety is subtle. The object of the fear is often difficult to identify in a state of anxiety. The medical profession considers that panic is a heightened form of anxiety. Panic attacks are usually accompanied by physical and neurological signs. It is odd that after over a decade in active politics, Rahul Gandhi, who comes across as someone who is sincere, has not found his metier. A bon vivant dilettante type of outlook will not cut much ice in the harsh world of Indian politics. There is something restless about him, his ideas also seem utopian at times and he has a hair trigger fuse. In politics you need to be grounded and calm and not fly off the handle at the slightest provocation.

In a new radicalised India, soft Hindutva has almost overnight acquired hot button status, courtesy Rahul Gandhi’s temple run in Gujarat, Karnataka and now several other poll bound states. In the run up to 2019, Hindutva has a new sheen, hue and connotation. Leading to increasing ghettoisation of the minority community. The politics of appeasement is thus giving way to marginalisation instead of greater inclusiveness. India 2018 stands on the cusp of a new age, discarding the age of identity politics. A fork has come on the road where miasma and prevarications have been junked, it is a strategic shift when the GOP decides to accept what was thought to be politically incorrect, for there is a fine line between calculation and candor. The short path between the two is strewn with deceit. For when you buy into a delusion, then you end up living a lie. The new India appears to have chosen its path, it walks the path of Hindu majoritarianism. Once can argue offering the counterpoint that Muslim women voted in large numbers in UP 2017 because they were repressed and repelled due to triple Talaq and gave vent to their collective spleen by voting for the BJP. Agreed, but it still does not justify the quantum of the mandate secured by BJP. Is India then pursuing fossilised mores, taking the path to perdition, walking the talk of regression, retrogradation and ossified ideation? No, certainly not, this is merely an assertion of quiet Hindu nationalism and majoritarianism, breaking away from the decades old policy of pandering to minorityism. Of course there is always the lunatic fringe, the lumpen proletariat and the hot heads who use such an all encompassing environment for vigilantism, supported as they believe by the postulate of might is right.

But that is wrong.

@sandeep_bamzai

Columnist: 
Sandeep Bamzai