Historian Ramachandra Guha’s claim that the Gandhi family is forcing people to vote for Narendra Modi is tempting but utterly misconceived. It offers a simplistic solution out of the quagmire that Indian liberalism finds itself in: remove the Gandhis and the idea of India will magically spring back to life.
Guha has chastised Kerala voters for “handing over the advantage to Narendra Modi”. Wrong diagnosis, wrong solution. Modi won because Indian society has changed, not because of Rahul Gandhi.
The ideological factor
Guha’s superficial reading is incorrect because of three reasons. First, it obscures the fundamental ideological shift that Indian politics has been undergoing in the last three decades, of which Modi is only the culmination. Political scientist Suhas Palshikar has argued that the BJP has taken over the “middle ground of competitive politics” with a “rebuilding of majoritarian politics” starting with the Ram Janmabhoomi movement.
Political scientists Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma also concluded that “the resounding electoral success of the BJP in 2019… is the result of an ideological [and structural] shift in Indian politics.”
Chhibber and Verma deduce from their empirical study of voter responses that the main factor behind the Congress’ weakness is the dissonance between the ideology of the party and the average voter’s; it’s not the leadership.
Even if the Congress were to choose a new leader, it would suffer from the same encumbering ideology that has a much weaker appeal. It is about the public and the political culture, not the Gandhis. The former will take a long time to fix. Hoping Gandhis’ exit will reverse long-term socio-political shifts is naive.
If not Gandhis, who?
Second, this argument assumes that the Congress has a ready line of nationally popular leaders waiting to take the mantle. A quick glance at the alternative options should disabuse you of any such notion. Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia are dynasts themselves, so they obviously don’t fit the bill. Moreover, Scindia (like Rahul Gandhi) lost his own family seat of Guna, Madhya Pradesh, in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. Amarinder Singh, often projected on social media as an alternative, is not popular outside his home state of Punjab. Or for that matter, Pilot outside Rajasthan. P. Chidambaram is ensnared in a corruption scandal. Shashi Tharoor is good for social media and college campuses, but will be laughably ill-equipped to challenge Modi in the heartland states. In fact, it is hard to recall the Congress ever deploying him to campaign anywhere outside Kerala.
One might argue that this dearth of leaders is the fault of the Gandhis for not grooming strong leaders and building their national profiles out of insecurity. One might also argue that state leaders can quickly transform into national leaders if given the right opportunity. They might cite the journey of Narendra Modi from the chief minister of Gujarat in 2012 to becoming by far the most popular leader in India within two years.
But Modi by 2012 had built an unmistakable brand across urban India, aided by clever marketing (such as around ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ summits) and a commanding social media presence. Even then, he was probably the politician with the most appeal (Manmohan Singh had lost his shine) among middle-class Indians who were the first to embrace him. They saw in Modi an effective, no-nonsense (even authoritarian) administrator, who had developed Gujarat and will be the perfect antidote to the weak Manmohan Singh. His dramatic record of anti-Muslim prejudice found him frenzied adulation among the BJP base, and quieter approval across many middle-class living rooms.
In comparison, what is the brand of Scindia, Pilot, Amarinder Singh or Tharoor? What are their core achievements or alluring life story that will potentially resonate across India?
Importance of Gandhis
Third, if the problem was just Rahul Gandhi, why did the powerful mahagathbandhan in Uttar Pradesh, the RJD in Bihar and the AAP in Delhi roll over so easily? Could it be because there are structural factors, like the emergence of a new middle-class, rapid penetration of social media (especially WhatsApp), the domination of the BJP over the electronic media, and, especially, the widespread adoption of a politically majoritarian ideology among the Other Backward Classes (OBCs). In the national election, the ideology of no opposition party could remotely compare in popular appeal to the heady mix of the BJP’s Hindutva and nationalism.
The opposition will not find a leader to challenge Modi in the game of presidential-style popularity contests, at least not in the foreseeable future. The opposition must therefore play a different game, in which it can win. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was indisputably the tallest leader in 2004, yet he lost the elections because the opposition played to its strengths, stitching up a broad coalition around bread and butter issues. For the last two years, the BJP has performed poorly in state elections because these have largely been about material issues, not about Narendra Modi and the Hindutva-imbued nationalism that he embodies.
The Gandhis are still important to the Congress, primarily because they manage disputes between various factions and keep the party together. Without them, the party might risk splintering. Also, for those invested in a secular idea of India, the Gandhis remain the best bet that the Congress will remain tethered to its founding ideals and not sway in the current of public opinion. The Congress’ stand on Kashmir and triple talaq, for instance, would likely have been different under an alternative leadership.
Whether Rahul Gandhi continues in his current role as a Davis Cup-style non-playing captain or assumes a more formal leadership role in the near future, the key for the Congress is to de-emphasise leadership (as it has been doing for the past few months).
At the end of the day, no one forces people to vote for Pragya Thakur, Sakshi Maharaj or Giriraj Singh. Intellectuals like Ramachandra Guha lambasting Rahul Gandhi are welcome to do so, provided they criticise him for his own political failings, and not use him as an excuse for the moral failings of Indian society.
The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.