Journalists travelling in the Hindi heartland of Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar this election season realise soon that it’s dumb to ask people who they consider prime minister Narendra Modi’s main challenger or alternative. A blank or mocking expression would invariably be the response. I decided to ignore vocal Modi supporters and re-frame my question: Between Mulayam Singh Yadav/ Mayawati and Rahul Gandhi, who would make a better PM? Between Lalu Prasad Yadav and Rahul Gandhi? Between Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Rahul Gandhi? Congressmen wouldn’t find the responses very flattering.
Many surveys commissioned by TV channels and publications earlier showed increasing popularity and acceptance of Rahul Gandhi as a prime ministerial candidate after Modi. Their sample sizes were bigger and the methodology more scientific than the random chats I have had with 200-odd people. But I am tempted to form my own conclusions.
There is a big crisis confronting the main opposition party: The credibility of its leader. That explains why the BJP has deployed its big guns, especially finance minister Arun Jaitley, to keep firing at Rahul Gandhi on a daily basis. The BJP must project him as Modi’s main challenger, however much the opposition party may wish it to be a battle of ideologies and not of personalities.
One can’t completely rule out a few surprises on 23 May when poll results are out, given how certain caste loyalties tend to dictate voters’ choices. But that would be no solace to the Congressmen. Rahul Gandhi is not a factor in this election. Voters have no love lost for him although Congress candidates work really hard to mobilise crowds for his public meetings. There was a sustained campaign for long to project him as ‘Pappu’ or someone who was naïve and stupid. It goes to his credit that he has managed to shed that image. But his politics still doesn’t inspire any confidence in the Hindi heartland.
In fact, those who were behind his projection as ‘Pappu’ have changed their tactic and are now attacking his politics. The latest among a lot that keeps popping up on WhatsApp is the picture of Rahul Gandhi wearing a ‘janeu’ and ‘tika’ on the forehead, with his eyes bristling. The image is captioned ‘Ichhadhaari Hindu’. The message wouldn’t be lost on those who have watched umpteen Hindi movies with characters transforming from snakes into humans and vice versa.
Not a contender
So, where did Rahul Gandhi go wrong? No one can dispute his hard work. He has been putting in more hours in campaigning than any of his party colleagues. Among all opposition leaders, he has been the most trenchant critic of PM Modi and has cornered the NDA government on many issues — be it unemployment, demonetisation or defence deals. He has also shown the guts to try to rid the Congress of its alleged anti-Hindu tag, drawing the ire of the so-called secular brigade.
But if he is still not seen as a contender for prime ministership, some of it may be attributed to the fact that his transition from a supposedly clueless young man into a serious politician has not sunk in fully in the public consciousness. A lot of it, however, has to do with his inconsistency. He raises an issue, often dramatically, only to forget about it soon. His interventions to stall Vedanta project in Odisha’s Niyamgiri Hills and joining farmers’ cause in UP’s Bhatta Parsaul are only a few of numerous such instances.
Pulse of the people
Where the Congress has lost the plot in this election is in its failure to read the pulse of the people. Take the case of Rafale fighter jet deal. Gandhi has been virtually obsessed with this issue, going hammer and tongs against PM Modi for the alleged scam in it. On the ground, though, nobody is bothered about that so-called scam. The allegation of corruption doesn’t stick to Modi, with the voters saying, “Look, who is talking”. It’s anyway too much to expect people to go into the intricacies of a defence deal because a Congress leader, of all the people, says so. They don’t buy his contention that Modi is working for “a few poonjipatis”.
The Congress has been mocking Modi’s love for acronyms but chose to come up with one—NYAY or Nyuntam Aay Yojana—to showcase its biggest poll promise of minimum guaranteed income of Rs 6,000 a month. Gandhi promises to fight for NYAY of the voters but they are blissfully unaware of it. Joblessness is a serious concern on the ground and so is farm distress. But people still trust Modi, and not the Congress, to address it.
In fact, Rahul Gandhi may have reasons to grudge the liberal intelligentsia in general and the comrades in his own team. They clapped when he went to Jawaharlal Nehru University to protest the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar. They nodded in approval when he made stirring speeches against ‘attacks’ on ‘institutions’ and the Constitution of India. They applauded when he spoke about the ‘idea of India’. And they cheered every time he called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh communal.
Rahul Gandhi saw in their reaction an indication of a mass upheaval against Modi and his government. He was making headlines in newspapers and prime time news; it was heady. If only it were true! The issues Rahul Gandhi raised rang no bells among those who vote. To them, they were abstract subjects having no bearing on their day-to-day lives.
Congressmen must be wondering how many more elections it would take for their leader to understand the pulse of the people and speak their language. The crisis they are staring at doesn’t look like it’s getting over anytime soon.