Another sabbatical before a battle
Rahul Gandhi’s photos grace the shoulders of mainstream newspapers, but he is in Aspen, Colorado, apparently to attend a conference. BJP spokesman Sambit Patra made a valid point: Rahul has never attended such intellectually challenging seminars in India. Why such enthusiasm for an event at Aspen?
The election campaign in Bihar is in full swing. It must be a little embarrassing that his two rallies in Bihar made no impression whatsoever. Neither Nitish Kumar nor Lalu Prasad Yadav is comfortable with Rahul in their vicinity during a serious campaign. Far from winning votes, he loses votes for any combination he joins. That is the popular perception.
If he has chosen to disappear to keep his self-respect, well, this would be the first time he has demonstrated a thin skin. The Aspen conference, if there is one, may not be his only engagement. Congress president Sonia Gandhi will leave for New York to undergo medical checks. Why would the family, which values its privacy, congregate in New York at a time when the entire Indian establishment, media et al., is all over the city for the UN General Assembly? It would be malicious to suggest that the deadline for foreign asset disclosure is approaching.
The family is, by now, quite used to scraping the bottom of the electoral barrel. Another humiliation in Bihar (for the Congress) will not cause much loss of sleep for Sonia, Rahul or the coterie that survives by looking at them with cow-like eyes.
And yet the media will not give up on Rahul. There he is on front pages, his escapades, if not his politics, the subject of heated debate on prime time TV.
The media’s obsession with Rahul is clearly not because of some intrinsic worth it sees in him. It could be in pursuit of TRP ratings because in a feudal society a family name is a valuable asset even though the family is in a free fall currently.
In fact the Gandhi family, in abject decline, for past few years, was a powerful negative force which brought Narendra Modi to power in May 2014. The world’s most expensive media campaign would have remained unrewarded had Modi not harvested the voters’ total disgust with mother, son and Manmohan Singh.
It is possible that the formula which brought Modi to power in 2014 is being given another try in Bihar. The face of the BJP’s campaign in the state is Prime Minister Modi, who is unlikely to double up as chief minister in the event of a BJP victory.
Regional satraps Nitish and Lalu are the faces of the RJD-<g data-gr-id="71">JD-U</g> campaign. There is no regional BJP leader impressive enough to face the duo. Not fielding a chief ministerial candidate has the advantage of aspirants from diverse castes having their eyes riveted on the top job and therefore under some discipline.
There is a flaw in the game plan. An incumbent prime minister fighting state-level leaders does not look logical. Modi, the aspiring prime minister, riding the crest of an expensive campaign, battered an incumbent, Manmohan Singh, who looked helpless on a short leash held by Sonia Gandhi.
Within six months of coming to power, Modi was summarily trounced in Delhi. In other words, he did not ride to power on some extraordinary magnetism he possessed. He won because of the media hype plus the dismal trio in opposition. So, Modi needs a foil like Rahul against whom he looks like a winner. To that extent Rahul is a requirement of the BJP.
There is an overriding factor. The Indian ruling class, the corporates included, has nursed an unrealistic dream that India has somehow become a two party system.
Two parties carrying carbon copies of the same economic policy is for the corporates a dream scenario, accustomed as they have become to crony capitalism of differing shades. Rahul as Modi’s foil creates the illusion of an alternative. This is supposed to work as a deterrent for third and fourth fronts.
Sooner or later the fatigue factor will set in, and it would be extremely unfair to Rahul to not prepare him for that eventuality.
Nitish still looks like a political animal, at home in the rough and tumble of an electoral fray. But the rustic charm of Lalu has now begun to fall. The trend began with Raj Narain, who provided a homespun contrast to the polish of Hiren Mukherjee, Nath Pai, and H.V. Kamath. Lalu today begins to look like a continuation of sustained boorishness on both sides of the aisle.
Whenever I ask Congressmen why are they flogging an obstinate horse that will not budge, they answer listlessly: “For the time being there is no alternative to the Gandhi family.”
Talking of the Gandhi family, has anyone noticed the evolution of Rahul’s first cousin Varun Gandhi from an intemperate rabble rouser to a writer of thoughtful columns? Channels in search of TRPs may consider a Rahul-Varun debate.
(The author is a senior commentator on political and diplomatic affairs. Views expressed are personal)