Bihar polls will be a litmus test for Rahul
For all the energy that Rahul Gandhi has infused into the Congress, only an inveterate optimist will say that the latest phase in the party’s politics marks a turning point. For the Congress to show that it is on the comeback trail, it has to win a few elections. As of now, the party does not stand much of a chance. In the recently held municipal elections in West Bengal, for instance, the Congress showed no signs of emerging from the doldrums.
The next big test for the party will be in the Bihar assembly polls, slated to be held towards the end of the year. But the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) main opponent in the State will be the Janata Dal (United)-Rashtriya Janata Dal alliance, which is part of a larger union of political parties. Given Rahul’s penchant for taking it on alone, it is unlikely that the Congress will align with any party from the “parivar”. But, whether or not it does, few will expect the party to be a major player in the state. The Congress may continue to grab headlines with Rahul’s and Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s “fiery” speeches. The party, however, still remains electorally inconsequential. Such an outcome, some argue, is not only because Narendra Modi is adhering to his roadmap, but also that he is making a few course corrections as he goes along. One of these is to ask the Hindutva Gestapo to pipe down their reactionary rhetoric, which is why the earlier enthusiasm of the saffron brigade for “ghar wapsi” and “love jihad” campaigns has subsided. Nor has the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief, Mohan Bhagwat, reiterated his favourite theme of calling all Indians Hindus. Besides, the RSS has apparently accepted the government’s advice to shelve the Ram temple issue for the time being.
There is little chance, therefore, of an apocalyptic Godhra-like “moment” taking place, which the former Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar has been waiting for ever since Modi assumed power. Aiyar’s expectations of a communal conflagration were evidently based on the belief that Modi would not be able to control the hotheads in his party and the Sangh Parivar, if only because the prime minister himself shared their beliefs.
However, in this respect, Congress MP Shashi Tharoor appears to have read Modi’s mind better by noting that the transformation of the strong man from Gujarat from a “hate figure to an avatar of modernity and progress”. It is probably a vague realization on the Congress party’s part that Modi can no longer be judged in the context of the 2002 Gujarat riots. Rahul’s allegation that Modi is cahoots with industrialists to grab land from farmers is representative of this new found realization.
The importance of this shift of focus from communalism to what can be called a “secular” subject cannot be denied. To the Congress, Modi is no longer the “maut ka saudagar” or merchant of death, as Sonia Gandhi called him during the 2007 election campaign in Gujarat (though not in 2012), but a promoter of crony capitalism.
However, this change of perception can lead the Congress into a rough terrain because Rahul’s anti-industrial tirades can show up the party as anti-development and anti-reforms. It is possible that the Gandhi scion’s immaturity and inexperience in carrying out a sustained, coherent attack, which has probably made him, take up an extreme position. It is, however, doubtful whether his party will be pleased or, more importantly, whether the people, in general, will want the Congress to return to the pre-reforms phase of a licence-permit-control raj. Already, a spokesman associated with Rahul’s young brigade has said that the dauphin is not anti-industrial or anti-reforms.
The backpedalling is probably due to the realisation that the party cannot afford to alienate an influential sector if only because the party’s campaign funds may dry up. Besides, the private sector is no longer seen by the younger generation as an ogre. Instead, there is an eagerness among present-day politicians to attract private capital as Mamata Banerjee’s visit to Singapore to woo investors and the presence of Uttar Pradesh government officials at the last “Vibrant Gujarat” conclave showed. What may be worrisome for the Congress, however, is for how long Rahul will continue his present aggressive politicking even if it means switching from one subject to another: farmers one day, net neutrality on another and middle-class flat-owners on the third. For someone who had earlier taken only a sporadic interest in public causes, a sustained campaign based on serious homework will mean a dramatic change not only in working style, but also in demonstrating a grasp of the intricacies of the various problems that he wants to tackle. So far, however, Rahul’s education in such matters seem thoroughly incomplete.
On the agrarian question, for instance, he has displayed a one-track approach, which shows no understanding of the debilitating fragmentation of land holdings, which will affect the farmers if they are persuaded to hold on to their plots for generations.