At times there’s more glory in defeat than in victory, and the results of the Gujarat elections demonstrate this. Congress may have lost, the BJP will form the government for the sixth successive time, but the real winner is Rahul Gandhi. He fought an honourable battle, which is something of a rarity in these devalued times, against a party which has made the gutter its own, and a media vying with each other in singing hosannas to the presiding deity. His was an impossible task, taking on the most efficient and unscrupulous election machine the country has ever seen, a Prime Minister who appears to have cast a spell over most Indians, a partisan Election Commission and unlimited money power. And this with a non-existent Congress apparatus, a party which had been out of power for 22 years!
Rahul Gandhi went to Gujarat as an underdog – the much reviled and lampooned poodle ranged against the powerful mastiff, scorned and reviled daily by the apoplectic sycophants of TIMES NOW, REPUBLIC and NEWS-X type of venom spouts. Not only did he lead from the front, it was almost a single-handed battle as very few other national level leaders of the Congress were around – whether by design or default, one will never know. For a person whose public speaking skills are limited, as is his knowledge of Hindi, he addressed more than 50 rallies over six weeks and by the end had matured into an accomplished word spinner. The style, manner and substance of his public interactions could not have been more different from that of Mr. Modi.
Whereas the Prime Minister was his usual haughty, distant, table-thumping, talking-down self, Mr. Gandhi came across as much more informal, relaxed, accessible, exuding an almost school-boy kind of openness and honesty. Where Mr. Modi came across as contrived and scripted, the Congress (then) Vice-President appeared to be much more spontaneous and natural. The former did not mingle with the crowds, no doubt befitting his SPG endowed aura, but the latter (also an SPG protectee) had no hesitation in doing so at every opportunity, even stopping at the odd wayside tea stall to have a cup and a gossip session with the locals. This contrast in demeanour and attitude could not have gone unnoticed by the people and the results show this.
The contrast between the two in the content and substance of their electioneering was even more stark. Mr. Modi stuck to his time tested formula of Hindutva, the Muslim card and the Pakistan bogey, playing the cliched poor chai wallah victim and personal attacks on the Gandhis – starting from Jawaharlal Nehru to Rahul (he has not yet picked on Mr. Vadra’s children but that is only a matter of time). The common thread uniting these sub-texts was a liberal dose of falsehood and innuendo. Development, economics and welfare were almost totally absent from his discourses – again, something that the electorate did not fail to notice. He stopped at nothing – he questioned Mr. Gandhi’s temple visits, his religion, and his pedigree; he dug out the four year old chai-walla jibe of Mani Shankar Aiyer, spicing it with the latest “neech” appellation to further buttress his humble credentials as against Rahul Gandhi’s privileged upbringing, forgetting that after 12 years as Chief Minister and 3 years as Prime Minister this plaint is wearing rather thin; setting the bar of decency at its lowest mark, he went on to accuse a former Prime Minister, a former Vice President and a former Army Chief (among a dozen or so of India’s most distinguished diplomats and journalists) of conspiring to remove him; he even hinted that Mr. Aiyar had issued a “supari” in Pakistan to get rid of him. As usual, he did all this with his customary mastery and the virtuoso performances must have got him the votes, but all this rabble rousing is becoming predictable; he needs to write a new script.
In refreshing contrast, and to the pleasant surprise of many, Mr. Gandhi came across as much more would-be statesman like. He publicly announced at the start that he would not repay Mr. Modi in the same demonetised coin, that he respected the office of the Prime Minister and would never use inappropriate words for Mr. Modi, that he would campaign with love in his heart, not hate; that (unlike the PM’s stated view of the Congress) he did not want a BJP mukt India for a strong Opposition was essential for a functioning democracy. He perhaps overdid the projection of his Hindu credentials, and failed to publicly condemn the horrific murder of a Muslim labourer in Rajasthan to avoid sullying these credentials, and this is something he needs to avoid in future – he should not try to win the Hindu vote by espousing the BJP’s ethos. He would do much better by emulating his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru. who, in the first election campaign after partition in 1951 when the wounds of the religious conflagration were still fresh, had the political courage and vision to proclaim his unambiguous article of faith at the Ramlila grounds in the following words: “If any person raises his hand to strike down another on the ground of religion, I shall fight him till the last breath of my life, both at the head of the government and from outside.” It is this kind of leadership we need in these critical times.
Contrary to the vacuous “Pappu” image of Rahul Gandhi created by the social media trolls, he showed remarkable ability in strategising vital alliances and weaving the noose of failed economic policies and development with which to choke the BJP’s narrative of specious claims. He appears to have correctly read the electorate’s pulse, a departure from previous elections. He increased his party’s seat tally by 19 ( 21, if one includes the two supported Independents), a 30% increase, and vote share by 5% – an astounding feat for a party which has lost just about every election since 2014. To put this in perspective, one should recollect that in the Parliamentary elections of 2014 the BJP had won in 165 constituencies; Rahul Gandhi has brought this down to 99. Let us also not forget that Mr. Amit Shah had arrogantly announced that his party would win 150 seats! He also showed great courage in accepting the Presidentship of his party just two days before counting and declaration of results, signalling that he was not afraid of accepting responsibility if things went horribly wrong for his party. They didn’t, and in the process we have a new leader who has been through a trial by fire, has shed his “reluctant politician” image and can perhaps provide the counter balance to a powerful Prime Minister whose militaristic/corporate style needs to be tempered with compassion and tolerance. The BJP may not admit this in public, but Rahul Gandhi has given it plenty to chew over: if he can almost upstage the BJP in the Gir lion’s den, he can inflict much more damage in the states going to the polls next year – MP, Rajasthan, Chattisgarh. He has seized the initiative and the BJP will no longer be the sole driver of the electoral agenda. Pappu pass ho gaya !