Much of the credit for the UPA’s election victory will flow to alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. And there’s every reason it should. The vote was in no small part a referendum on the alliance and government Mrs Gandhi and Dr Singh ran for the last five years. The credit, however, for the Congress party’s own surge must go in large part to Rahul Gandhi—it is very unusual for an incumbent (in government) party anywhere in the world, but particularly in India, to win around 40% more seats (from 145 to 200 plus) in a second consecutive election. When you consider the context which preceded in the year before this election—a period of soaring inflation, a major economic slowdown, rising unemployment, an audacious terror attack which exposed many flaws in our security apparatus—the Congress party’s electoral achievement is all the more remarkable.
If politics is about a vision for the future, then Rahul Gandhi gave a glimpse of his foresight. The Congress mandarins may have resigned themselves to the fate of a 150-seat party at best—that was their upper ceiling since 1996, and certainly a number sufficient to enable them to govern even if in a messy coalition—but Rahul saw that the long term future of the party as a truly national party lay in capturing at least 200 seats (already achieved) and then getting up to 272 on its own (no doubt the goal for 2014).
Rahul’s insistence on ridding theCongress of some troublesome and arrogant allies in the Hindi heartland may have seemed foolhardy to many, but in time, obviously well-spent in the small towns and rural areas of UP in particular, Rahul picked up the inclination of many voters to return to the Congress fold after years of SP, BSP and other small parochial parties’ domination. Remember also, that in contrast to the hubristic SP, RJD and LJP, who thought they could do without an alliance, Rahul showed a pretty level head and his talent for cutthroat politics—there was no insistence on going it alone in West Bengal or Tamil Nadu, two large states where the Congress doesn’t have a sufficiently strong base or appeal to go on its own. So, there was a careful calibration of strategy. All this smart strategising would not have been possible without jumping into the heat, dust and uncertainty of Indian mass politics, something which Rahul did and something a lot of drawing room politicians and armchair analysts do not do at all, often biting the dust as a result.
It’s not only the literal heat and dust that have moulded Rahul—the metaphorical heat and dust may have played a bigger role in shaping the politician he is today. Unlike his father, who inherited a party at its peak (400 plus seats), Rahul joined politics at a time when the party was its lowest (in 1999, it had won only just 114 seats). To many, that would seem like a distinct disadvantage but I would argue that this has turned out to be his biggest asset. Rajiv Gandhi was, after all, ultimately hobbled by his electoral strength—he could have afforded to fall out of touch and he did, only to be humbled after a five year term. In any case, the only way from 400 plus, is down. But for Rahul, it’s been a battle against the odds—something that had made things harder for him despite the Gandhi name, and something that will stand him in good stead over the long term. The best politicians are often born fighting long and uphill battles.
Rahul’s demeanour may not make him the most charismatic politician in India, but there is a thoughtfulness and aptitude that hides within. Many critics often take issue with his ability (note the perpetual questions over his academic credentials), but they are wrong. As someone, who followed (many years later) to read for the same degree as Rahul, in the same college & university as Rahul, (M.Phil Development Economics, Trinity College, Cambridge), your correspondent met many people who had taught and had known Rahul during his time at Cambridge. And everyone was unanimous in their praise for his academic ability (contrary to what some critics say, he not only completed his degree but got a very high grade), and his low-key demeanour, something which stood out when compared with other (more arrogant, more high profile) celebrity youngsters who also went to the prestigious university.
Just maybe, India is finally warming up to a different kind of politician, and Rahul Gandhi fits that mould. Tired of glib politicians, long on rhetoric and short on action, people are increasingly putting their weight behind relatively low profile figures like Manmohan Singh, Naveen Patnaik, Shivraj Chauhan and Raman Singh, to name a few who are at the least seen to be decent and sincere. Rahul Gandhi is candid enough to admit inherited privilege, without discounting the need for him to move beyond that and democratise the Congress party from its grassroots. He hasn’t shown any tendency to centralise the party in his own, or the Family’s , hands like his grandmother did—to the long term detriment of the Congress—many decades ago.
The voters may also be putting their weight behind a new kind of politics and governance, which Rahul Gandhi and his party, seem to have got a grip on. From all accounts Rahul Gandhi is personally committed to economic reform and liberalisation—India’s enterprising people cannot and should not be shackled by government control. Yet, there is a strong feeling that the poor and deprived cannot just be left behind and to their own non-existent devices, hence the focus on, and popularity of public spending programmes, be it NREG or the loan waiver. At the same, there is a continued aspiration for communal harmony and less jingoism, internally and externally. Add the demographic strength of the youth, and you can see why Rahul Gandhi will eventually ride past a lot of older politicians with perhaps similar ideological positions to the pinnacle of Indian politics.