Confusion And Rahul Gandhi: Gandhi scion’s UP campaign cannot resurrect party by harking back to older battles

He was photographed eating jalebis and samosas at a dusty roadside shop in Mau; ate roti-chokha for lunch with yet another Dalit couple, Rukmini Devi and Swaminath Ram, in the same district; and spouted a new poll slogan, “janta trast hai, Modiji mast hai” to follow up his trademark “suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe.

Rahul Gandhi seemed to be ticking off all the checkboxes in the standard PR playbook – even if the kisans took away some of the khats from his khat sabhas – travelling 824 km from Deoria to Ghazipur during the first leg of his UP kisan mahayatra this month. Yet, his latest roadshow raises more questions than answers.

In a month in which he flip-flopped his way to eventually throwing down the gauntlet to RSS on whether it backed Mahatma Gandhi’s killers or not, the big question is whether we are seeing the beginning of a sustainable political recasting of Rahul and a rekindled Congress? Or is this just a rehash of the same old template of speak-dash-disappear we have seen in the past – from Bhatta Parsaul to Niyamgiri?

It is an important question, not because it will have a substantial impact on the Uttar Pradesh election next year – a state where, after all, Congress had just 28 of 403 MLAs, only 11.65% vote-share and where its candidates in 2012 lost their deposits in as many as 240 seats – but because of its bearing on the larger leadership, succession and existential question marks around Congress and its post-2014 drift.

So, what does Rahul’s new turn in UP tell us? First, Congress’s UP messaging has left everyone, including many of its own workers, confused. UP, at last count, had the highest percentage of indebted farmer households in India and Rahul’s focus on them with the slogan of “karza maaf, bijli ka bill half, MSP ka karo hisaab” (waive loans, halve electricity bills, settle minimum support price) at a time of agrarian crisis is a calculated gambit. The problem is that while Rahul has been repeating this message ad nauseam in his khat sabhas it has gotten muddled and confused by his own photo ops elsewhere.

If farmers are the focus, then why suddenly choose to become the first in your family in two decades to go to Ayodhya for puja in the Hanumangarhi temple? Ayodhya is a totem pole in the iconography of Hindutva. A public visit there by a politician on election yatra goes beyond spiritual signalling alone. Except that it was followed up next day with lunch at the Arabia Riyazul Uloom Guraini Madarsa in Jaunpur and then a “Brahman Samaj pooja”. It begs the question: who exactly is the Congress targeting and what is its electoral aim in UP?
The confusion over its political positioning means that Congress should not be surprised by Hanumangarhi’s chief priest promptly announcing after Rahul left that he is a “good human being” but “no one was better than Akhilesh Yadav”. Congress’s old strategy of being all things to all people is redundant in a state like UP where it has long been a marginal player. This is why its political managers came up with idea of projecting a Brahmin face as its CM candidate, as a way of rebuilding its own caste base. Rahul, though, seems to be reading from a different, older song sheet.

Second, we have seen this Rahul script and media-focussed poverty tourism before. It didn’t turn crowds into votes in 2012 for Congress. It is unlikely to now. From the Vidarbha widow Kalavati Bandurkar, who he visited in 2008 and talked about in Parliament, to his interventions in the 2011 Bhatta Parsaul protests over land acquisition, Rahul has a penchant for raising the plight of the downtrodden but questions over his consistency and inability to follow up remain.

Third, apart from generous doses of Modi-bashing in UP and promising a sarkar of the poor and farmers, the Gandhi scion is yet to spell out clear solutions for what he will do for the poor beyond expressing solidarity with them and complaining about poverty. Most farmers, for example, do not want their kids to remain farmers, as a 2013 CSDS survey found. While nobody likes crony capitalism, many rural folk may actually aspire to wear a “suit-boot”. What is Rahul’s message for aspirational India?

Fourth, Rahul has pinned his colours to the mast on one issue: an ideological war with RSS on Gandhiji’s murder. Even here though, Rahul first seemed to breathe defiance – appearing in person before a Bhiwandi local court in May 2015 where he talked of an “ideological battle” – before climbing down in the Bombay high court saying that he had never blamed RSS as an institution, only to revert again to an aggressive posture. He seemed to backtrack again in the Supreme Court when his lawyer argued that he had blamed a person associated with RSS, not the Sangh as a whole, before changing tack again and telling the apex court that he would “never withdraw” his word on RSS.

If Congress wants to take on RSS ideologically then appearing shifty hardly aspires confidence. At another level, the Gandhi and RSS case may evoke headlines but it is hardly a vote magnet.

The legal verdict on Gandhiji’s assassination was given seven decades ago, examined in detail by the Kapur Commission and the evidence has long been in the public domain. It may lend itself to drawing room chatter. But in a country where bijli, sadak, pani matter the most, harking back to older battles is hardly the template to revive a moribund Congress.

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