Since 2010, in numerous TV shows and journalistic pieces, we have seen and read about Rahul Gandhi (RG) coming of age. These articles or debates weren’t particularly because of RG’s spectacular achievements, but more so because of media’s utopian fantasies of their poster boy. Now once again, after his 56-day sabbatical, the mainstream media has opened its arms to welcome him – some journalists, as dearly as if he had returned from a 14-year forest sojourn.
On his return, Rahul Gandhi made a speech in Parliament on the Land Acquisition Bill, and called the Modi government a suit-boot ki sarkar while sarcastically commenting on the 45 days the PM had spent in other countries at work. That was quite ironical and fairly courageous for a man who had just returned from Bangkok after a very long personal trip. But the media conveniently sidelined that, and rejoiced in the fact that Rahul Gandhi spoke in Parliament! It was after all rarer than even a blue moon which occurs every 2.5 -3 years, considering zero questions by RG during 5 years of UPA-II, less than 50% attendance including absenteeism during the Nirbhaya case, a Spain trip during Uttarakhand floods, and a 56-day sabbatical during the Budget session of the current Parliament. He was placed 17th from bottom amongst all 543 MPs based on his performance in the fifteenth Lok Sabha by the independent NGO Association of Democratic Reforms (ADR). But as RG spoke in Parliament this time, the media once again hastily lapped up the opportunity to announce the arrival of RG 2.0
Having said that, one must concede that this time Rahul Gandhi looks marginally improved than in the last 3 years where he almost seemed to have abdicated politics after Congress’ massive drubbing in the 2012 UP assembly elections. From being visibly reluctant to taking lead for his party, RG seems more mentally prepared this time to take charge. It seems that he has come to terms with the realization that he can’t delay his ascension any further for the survival of the Congress party. But, it is too soon to say if he has taken up this leadership role for good. He has shown glimpses of being actively interested in politics in the past too only to have later relapsed into his cocoon under the protection of the President of his party, which happens to be his mother, supported by her umpteen sycophants.
So, while even after a year of Modi government, we are correctly adopting a wait and watch strategy towards it, our approach can’t be any different after just three speeches of Mr. Gandhi in Parliament especially after considering his dismal track record as an MP. Hence, calling him RG 1.5 is more apt than calling him RG 2.0. If Rahul Gandhi does indeed perform well, he has a chance to evolve into RG 2.0; while if he relapses, we will be back to RG 1.0 again!
But as RG 1.5 attempts to regain lost glory, his political manoeuvres seem to be rather defeating self-goals for the Congress. To counter the pro-development narrative of the Modi Sarkar, Rahul Gandhi has taken upon himself to counter it through populist appeals, and the ‘Suit-Boot’ jibes. He went on to making frivolous statements in the Parliament like ‘The government is selling the internet to the corporate’ just to drive the message that he is the common man’s saviour. Congress even stalled the passage of Good and Services Tax (GST) Bill by demanding that it be moved to a standing committee. To counter the economic right, RG 1.5 has chosen to move away from the Congress’ left-of-centre stand and to adopt a far more left-leaning positioning.
Thus in economic terms, India for the first time seems to be moving away from the left-of-centre versus right-of centre politics to a more extreme left-versus-right politics. As BJP is pushing itself further to the right with some non-populist measures like Land Acquisition Bill (LAB), the Congress scion seems to be moving further left to rally people against these measures. In the long run, Rahul Gandhi’s shift towards the left economic zone will eventually harm the Congress for two major reasons: its attempt to swim against the national tide on growth, and its movement into an already intense competitive position where it will ideologically be jostling for space with most other political outfits of the country. Let us look into both these causes in detail:
A. Moving against the tide
India, over the past few centuries, has witnessed large scale poverty along with exploitation of the landless and of poor farmers by the rich zamindars and feudal lords. Hence, the rise of a strong right-wing economic force has been nearly impossible, and our politics has always revolved around the centre and centre-left. The left, which is focussed on highlighting the problems of the weak and the marginalized, has been successful in attracting the middle class with its emotional rhetoric. Rahul Gandhi’s efforts are banking on this emotional appeal against the “rich, corrupt and powerful” system – a rhetoric which recently bore fruits in case of Aam Aadmi Party’s victory in Delhi, and Mamata’s defeat of the Left in West Bengal.
Importantly though, the national scenario is now slowly changing. In a more global environment, citizens are comparing themselves with those in other developed nations. This comparison along with India’s reminiscence of its “golden bird” history is fuelling growth aspirations of the citizenry. Additionally, the masses seem disillusioned with the failed politics of the left, which gets more evident as we turn further left towards states like West Bengal and Kerala.
The left has constantly fallen short of achieving the growth aspirations of the middle class. So while the middle class may get carried away temporarily by rhetoric guised under emotive causes like “farmer welfare”, they will eventually vote on the basis of how they perceive development in the country, and will remain vote-banks of right-wing parties in the long run.
So while RG 1.5 may be attracting the middle class with his emotional stand on LAB, Congress’ hold amongst the middle class will reduce if the development on ground becomes visible after the passage of LAB in Parliament. The Congress, while retaining its original constituency amongst the extremely poor sections of society, might end up losing its vote share in the growing middle class segment, and among those sections of society which are gradually moving out of poverty.
B. Moving into a highly competitive zone
As BJP is moving towards the right, it is moving into a position relatively unoccupied on the Indian political spectrum. On the other hand, the movement of the Congress to the left will make it enter the intensely competitive zone cluttered by the left-wing and regional parties of the country.
No doubt there is space in India for the political left as proved by Kejriwal recently and many other parties in the past but this space is highly cluttered. In the above infographic, one can see how most of the political outfits in India lie left of the spectrum and are targeting the same voter base. Hence, the average pie for each party will shrink if Congress moves further to the left. This can be countered if the Congress enters into an alliance with some of the strong regional forces, but that might harm its ambition to regain the status of a party pervasive throughout the country.
So as Rahul Gandhi shifts further left, it will bring Congress into direct competition with veterans who already play in that zone. To win here, Rahul Gandhi would need to evolve himself very rapidly to RG 2.0 and to beat these experts at their own game. In case he fails, he would see a scenario like the one in Delhi where though both BJP and Congress were left with a dismal tally in the Vidhan Sabha, BJP retained its vote share from the last assembly election, while Congress was completely whitewashed. Reviving from the defeat in the next assembly election on an anti-incumbency platform might be easier for BJP, but for the Congress, with less than 10% vote share, revival is nowhere near the visible horizon.
The Alternative for RG
In such a situation where moving to the economic left seems like a nightmare, but the urgency of countering the right-of-centre BJP cannot be denied, what alternative is RG left with? Undoubtedly, to counter BJP, Rahul will need to continue on the left side of the spectrum. Also in a country of economic imbalances like India, there is a need for at least one major political outfit to be on the left, when one is moving towards the right. Having said that, the ideal position for Congress is to continue with its current one: left-of-centre. To counter BJP’s move to the right does not imply that Congress needs to move further to the left. Moving left might give certain immediate benefits like public sympathy but will harm Congress in the long run. On the other hand, its left-of-centre position could become a showcase of a balance between growth and equity.
Holding onto that position implies that Congress would need to support bills in favour of overall growth of the country instead of opposing the government tooth-and-nail on every proposal of theirs. This will not cost the Congress politically, but will yield benefits. The Congress can make a PR example, with the help of many more-than-willing journalists, of how they are a more responsible opposition than the BJP. They can showcase their issue-based support to BJP, especially on matters like the Goods and Services Tax (GST) which are investment-friendly. It is time that Congress positions itself as a responsible opposition which believes in equitable progress, rather than being perceived as an anti-progress party.
In the way Congress is being led by RG currently, it will not take a lot of time for the masses to be able to see through the hollow rhetoric of the Congress Vice-President. Also, after 60 years of virtually being the system, it won’t be easy to pull off a Kejriwal against the “rich, powerful, and corrupt” system. Plus, it will be another uphill task for RG to counter the regional political giants on left of the economic spectrum. Thus, by moving to the economic left, Rahul Gandhi is venturing into very risky territory. If he relapses to RG 1.0 or even continues as RG 1.5 without evolving further rapidly, the Congress might be headed for total disaster in the years to come!