2014: Year of Rahul?

As expected the Independence Day weekend came accompanied by a flurry of opinion polls, and a quantitative and qualitative tracking of the national mood and the issues on the top of India’s mind. Broadly, commentators and pollsters alike gave the government something to grin about. They indicated the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government hadn’t lost ground dramatically from the time of the Lok Sabha verdict of May 2009. This was despite the lacklustre 15 months in office.
Such estimations are in line with political assessments in New Delhi. More than the government’s strength, they speak for the Opposition’s weakness. The second UPA administration’s record has been patchy and wishy-washy. Yet, it has been helped by the fact that the National Democratic Alliance is still finding its feet. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) performance in Parliament has been purposefully compared to the previous five years, but it is too early to suggest this will have an impact on popular voting intentions.
Curiously, there was one question in the recent India Today magazine’s opinion poll that evoked a vastly different response from previous occasions. Asked about the best choice for Prime Minister, 29 per cent opted for Rahul Gandhi, 16 per cent for Atal Behari Vajpayee, 13 per cent for Sonia Gandhi and only one per cent for Manmohan Singh. In a similar poll in March 2009, Mr Gandhi had found eight per cent support and Dr Singh had topped the list with 18 per cent.
The responses to the “Who should be Prime Minister?” question are suggestive. They represent a fractured, coalitional polity — which is why no single individual scores a very high, say, 50 per cent. They reflect a sense of disquiet with the current administration and the search for a strong, more decisive alternative. The urging for a moderate, mainstream non-Congress option is undeniable: note Mr Vajpayee’s strong numbers despite his retirement from politics. Finally, they articulate a growing momentum for change, which is the wave (or wavelet) Mr Gandhi hopes to ride.
Unlike, for instance, Mr Vajpayee and L.K. Advani in the BJP, there is no duality between Mrs Sonia Gandhi and Mr Rahul Gandhi, at least not one that is politically obvious. As such, a fair section of Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s support is likely to be smoothly transferable to her son. This makes his numbers even more formidable, at least on paper.
So is Mr Gandhi a shoo-in for 2014? Predictions are pointless and one can only speculate on his calculations and challenges. But there are three to reckon with.
First, the Congress seems to be reconciled to a below-par legacy of the UPA II government. By presenting Mr Gandhi as the alternative, it aims to translate straightforward anti-incumbency into a sense of fatigue with the entire existing political class. If the Opposition cannot come up with a charismatic figure with an all-India appeal or at least the political capacity to steer a rainbow coalition, and if the Congress’ rivals cannot find a hard issue on which to nail the top leadership of the party, then the only new factor in 2014 could be, well, Mr Gandhi’s “newness”.
Second, how “new” would Mr Gandhi really be in 2014? He would have been an MP for a decade. It wouldn’t be easy for him to delink himself from the perceived shortcomings of 10 years of Congress rule. Neither would he be an outsider — in the manner of US President Barack Obama and the Democrats. He would be very much a party establishment figure. He is already general secretary; by 2014, he may have risen higher.
Adversaries of Mr Rahul Gandhi have accused him of exercising authority without responsibility, of avoiding government positions, of not making concrete policy interventions. It is difficult to entirely disagree with such criticism. To the Rahul camp, however, these are necessary if he has to begin the 2014 campaign on a clean slate, without the association (or taint) of incumbency.
Such a twin-track approach — with the ruling party appropriating the Opposition space as well and addressing the electorate’s aspiration for change — is not impossible to accomplish. The Left and Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee did it in West Bengal in 2006. Nevertheless it is decidedly convoluted. Can the Congress pull it off over a five-year period?
Third, in 2009, Mr Gandhi certainly got the Congress an incremental vote among key demographics — brahmins and Muslims in the Hindi heartland, a pan-Indian urban constituency and so on. How far can this process go?
This is not the 1970s or 1980s and the Congress is not expecting two-thirds majorities. Even so, there is a big contrast between the 206 Lok Sabha seats it won in 2009 and, for instance, a target of 250 seats. This is the contrast between dependence on one ally or the other, and more or less running a government on your own. A Gandhi family member will only accept the prime ministry in the second situation.
For Mr Gandhi to deliver those 50-odd extra seats, the Congress will need to make key gains in Uttar Pradesh and win 45-50 of that state’s 80 seats. In 2009, it won 23. To be fair, Mr Rahul Gandhi realises this and has been focusing his energies on that one state, where politics has devolved into a two-horse race between the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Congress.
This makes the 2012 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh the true teaser-trailer for the national vote two years later. Mr Rahul Gandhi will need to deflect the shortcomings of the UPA government — chiefly high food prices, successfully sell a new idea and perhaps a new face to Uttar Pradesh, overcome the decrepit and compromised nat­ure of the Congress leadership in the state, and yet defeat May­awati. If he can do that, the road to 2014 will be clearer. If not…

Ashok Malik can be contacted at malikashok@gmail.com

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