A year ago, one would have said of Rahul Gandhi, being a scion of the Nehru Gandhi family, “O, what a fall was there, my countrymen!” seeing his defeats in election after election. The incessant barbs, taunts and lampooning caricatures in press and on social media and the television portraying him as a novice and an utter imbecile would have wilted the most intrepid.
It was widely felt that the reluctant prince does not have it in him to strike the oars. Rahul Gandhi was seen as incapable of leading and navigating his party through the rough and perilous high seas of politics. He may do well to renounce politics, went the chorus.
Now, a year to the day after he eventually took over the reins of the party, his press conference late on Tuesday night after the election results indicated that Congress had won handsomely in Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan and was inching toward becoming the largest party in Madhya Pradesh, revealed him a very mature young leader. He was self assured, gracious and humble in victory. He affected an endearing self-deprecating humour. Watching him, Mark Anthony would not hesitate to exclaim, "What a transformation! What a rise!"
Rahul said the 2014 election drubbing he received when Congress was soundly defeated, relegating it to almost a non-entity in national politics, was the best thing that happened to him. That big humiliating defeat in Parliament elections and many failures before and immediately after that taught him to be humble and listen to the common people who may provide the answers plaguing the country.
When he said, with a mischievous glint in his eyes, that Narendra Modi taught him what not to do, that he had learnt lessons from the prime minister’s fall from popularity to defeat because of arrogance setting in after winning by a huge mandate, it showed he had developed immense insight.
When asked if he was on a mission to make India a BJP and RSS 'mukht Bharath', instead of a jingoistic war cry in response, intoxicated by victory, he said he was only opposing their ideology and policies but would not wish to rid any one out of this polity or country but welcome everyone into India's fold, he demonstrated a rare maturity.
Critics of Rahul Gandhi across the country, generally sycophantic towards the ruling parties of the day, which until recently took merciless potshots at Rahul relentlessly, were now adoring him. The incompetent, shallow Congress leader who had nothing to show except his family lineage was now the darling of the media, and propped up as the only challenger to unseat the mighty Modi in 2019, with many even suggesting that Rahul, with his newfound vigour, energy and self confidence had an edge over Modi, who seem to have lost his appeal, especially with the youth and farmers who are clearly disillusioned.
They pointed to an election analysis of results that clearly showed that in the three Hindi speaking 'cow belts', the BJP’s share of votes has sharply dropped among the urban middle class where small traders dominate.
Reason: the introduction of demonetisation and good and services tax (GST). They spoke of the loss of farmers' support who are in distress and the alienation of tribals (especially in Chattisgarh) who suffered from police and government excesses, delivering a body blow to the BJP. All of them were until recently BJP's strong support base.
To many apolitical observers, it is clear that there are lessons for both — the vanquished and the victor. Historically speaking, generally, at the very height of success, the seed of defeat is sown. Success creates an opaque vision. The sycophants and the coterie, who inevitably surround the leader when he comes to power, shut out the harsh realities of the world outside the palace.
He starts believing the slogans and myths and takes the facade for the real. The hubris and arrogance and excesses of his underlings create the conditions for the leaders' descent.
That said, Modi must actually be thankful for this defeat. The result shocker is a blessing in disguise. He has time now to do some honest soul searching to gain an insight into what went wrong. Did his advisors paint a rosy picture and spoke only what he wanted to hear? It is time Modi lean on people from outside the party, who have no vested interest, who have the intellectual honesty and moral courage, to tell him the unvarnished truth. Then he can decide how to set things right.
Some Vital Questions
Was demonetisation a mistake, though well intentioned? Was it a harebrained idea of some half-baked economist in his inner circle? Could GST have been implemented differently or postponed?
Farmer distress has been inherited over many decades and needs huge structural changes and additional and alternate generation of employment in rural areas. The empty promises of earlier governments and foolish and corrupt unwise policies of the earlier government have resulted in the collapse of the rural economy. Did his government continue the same hollow policies and whitewash job and hype?
What far-reaching changes have to be wrought in the farm sector as it is extremely complex? The enormity of the rural sector woes is not easy to solve and simplistic quick fixes of loan waivers will only be a temporary alleviation.
Such measures will come back to haunt in the next election whosoever comes to power.
The electorate will have no loyalty to any party ideology. They will show the door and bring about change. That is the only power they have. They have unfailingly exercised it. May be it is time get rid of the paid army of social media trolls. Why are not jobs getting created if the economy is vibrant?
Lessons For Modi
Don't be fooled by businessmen who say so. They are worse than your party toadies. Why is there a fear psychosis and paralysis in banks and no lending or investments coming into the private sector, especially small and medium sectors? Was the way the Rafael issue handled imprudently?
Is it not best to even now cancel the deal and hand it over to HAL on the original terms with better pricing than what UPA had negotiated for the entire 136 fighters if it’s good for Make in India? People will understand and forgive if mistakes are owned up.
A honest, clean and complete admission publicly by Modi of the mistakes committed, (instead of all his colleagues putting up a brave face in self-denial and shallow pompous party spokespersons mouthing inanities) accompanied by genuine remorse with humility and a promise to come up with new ideas and action plans will earn back the goodwill of the public who always admire honesty and give another chance.
Time is short but this will afford a good opportunity for BJP and Modi who still enjoys huge support within and outside his party to claw their way back to earn the trust of the people. He's still the tallest leader.
Rahul has to be admired for his indomitable will and courage believing in himself to take Modi head on, who was seen to be invincible. His persistence to painstakingly and indefatigably hammer away day after day crisscrossing the country deep in the rural hinterland and take advantage of disillusionment of the public with BJP has paid off.
But to stay in power riding the 'anti-Modi’ or ‘anti-BJP' bandwagon is not enough. As Farooq Abdulla warned Sachin Pilot and Congress on Tuesday night on television channels after the election results were out, "Don't beat the drums of election victory yet. You have to demonstrate you will keep your promise. It is not easy. You have to perform. People are watching. Six months to parliament elections are not far off. There should be no vengeance. Religion … all religions must be kept out of politics. You have to focus on development. Your work starts now. "
The Limits of Hindutva
Hindutva politics pays electorally only up to a point. It is reactionary narrow politics to counter the Muslim and minority appeasement politics practised by Congress and other regional parties. People are tolerant, generous and want communal harmony and peace. They want development, jobs, prosperity and good governance. It's as plain as daylight.
The self-professed Hindu leaders who spread communal hatred and indulge in 'cow politics and vigilantism ' are doing ill to the country and are only harming Modi's image, who came to power on the promise of development. The results have shown it's not astute politics.
Rahul Gandhi will face the same fate and incur the wrath of the people if he indulges in religious vote bank politics of appeasing the Hindus or Muslims and minorities. He is not free of blame and temptation to stoop low in playing to the Muslim clerics and fundamentalists.
Recently, he and his party's self-labelled liberal and suave 'secularists' opposed the Triple Talaq Bill even after the Supreme Court struck down the act as regressive and causing grave injustice to women. This is no different than the tactics of Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi who had opposed the Shah Bano judgement (protecting the rights of Muslim women) and brought a law to nullify the court judgement.
And more recently Rahul Gandhi and Congress opposed the Sabarimala Supreme Court judgement allowing women’s entry to the temples and defied the court judgement by encouraging the blockade of the temple to women. Both were retrograde steps and obscurantism at its worst and no different than the BJP brand of politics with an eye on Muslim votes in the former and an eye on Hindu votes in the latter.
The Congress had also sided with Islamic fundamentalists and clerics by banning Salman Rushdie’s books and disallowing his speech in the Jaipur literary festivals. It also set MF Hussain one of India's greatest painters into exile to avoid incurring the wrath of Hindu zealots.
It should be obvious to everyone that perceptions of political leaders individually possessing unimpeachable integrity and being honest are great qualities. Though very essential, they cannot by themselves deliver on good governance, which in turn will translate to development when backed by sound policies.
Their vision must be accompanied by solid and far-reaching economic, administrative, judicial, police and other institutional reforms which strengthen the autonomy of institutions to make them resistant and resilient against the whims and fancies of ruling parties.
We have two Prime Ministers — Manmohan Singh and Narendra Modi — both with reputations of personal honesty but who are a study in contrast. One was seen as seen as a weak leader who was alleged to be helpless against a strong Congress High Command and its coterie who hijacked the Prime Minister's office and remote controlled him. Singh was accused of submissively and mutely allowing corruption.
Modi is seen as a strong, decisive and authoritarian leader who has centralised all authority in himself and his number two. He is accused of not listening to anyone both within and outside the party.
Going The Full Distance
Both leaders did not go the full distance in genuinely strengthening the various institutions that are the bedrock of democracy. Congress did not agree to pass the Lokpal Bill by Anna Hazare until the government of the day was brought on its knees. The Lokpal has still not seen the light of day. And we are witnessing the sordid drama in the CBI. The Congress when in power was accused against misusing the CBI for political gains. The Supreme Court repeatedly castigated the Congress for making it a caged parrot.
When he was the CM of Gujarat, Modi said he was framed by CBI at the behest of Congress in the riots that ravaged the state. And now the boot is on the other foot. The CBI, the ED (enforcement directorate) and other agencies are on hot pursuit of the Gandhi family and also former finance minister P Chidambaram. The Congress is pointing fingers at Modi for unleashing the agencies on it.
The Congress could have easily set right the caged parrot free. If Manmohan Singh had a free hand he would probably have done it. And now Modi can also do everything to make them truly autonomous with checks and balances so that the Congress can not unleash these agencies on him should it return to power. But more importantly, it will serve a larger good to the country to ensure good and fair governance, which is the election promise of all parties.
Let's hope these elections will hold lessons for both leaders and the country can look forward to a vibrant democracy that will usher in an era of widespread prosperity, tolerance, and generosity of spirit that will encourage dialogue, debate and dissent among various sections of society for a better future, regardless of whichever party comes to power in 2019.
GR Gopinath is the founder of Air Deccan.