The on-going election campaign for the Gujarat Assembly has seen a ‘new’ Rahul Gandhi resort to some old and hackneyed ploys to grab voter attention. Whether he would succeed, and to what extent, will be known only on December 18 when the votes for both Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh are set to be counted. But regardless of the outcome, the regression in the approach of the soon-to-be-formal-boss of the Congress Party is worrying. Not only has he outsourced the task of drumming up support for the party to outsiders representing specific caste groups, but, worse, instead of offering an alternative programme, he has taken to a shoot-and-scoot approach.
The reliance on Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakur and Jignesh Mewani, each representing mutually contradictory group, to do the heavy lifting for the Congress underlines its own feeble message. In this identity-centric campaign, the Congress has wittingly left out the Muslims, an important segment of the electorate constituting over ten percent of the total vote in the State. The Congress Party might reason that since the Muslims are unlikely to vote for the BJP, and there being no other party in fray to attract their vote, per force they would vote Congress. Such an opportunistic approach can further alienate the Muslims from the mainstream politics and cause them to gravitate towards extremist outfits such as those headed by the Hyderabad rabble-rouser Assaduddin Owaisi.
Post-Ayodhya demolition, the Muslims, anyway, had veered away en masse from the Congress. In UP and Bihar, where they are in substantial numbers, they had opted for the non-Congress, non-BJP parties. But because there is no third force in Gujarat, the Muslim voter in Gujarat feels obliged to plump for the Congress with the sole objective of defeating the BJP. However, the indifferent attitude of Rahul Gandhi and his colleagues towards the largest minority community can push them into the arms of the Muslim-centric parties. This is a worrying fall-out of the Gandhi scion’s all-out effort to play the caste factor to the hilt in this poll. Symptomatic of this regressive identity politics is his attempt to project himself as a devout Hindu with an eye on the votes of the conservative middle class Hindus. How his claim to be a janeu-dhari-Hindu is received in the Muslim ghettos in Ahmedabad can only be imagined, but there can be no denying that in his desperation to try and woo the Patels and other caste-Hindus he has been totally unmindful of the sentiments of the minority community.
But a sobering caveat is that the religious-minded voters are likely to stay loyal to the BJP rather than accept Rahul’s spurious Me-too-Hindu Congress. Also, the Congress leader’s strategy to fling a new charge against the Modi Government in the hope that some of the muck would stick can prove counter-productive. After the totally baseless noises about the Rafale deal, he has now questioned the power-purchase agreements various governments entered into with the private producers. Again, had he cared to understand the circumstances under which these agreements were signed and, more importantly, had he cared to find the status of such agreements in the Congress-ruled Karnataka and Punjab, he would not have resorted to this blatant falsehood. But he has become so reckless in flinging wild charges in this campaign that aside from figuring insignificantly in parts of the media the voters seem to give scant attention to them. In sum, Rahul Gandhi seems to be making much noise in Gujarat without saying anything substantial, anything positive about his own party and its programme.
However, now that in the next few days he is set to occupy the family gaddi as the Congress President, a post held by his mother, father, grandmother, great-grandfather, he should acquire and demonstrate greater gravitas in public. In the recent weeks he has had a relatively good press. He should behave with due restraint and dignity in keeping with the onerous responsibility associated with the head of the Grand Old Party. It may be an uphill task regaining the old glory of the once-monolithic party which had basked in the extended glow of the struggle for independence from the colonial powers. Since then, the present generation of the Nehru-Gandhis is expected increasingly to earn its own keep insofar as the voter is now aware and demanding and no longer willing to endorse totems of old and fading political families. Time to grow up in the real sense may have come for the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family.