By Swapan Dasgupta
Elections are one occasion Indian politicians work hard, very hard. This month’s Uttar Pradesh Assembly election has witnessed the Gandhi-Vadra family doing their utmost to come to the aid of the party. Sonia Gandhi, the matriarch, has played a largely symbolic role in this election perhaps owing to her indifferent health and her known aversion to dust. But her absence has been duly compensated by the punishing schedule kept by Rahul Gandhi.
Rahul has done everything possible to transform the Assembly election into a referendum on his leadership and his ability to inherit the family mantle. From the time he accompanied former British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on the poverty tourism circuit two years ago, Rahul has been thinking and planning for the Assembly election. The journey from Bhatta-Parsaul, via the Bundelkhand package and the sops to weavers in eastern UP, Rahul has left no stone unturned in his bid to make a mark on India’s largest state. He has shed his hesitation with public speaking and become adept at delivering carefully scripted one-liners that have grabbed media space and made him the centre of attention. Some of the interventions may have been as puerile as his father’s ‘naani yaad’ outburst, prompting Arun Jaitley to remind him that these were not student union elections. But overall, Rahul has succeeded in making himself the foremost talking point, particularly of a media that likes to be on the right side of the first family.
The photogenic Priyanka too has done her bit holding the fort in the family estates in Amethi-Rae Barely-Sultanpur belt. With her easy style and cultivated over-familiarity with the voters, she made it clear right at the outset that this was going to be a family effort and something more than just another political campaign. For all her earlier insistence on personal privacy, she did not shy away from bringing her two children into the arena, making sure that the cameras and TV anchors got an additional talking point.
The media dutifully obliged. A description of Priyanka’s children at a rally addressed by Rahul in Amethi vividly conveyed the flavour of the family campaign: “…11-year-old Rihaan and 9-year-old Miraya were seen hanging around the stage waiting for their uncle to arrive. During the 90-minute wait, the kids, accompanied by a nanny and Priyanka’s aide Preeti Sahay, ate chocolate, played hopscotch and collected pebbles from the ground, in full view of the press and the public.” And there was the by now famous photograph of daughter Priyanka affectionately tweaking mother Sonia’s cheek. In terms of sheer choreography, the Gandhis left other politicians gasping for breath.
Not to be left behind, Robert Vadra also joined the tamasha doing what he is best known for—riding a motorcycle. The man who once boasted that he could get elected from anywhere in India gave two interviews to the English-language media stating his situation. He proclaimed that he was there as a proverbial gatekeeper preventing despicable middlemen from getting access to the family. This prompted uncharitable comments about whether or not that implied he was constantly encountering the loathsome middlemen.
Attempting to transform the UP election into a family soap opera may well have invited criticism from the usual suspects. But there was a certain method behind the decision to keep the focus on the family. Almost all reporters who stopped at the chai shops for their quota of earthy wisdom from the rural folk were near-unanimous on count: the Gandhis had made themselves the talking point but this interest was not accompanied by any surge for the Congress. In most constituencies, the Congress lacked any rudimentary organisation to translate the obsession with the first family into votes—except in western UP where the alliance with Ajit Singh is likely come in handy. The Congress candidate, it was widely reported in the footnotes, was not in the race for first place. “We will help Rahul become Prime Minister” many tea shop loiterers announced, thereby indicating that a vote for the Congress was a post-dated cheque.
This mismatch between the buzz and ground realities appear to have hit the Congress midway into the campaign. There is now talk of the Congress going into a bout of expectation management to ensure that indifferent results don’t have an effect on either the party or the family. In case the Congress performance on counting day turns out to be lacklustre, India can expect a repetition of what Salman Khurshid had to say after the Congress’ disastrous showing in 2007: that the Congress organisation proved unworthy of Rahul!
Actually, Rahul seems guilty of a major strategic miscalculation which happens when politics is treated like a marketing exercise. He failed to read history. In 1987, Rajiv Gandhi led from the front against the Left Front in the West Bengal Assembly election. He addressed large meetings, aroused the enthusiasm of the Congress campaigners and told Jyoti Basu to retire. But what he forgot was that it was an Assembly election and that people were electing a mere MLA and state government, not a MP who would help choose the Prime Minister.
Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, February 24, 2012