By Swapan Dasgupta
Last Thursday and Friday, reinvigorated after nearly a month-long absence from public life, Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi undertook a necessary chore: he presided over an in-camera inquest. Ideally, the hearings should have been held in Lucknow, the scene of the debacle. However, since the defeat was also viewed as evidence of the people’s perfidy, the choice of Delhi was inevitable. In this age of democracy where people rise above their station, it isn’t possible to denounce the underlings as “sacks of potatoes”, as Karl Marx did. But the snub to UP was there for all to see.
It is early to say whether or not the regulated bloodletting over two days served any tangible purpose. Congress politicians are astute beings. They know there is a Lakshman rekha they cannot cross. Like salesmen appearing before the top boss to explain their failure to meet sales targets, they can at best point an accusing finger at their zonal supervisors. They will not say that the overall marketing strategy was all wrong and, worse, that the product they were to sell was flawed and had few takers. The owner can never be wrong; he is invariably let down by unworthy underlings.
Consequently, if media reports are anything to go by, Rahul has promised to take firm action against the errant and redouble efforts to bolster the party organisation—to which Rahul had been devoting his unceasing attention since 2009. The template prescription is reminiscent of what Theodre H. White, the chronicler of US presidential elections had to say about Senator Barry Goldwater’s disastrous performance against President Lyndon Johnson in 1964: “The organisation of Goldwater’s campaign in Washington and across the country was absolutely first class, except that it reminded one of the clay mock-ups of the new models in Detroit’s automobile industry. It was meticulously designed, hand-sanded, striking in appearance—but it had no motor.”
In today’s context, the lack of a motor is the equivalent of not possessing a big idea. Apart from suggesting that young people should join politics, that good people should join politics, that Nandan Nilekani’s magic wand will do away with all the imperfections of the money ‘we’ dole out from Delhi and that the blood of Indira Gandhi runs through his veins, there is very little that Rahul has to offer either the country or the voters of any state. There may be a certain charm to saying the same thing from Kashmir to Kannyakumari but if the overall message is anodyne, it is hardly surprising that it falls flat.
Perhaps Rahul should start addressing some of the issues that agitate most Indians: the state of the economy, the problems of corruption, the pressures of federalism, the Naxalite menace, environmental concerns and India’s place in the world. He also needs to address questions about the UPA Government. He can hardly pretend that the Congress is detached from the Government it heads.
Rahul has been tutored on these subjects and more by some of India’s most famous Congress-inclined intellectuals. It’s time he unveiled the results of his learning. It may actually help Indians to assess the basis of the Congress’ projection of him as India’s next prime minister.
Yet, and to be fair, Rahul has at least tried in his limited way to address concerns arising from the Congress’ poor performance in UP last month. At least the crestfallen Congress candidates who travelled to Delhi last week can have the satisfaction of knowing that there was someone to listen to their tales of woe and, maybe, even do something about it. Allowing activists the space to let off steam is one of the functions of leadership. To that limited extent, Rahul has fulfilled an elementary obligation.
The same can hardly be said of the BJP leadership which has reacted to the defeat in UP, the setback in Uttarakhand and the loss of seats in Punjab by doing absolutely nothing. Even without the benefit of any organised feedback, the BJP appears to have blamed its failure in UP to the very same factors that the Congress identified: lack of organisational rigour, internal faction fights, uninspiring local leadership and the failure to emerge as a credible alternative. And like the Congress, it has also conveniently sidestepped the issue of the lack of a big picture.
If the electorate is clueless as to what Rahul stands for, it is equally mystified about what the BJP is all about. Like misguided Keynesians who imagine that digging holes constitute productive endeavour, a section of the BJP seems to believe that activity for its own sake constitutes good politics. An even more deluded section seems to further believe that generous funding alone can win elections—a belief that has blunted the edge of the party campaign against the Congress’ mega-sleaze. There is just no concern about the fact that there has been no consequential flow of new blood into the party (except perhaps in Gujarat and Goa) since 2004. Rahul has at least tried to get new people interested in politics; the BJP has been content being a self-perpetuating cabal.
For both the national parties, the crisis is not of organisation shortcoming and factional restlessness. These are the consequences of the failure to grasp that ideas (as opposed to doctrinaire ideology) have a role in politics.
Sunday Pioneer, April 8, 2012