Friday, 8 February 2013

Can Rahul succeed against Modi? (Sunday Guardian)

M D Nalapat

Friday, February 08, 2013 - India knows very little about the woman who is the country’s most powerful politician,Sonia Gandhi. Her early life is almost undiscussed,save for a few biographies written by those who do not even make a pretense of being anything other than publicists. Although her two sisters and mother spend considerable amounts of time in India, staying either with Sonia at the sprawling state-provided mansion provided to her at 10 Janpath or at a farmhouse within the city limits of Delhi, the media is not allowed access to them,and their comings and goings go undocumented. Indeed,Sonia Gandhi enjoys the same level of privacy as does the leader of North Korea,the younger Kim,and this obsession with secrecy is respected not only by the Indian media,but also by the international media,which too treat her with deference by staying away from prying reports on her or her family members.

On the contrary,there are often gushing reports about her,such as the way in which she is apparently “holding the country together” or “wiping tears from the eyes of the poor” when not “striving for justice for women and the downtrodden”. The Congress Party slogan is that the hand of Sonia Gandhi is there to help the “Aam Aadmi”,the ordinary citizen of India,and it must be said to the credit of the party’s spin managers that millions of people still believe in this,despite the fact that economic growth has fallen to less than half of what it was before Sonia took over control of the country in 2004

In Uttaranchal,silent work creating a revolt within the BJP led to victory for the Congress,although in Gujarat the well-funded campaign of former BJP Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel against incumbent Chief Minister Narendra Modi failed to displace the BJP from office in the 2012 polls, although Keshubhai succeeded in keeping Modi’s tally to what it had been five years ago,thereby denying him the boost that would have occured,had this (now) fourth-term Chief Minister increased his seat tally despite the anti-incumbency factor.

Two months from now,the only southern state in the control of the BJP,Karnataka,will go to the polls to elect a new assembly.Political managers who avoid media attention have seen to it that the most popular BJP leader of the state, B S Yeddyurappa,has revolted against his own party and may succeeded in getting it defeated,to the benefit of the Congress Party. Ruling party managers in Delhi were given their chance to bring down the BJP because of the obsession of BJP patriarch L K Advani to get installed his favourite,Ananth Kumar,as Chief Minister by displacing Yeddyurappa. The powerful “Delhi Group” of the BJP,comprising of leaders who stay in Delhi and are expert not in mass politics but in the “durbar” politics of that city, worked to remove Yeddyurappa from the Chief Ministership,thereby giving an opportunity for the Congress Party,which seems on track to win back the state. There is only one way in which the BJP can once again emerge as a formidable challenger to the Congress Party,and that is by projecting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its Prime Ministerial candidate. Hailing from a “Backward Caste” and thereby tapping into an immense vote bank,the Gujarat strongman has emerged as the most popular politician in India,especially i urban areas and in the rapidly growing middle class.

Should Modi emerge as the alternative,millions of voters are likely to shake off their apathy and go and campaign for him,the way millions did in the US for Barack Hussein Obama in 2008. Certainly the memory of the 2002 riots in Gujarat,where so many hundreds were killed,still hangs over Modi.Certainly he would be best served were there to be an acknowledgement of regret that such loss of life was allowed to happen. But 2013 is eleven years away from 2002,and the shadow of the riots is no longer potent enough to stand between Modi and public support on a scale that no other politician has.

By placing the spotlight on the future and not the past,by talking of the need for self-help and development rather than constantly promising sops in the Nehru fashion,Narendra Modi is energizing voters in a way that may make him unstoppable well before the end of the year.The Delhi Group in the BJP dislikes him,but in the face of public pressure and the hold he has within the party cadre,Modi seems unstoppable

The only challenger to the Gujarat strongman is Rahul Gandhi,whose approval ratings are second,far ahead of those of his mother Sonia or the hapless,helpless Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh. The problem with Rahul Gandhi is that he has made opponents of his mother his own opponents,thereby turning his face away from reconciliation with many of them. Also,he has repeated the populist line of his mother Sonia and grandmother Indira Gandhi,talking down to the Indian people by offering them freebies and treating them as indigents to whom a generous government will bestow favours.Modi in contrast talks of self-help and empowerment,and - most tellingly - never once mentions caste.In contrast,caste is always behind the calculations of the Congress managers advising Sonia Gandhi.

Unless Brand Rahul is seen as different from Brand Sonia, the 43-year old will face a struggle to capture the attention of the voters. Although he has a good team,thus far, Sonia’s men are calling the shots rather than Team Rahul. Back in the 1980s, Rahul’s father Rajiv was similarly brought under the sway of party hacks by 1983,a full year before he became Prime Minister,thereby killing any hope of reform. Unless Rahul Gandhi can emerge from the shadows of the party managers who cluster around his mother,the bag of tricks and tactics which has worked at the state level may fall flat at the national level,especially if the challenge is from an increasingly unstoppable Narendra Modi. Small wonder that countries whch once ignored him,such as the US and the UK, are now seeking to build bridges with the Gujarat leader.

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