By B. Raman
The most significant aspect of the elections to the Uttar Pradesh Legislative Assembly the results for which were announced on March 6,2012, was not even the rout of the Congress Party, but the humiliation suffered by Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi in what has been described as their pocket boroughs of Rae Bareli and Amethi.
The Lucknow correspondent of the “Deccan Herald” has described this humiliation in the following words: “None, not even the “Nehru-Gandhi family,” would have expected such a drubbing even on its home turf of Rae Bareli and Amethi, represented in the Lok Sabha by Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul respectively. The entire “family” had descended on the twin constituencies to ensure a smooth sailing for party candidates. Yet, the party’s performance was “pathetic.” The Congress, which had secured seven of the ten assembly seats in Rae Bareli and Amethi, could win only two seats this time—Jagadishpur and Tiloi in the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency. In Rae Bareli, it ceded all five seats to SP candidates by good margins. In three seats, the Congress nominees finished third, compounding its agony. The signals were ominous for the party from the very beginning of the campaign. Priyanka was initially greeted by angry crowds, which complained that the local MLAs did not take any interest in the area’s development.”
The message that has come out loud and clear from UP as a whole as well as from these pocket boroughs is that the decline of the political influence of Sonia Gandhi has started and that the personality cult built around her, Rahul Gandhi and Priyanka Gandhi by the party functionaries has started dissipating.
The decline of the political influence of Sonia Gandhi could be attributed to various factors — the decline in her health and the consequent public perception that she is already a leader of the passee and not of the future, the failure of Rahul Gandhi to compensate for the decline in her political influence by building a political image and a political connectivity of his own, his tendency to depend on political gimmicks rather than on exciting ideas and a vision for the future which failed to establish an empathetic vibration with the people and the failure of the Congress Government in the Centre headed by Dr. Manmohan Singh and the local Congress leaders in UP to come up to the expectations of the people.
The people wanted new policies, new ideas and exciting new faces and brains. Instead what they got was the same old faces of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka, endless repetition of the same old devotion to the family and the same old bankruptcy in thinking and strategizing. It has come out clearly that neither the magic of the family name nor personal charisma — particularly in the case of Priyanka — nor gimmicks could attract the electorate any longer.
The emergence of Akhilesh Yadav, son of Mulayam Singh Yadav, the leader of the Samajwadi Party which has won a spectacular victory on its own, as the new shining star of UP politics was totally unexpected by large sections of the public and the Congress Party. The electorate tired of old faces and old style of politics and gimmicks was looking for a Mr. Different and they saw Mr. Different in Akhilesh. Whereas they found Rahul young in looks, but old in thinking and articulation, they found Akhilesh young in looks and young and refreshingly different in his thinking and articulation.
When one saw Akhilesh and Rahul on the TV screen, the difference between the two young personalities was striking. What came out in the case of Akhilesh was his earnestness, seriousness, sincerity and his ability to articulate in a manner that could carry conviction to the public. What came out in the case of Rahul was a lack of such qualities. Akhilesh’s ability to connect instantly with the public and the media stood in refreshing contrast to the inability of Rahul to do so.
Whether Congress functionaries admit it or not, the UP elections clearly marked the beginning of at least a temporary eclipse of Rahul as an up and coming political leader of Prime Ministerial calibre. He is not even of provincial calibre. The electorate in UP, his home State, has not taken him seriously. Will he be able to make the rest of the country take him seriously before the next Parliamentary elections whenever they are held — in 2014 as scheduled or before that if the Manmohan Singh Government as a result of the after-shocks of the UP’s political quake falls?
Political eclipses tend to be temporary when the affected leader has merits of his own and does not seek to shine through the reflected glory of his family. Rahul has still to convince large section of the public of this country that he has merits of his own. He has to project himself before the people as an intelligent, well-informed, articulate and thinking leader bubbling with new ideas and not just new gimmicks. He has to make the party jettison the remnants of the personality cult built around his mother. He has to encourage GenNext leaders in the party to come to the forefront and empower them to compete in equal terms with him and Priyanka. He should convert the Congress into a party of the people and not a party of the family.
As the party prepares itself for the next parliamentary elections, the Government led by it at the Centre has to be led by someone with a positive image. Dr. Manmohan Singh has developed a negative image which he will not be able to discard easily. Pranab Mukherjee, the Finance Minister. has a positive image. He is respected by large sections of the people. He has sharp professional and political instincts. The time has come for him to take over as the Prime Minister. If petty memories and petty suspicions of the family continue to keep him out, it is the party which will suffer.
Akhilesh is a promising and exciting young find, but he has won only the first lap of his political race by contributing significantly to the success of his party in the elections. Proving himself to be a good campaigner is only the beginning. He has to prove himself to be a good administrator and a wise policy-maker. Will he be able to do it?