The receptiveness of the public mind towards this politician or that seems often to depend on factors that have little to do with how ‘good’ or ‘bad’ that politician is, what the content of his or her policy ideas are, and how effective he or she may actually be in being able to find a language with which to communicate those ideas with the public.
In short, the whole set of elements that go into making a leader. Indira Gandhi becomes a hated figure in 1977, but the same ‘Iron Lady’ image that had caused her downfall becomes an asset three years later, when compared with the disarray presented by the Janata Parivar. V P Singh comes off as a more genuine ‘Mr Clean’ compared to the Bofors-tainted Rajiv Gandhi, but becomes a bogeyman for the upper castes post-Mandal. It’s what they are contrasted with that defines how they are seen. Is Rahul Gandhi at a similarly lucky cusp? Are the years of waiting for Godot over?
The question has to be judged on merit. Rahul Gandhi, on the verge of taking over formally as the Congress party president at long last, is suddenly seen to have found a voice and some willing ears. The fact of the matter is that his speech-making style has only changed slightly—say, from disarming, personal-anecdotal to more combative.
His April 2013 speech to a Confederation of Indian Industry audience comprising the honchos of India Inc. wasn’t very different in tone from his recent Berkeley speech. But the latter creates a buzz. Was it entirely the context? Back then, of course, he could not have openly taken on the then PM Manmohan Singh, the way he can run down the incumbent one. But more pertinently, the economic downturn, rising unemployment, farmer distress, caste and religious conflicts, student unrest—all factors that owe nothing to Rahul—have changed the context in which he is judged. And so, the reception too is changing. From being willing to swallow the persistent infantilising (literally, what with the “diapers” jibe), the public seems to hearkening.
Politics, particularly of the oppositional nature, invariably exploits faultlines. The multiple scams that turned the Parliament dysfunctional and the UPA-II paralytic made Manmohan Singh appear lost and meeker than he actually was. When Rahul tore up an ordinance in public, the self-goal not only heightened the perception of backseat driving, it diminished Singh further. Anyway the streets were teeming with protesters, and here even the party didn’t seem to back the PM. Against that, the surge for Modi, the quintessential ‘strong leader’, was inevitable. He successfully parlayed the faultlines within the Congress/UPA and the large-scale popular disaffection with the regime to win an overwhelming mandate. Rahul’s ‘Pappu-ised’ image was too weak a counter to the Modi juggernaut of 2014. It was a no-contest.
The state of play has perceptibly changed since then, although it’s difficult to say how much. The relief from hardship that people were expecting has not come yet. Stress levels are high. The discontent is mainly being vocalised by the youth and the farming community, two segments of the population that are always tinderboxes, prone to protest. What was unique about 2012-13 was that it was the middle class, the professionals who had taken to the streets across urban centres. Now, an ongoing social churning has widened the ambit across which ‘public opinion’ is shared. There are two vitally transformative elements here. One is who exactly comprises the middle class now, the other is the nature of communication.
With access to higher education opening up, the caste/class composition of students has changed. Indian campuses are flooded with youth from the neo-middle-class from small towns—the same strata badly hit by demonetisation and GST. With jobs and trade both down, the youth—many of them first-generation entrants in the employment market—are naturally restive. Education can genuinely become a social equaliser only when it helps you climb the socio-economic ladder. Jobless education is like being offered a vision, and then thwarted.
Creating an appetite, then being denied food. An explosive combination. So the Modi regime’s attempts at structural reforms—to formalise the economy through the twin strikes of the currency withdrawal and a confused, complicated bid at unified taxation, instead of reforms with a legislative consensus and the establishment of a sound regulatory mechanism—have exposed it to the same anger it had once harnessed. Secondly, no longer do you have hermetically sealed sectors of dissent. Everyone talks to everyone else on social media—the ‘public space’ is a flat world. Dissent moves faster.
Will Rahul Gandhi be able to harvest the autumn of discontent the way Modi did in 2014? Between temple-hopping, Rahul got responsive crowds at his Gujarat rallies. The fact that BJP chief Amit Shah thought it fit to counter it with an Amethi visit, and now a Sushma Swaraj ‘townhall’ in Gujarat, shows he’s not being taken lightly, the satire notwithstanding. The extent to which ridicule as a political weapon—casting it as a battle between a novice and a maestro—will suffice in 2019 or before that, one does not know. Modi’s personal charisma has not dimmed.
The Congress no longer has the party superstructure or grassroot presence that can match the formidable BJP/RSS network of willing footsoldiers. Nor does the Grand Old Party have the money/muscle to wrest power on its own. Without second-guessing voters, one can only take the new buzz around Rahul to be an implicit judgement of what he is contrasted against. It is up to Rahul to harness it, and for the Modi regime to respond to as a challenge.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express