Every time Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi says something that is perceived as a gaffe or a foot-in-mouth blooper, he unerringly becomes a soft target of his political opponents and on social media sites, which rarely spare an opportunity to take jibes at him. Knocking the Modi government at a recent campaign rally in rural Bihar, he said: “Look around and see; people here are not wearing suit-boot but torn clothes and kurtas.” Think about it. Mr Gandhi was probably being well meaning in trying to imply a contrast but to an audience of mainly poor villagers, it may have been a rather insensitive comment to make. Unsurprisingly, the trolls on social media saw red.
But then Mr Gandhi’s gaffes are legion. And sometimes, the metaphors he uses are, well, what you could describe as unconventional. Two years ago, when he addressed India’s industry leaders for the first time, he left them perplexed by saying that India was a “beehive” and not an “elephant” to China’s “dragon”; another time he declared that “politics is in your shirt, in your pants; it’s everywhere”; and at a Congress party convention in 2013, he made the now-famous assertion that India’s Dalit community needed “Jupiter’s escape velocity”. Mr Gandhi has also caught flak for his disappearances — he missed the first half of the Budget session this year when he was out of the country, presumably vacationing, for 53 days; and last week as electioneering for Bihar’s polls gathered momentum, he again left the country for undisclosed reasons.
Fodder for the soc-med brigade or his political rivals these may be but the real question you should ask is: how effective has Mr Gandhi been for his party? As the second-most powerful leader of the Congress and, by every reckoning, the heir apparent who will eventually take over its reins, Mr Gandhi’s impact on the Congress, its electoral fortunes, its influence, and its working, has thus far been unremarkable.
Early in his career when he was in charge of the party’s youth affairs, he had plumped for elections in the Youth Congress so that leaders rose on meritocratic and not dynastic reasons. The outcome has been not quite that: In states across India, including Telangana, Himachal Pradesh and West Bengal, the party’s youth wing has been headed by the progeny of powerful party leaders. In many states, the PCC heads, anointed by the high command, have to battle strong rivals who have considerable local support.
Despite his powerful status in the party, 11 years after he joined electoral politics, Mr Gandhi has not gained in stature. His party is a partner in the ‘grand alliance’ with the JD(U) and the RJD that is contesting the Bihar elections, yet Nitish Kumar and Lalu Prasad, the leaders of those two parties, skipped a rally that Mr Gandhi addressed in their state earlier this month. Last year, when he led the Congress’s campaign for the first time in the Lok Sabha elections, the party scored its worst performance with just 44 seats. And his much-anticipated elevation as Congress president has been deferred again until next year.
All of this can work to the advantage of the BJP. Consider Mr Gandhi and his party’s biggest challenges. In the last few years, the Congress’s footprint across India hasn’t grown. Of the 543 Lok Sabha seats, 201 are from four states — Tamil Nadu, Bihar, UP and West Bengal — where the Congress remains a marginal player. All of them will go to the polls in the next year or two and the Congress has done little to expand its influence. In the past few years, it has lost many allies: the DMK withdrew support after the 2G scam; the TMC over FDI in retail and diesel price hikes; and the National Conference before the J&K polls. The BJP, on the other hand, has gained allies: the AIADMK is inclined to support it; the TDP in Telangana backs it; it has a joint regime in Maharashtra with the Shiv Sena after fighting the polls separately; and has forged a surprise tie with the PDP in J&K.
The Congress has many challenges. Winning back support in populous states such as UP and Bihar is one; shedding the tag of being anti-development is another; fighting factionalism is a third. Is Mr Gandhi up to those? If he isn’t, he’ll be strengthening the BJP’s hand.
The author is Editor-in-chief, Hindustan Times.