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Man who would have been king

india Updated: May 17, 2009 03:02 IST

Early this election season, in its February 16, 2009 issue, India Today magazine published a political survey of Indian youth. One of the questions asked was: “Who would you want as your next Prime minister?” While there was no overwhelming winner, 16 per cent of respondents voted for Narendra Modi. Rahul Gandhi finished second with 15 per cent.

A week later, this writer met a senior Congress MP and former minister over coffee. Told of the youth survey and the question, the MP listened carefully, then beamed and exclaimed, “Thank God!”

It was astonishing. Narendra Modi had topped a survey and a Congress MP was happy! My interlocutor explained, “I know what you’re thinking. That’s not it. In Parliament the other day, some of us were wondering about the country’s political mood and how it is difficult for us in the Rajya Sabha to assess it. Many of us felt ‘Rahul versus Modi’ was the election the country wanted, but was not the election the country was getting because neither party was ready. This survey validates our feeling. That’s why I said, ‘Thank God’.”

Why is that story relevant to the 2009 election results? Largely because one has to recognise the Congress only tentatively projected Rahul Gandhi — and look at the results it got. It may appear pointless now, but if the party had gone the whole hog and presented Gandhi as its Prime minister would it have won a majority? Is there a message here for the BJP?

The May 16 verdict is not a mandate for continuity; it is a vote for change. People never vote for the status quo. They vote in hope, they vote for better times, they vote for change. In this election, in substantial swathes of India, Rahul Gandhi came to represent change.

Uttar Pradesh is the most striking example. The Congress made gains in the eastern part of the state and in Bundelkhand, where Gandhi toured extensively over the past two years. In Jhansi, he sat in dharna on a local issue. The Congress won the seat.

When the Congress launched its election campaign, it was a two-tracked effort: Manmohan Singh for now; Gandhi for the future. Many saw it as too subtle to work.

However, this election played out otherwise. Gandhi internalised the demand for change. This gave the Congress campaign that sliver of incremental national appeal that added to strong regional vote banks. The BJP also had those strong regional vote banks; it didn’t have a leadership that gave it an incremental national “extra”. That made all the difference.

To deploy a term much used and abused in this election, the Rahul factor was the “game changer”. It brought in something new to an otherwise colourless, static and equal election. The Manmohan Singh-L.K. Advani comparison busied the media, but frankly the two gentlemen were not particularly relevant to the vote-gathering abilities of their respective parties.

Politics is often seen as a careful, cautious and calibrated enterprise. The beauty of this election was that it rewarded risk taking and derring-do. Gandhi’s decision to go it alone in Uttar Pradesh is there for all to learn from. So, unfortunately, is the BJP’s resolve to go to war with a Dad’s Army and with faces, slogans and ideas no different from 2004.

This election is a big setback for the BJP’s cynical sense of complacency. It had decided politics was a revolving door, and that anti-incumbency alone, without any programmatic innovation on its part, was enough. It also laid great emphasis on alliance building — which is a good thing — but neglected the party’s own identity and calling card. It wasted its most popular individual leader — the man who topped the youth survey in the first paragraph — as support staff.

In short, the BJP refused to change. Nudged by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress made a grudging effort to change. India did the rest.

Ashok Malik is a Delhi-based writer.