What will Rahul Gandhi's strategy be for the Congress in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections of 2017?
That may seem like a premature question, considering that the Congress general secretary seems to be pulling out all the stops to make his party matter in next year's UP assembly polls. But once you take a sober look beyond the headlines, it is clear that Rahul is in for the long haul. Or, at any rate, he should be if he wants the Congress to climb out of the bottom of the barrel in the country's most important political state.
Rahul's latching on to the farmers' agitation in Bhatta-Parsaul village outside Greater Noida has been a tactical success. It was the Congress — trailing at No 4 in what's really a tussle between the two 'samaj' parties — that was first off the block. Frankly, the matter of whether the MP from Amethi was exaggerating about the state government coming down hard on the protesting farmers isn't that important. Even if his attempts to make the police crackdown on the villagers turn out to be not quite the genocide that he may have been making it out to be, the matter of a Congressman taking on Mayawati's BSP will stick.
But we're not really talking about a Rahul Gandhi-led takeover of Lucknow in 2012. And there's no reason to think that Rahul himself is thinking along those lines. While the man may have been credited with having played a large role in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections in which the Congress won 21 of the 80 Lok Sabha seats — up from nine seats in 2004 — the 2007 assembly elections, like assembly elections in general, was a different matter altogether. It was the first time Rahul rolled up his white kurta sleeves to campaign in earnest. The subsequent result was unastounding: the Congress managed to scrape 22 seats in a 403-seat Vidhan Sabha — three less than in the previous polls. Rahul Gandhi hadn't revived the Congress then in UP at all.
But here's the thing. I suspect that it wasn't Rahul who was expecting to land up in the heartlands that lie beyond his pocket borough of Amethi and wrench the state of Uttar Pradesh out of the hands of the then chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav. This time, too, I think he is aware — or I sincerely hope that he is aware — that he's far from bringing about a 'Congress revival' in the state. But as the saying goes, one monkey doesn't stop the show.
So who's behind the manufacturing of the Great Expectations of Rahul Gandhi resurrecting the Congress in Mayawati-land and bringing the Grand Old Party back in the Grand Old State after 23 years? It's those halwais of the media.
First they go berserk, hyping Rahul's every action — as they did throughout last week deconstructing his every move, uttering and gesture. Then they link these moves, uttering and gestures with a dramatic revival of the Congress that they first spot in the form of a yet-to-be-there 'galvanisation'. And when that grand takeover doesn't materialise, they blame the 'scion' — they should ban that word! — for yet another crashing failure.
So a mountain is made out of a molehill (by the media) and then the molehill is blamed (by the media) for acting like a mountain, proving once again how starry-eyed the media are about Rahul Gandhi.
More credence should actually be given to the man who was sitting next to Rahul throughout his adventures in Bhatta-Parsaul: Digvijaya Singh. Playing the venerable Tauji, it was Singh who had picked up the land acquisition issue and made it a sticking point. Earlier, the former Madhya Pradesh chief minister had also strewn about those comments about 'Hindu terror' and the indignity shown to Osama bin Laden, a Muslim, when the Americans had buried him at sea. These weren't silly uttering of a senior Congressman playing 'Muslim appeaser'. It was a calculated programme of sending out signals to UP's Muslims so that they start knowing that they may have an alternative to Mulayam Singh Yadav.
What Rahul has to keep in mind in 2017 is to keep the pots boiling — not only the single-issue kind like Bhatta-Parsaul-type face-offs, but also the more fuzzy, vague ones such as development and 'taking care' of Muslims. All this will, however, come to zilch if the Congress party structure isn't strengthened on the ground. Rome wasn't built in a day. Neither will a Congress revival in UP. So until he shows results, Rahul shouldn't take the easy way out and find comfort in prime ministership. In 2017, he could pitch that promise to the people of UP.