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The more Rahul Gandhi grows, the more democracy develops

The creative Rahul Gandhi challenging fortress Modi and Shah whets the appetite of the political imagination

analysis Updated: Dec 21, 2017 11:58 IST
Shiv Visvanathan
Shiv Visvanathan
Gujarat Elections,Assembly elections 2017,Rahul Gandhi
What Rahul Gandhi needs now is to fine hone his leadership with a sense of organisational planning so that his sense of leadership has a personal, rather than seasonal quality.(PTI)

The Gujarat elections can facetiously invoke Charles Dickens’s famous quote about it being the best of times and the worst of times. The gestalt switch between the pre-election debates and the narratives after the election results were announced was stark. Rahul Gandhi suddenly could do no wrong. Earlier, he was confident and had opened up new possibilities. After the results, Rahul was dismissed as an amateur. In fact, the nature of commentary during this election was dismal — election commentary across channels was like a dull ball-by-ball commentary without any sense of nuance and the magic of electoral battles.

The facts are clear. The BJP could not achieve the magic mark of 150 and the Congress seems to have performed unexpectedly well. Only one thing was stark: the defeat of almost all its top leaders made one fear for the future of the organisation. Rahul Gandhi, who brought a certain excitement to the last few months of the election, was now seen as passé. Commentators seem to make a distinction between tapping into discontent and the consolidation of interests. Rahul’s politics of personalities, the highlighting of Hardik Patel and Jignesh Mewani, seem to emphasise individuals. Amit Shah’s politics emphasises a knitting together of interest. Interest and the logic of interests seem to have had the durability that discontent does not. Personalities attract publicity, but it was clear that Hardik and his ilk could not convert discontent into hard votes. Watching this humiliation, commentators criticise Rahul Gandhi for harnessing an ephemeral politics which promised votes only to deceive on election-day. The distinction between the BJP and the Congress is clear. The Congress for all his enthusiasm is presented as a Johnny-come-lately, or a Rip Van Winkle who got up too late from his sleep. Rahul Gandhi represents the excitement of the tactical while Amit Shah and the RSS represent the archetypal organisational men. They can burrow into society and wait for years to reap the benefit of votes. Rahul’s recent enthusiasm suddenly seems no match for the organisational acumen of Amit Shah.

The limits of the Congress as a functional organisation are well-known. But mere lack of organisational acumen hardly explains a victory. There are other sociological factors one has to consider. One thing is clear the BJP voter is more and more an urban creature and the party operates with ease among the urban and semi-urban sections. The Congress hold is better in the tribal and farm sectors. The BJP’s performance in the cities of Rajkot, Surat and Ahmedabad is revealing. It has captured the new imagination of cities and the new urban man seems to survive contentedly on the BJP’s goulash of development, Hindutva and aspiration. It is here that the BJP has been acute in its sociological analysis, suggesting that the Congress attempt to create a commitment around poverty is today a period piece. It is sociologically evident that poverty and absolute terms have declined and the BJP has read that change into a new dream of aspiring constituencies.

Beyond this, one has to understand that the BJP utilises time in a creative fashion. Firstly, its deliberate misreading of history creates a new sense of meaning for the Hindutva middle class. Secondly, the BJP realises that the Congress has not been in power for two decades. There is little memory of Congress achievement. In that sense, Modi seems a durable entity who, as PM and as party boss, can deliver his promises, while Rahul, while exploiting discontent, has little that is durable and tangible to offer. Thirdly, the ephemerality of Rahul extends to the period after the election. It is never clear how much organisational time Rahul plans to invest in any state. He acts more like a visiting professor rather than as a resident chieftain marshalling his forces.

One has to sense that despite the bullying by its leaders, the BJP has a touch of sociological awareness which must be grasped. It operates both at the level of interest and meaning. The middle-class voter, impatient with indecisive politics, does not mind the use of violence, he is psychology aspirational, and his insecurities are channelised and legitimised through Hindutva. In creating a combination which is both politically attractive and has a touch of the sinister, the BJP has tapped deep into the middle-class unconscious, and transformed it into a party of India.

Yet one has to admit that despite the formidable forces arrayed against him, Rahul did appeal to the voters’ imagination. As a person and a persona, he is clearer. As a leader, he can play both first among equals and team man. It is clear that he appears a leader ready for battle. Oddly, he still creates a sense of anticipation and surprise. What he needs now is to fine hone his leadership with a sense of organisational planning so that his sense of leadership has a personal, rather than seasonal quality. The more Rahul grows, the more democracy develops. The question is the nature of the imagination he brings to the task. The creative Rahul challenging fortress Modi and Shah whets the appetite of the political imagination and makes democracy the unexpected system it always is.

Shiv Visvanathan is professor, Jindal Global Law School and director, Centre for Study of Knowledge Systems, OP Jindal Global University

The views expressed are personal

First Published: Dec 21, 2017 11:57 IST