Fortune favours the brave
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Fortune favours the brave

Rahul has shown us that there is a new aspirational young India out there, looking for new answers and new methods. He reached out to those voters even as the Mayawatis and Amar Singhs were playing their own sleazy games, writes Vir Sanghvi.

columns Updated: May 17, 2009 02:28 IST
Vir Sanghvi
Vir Sanghvi
Hindustan Times

Okay, first things first. I’m not going to say I told you so — mainly because I didn’t. Nobody I know expected a Congress victory of this magnitude. The political pundits were wrong. The exit polls underestimated the Congress’ popularity in such key states as Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. Even the Gandhis did not think that such a massive victory was on its way. Priyanka Gandhi told Outlook that it was “touch and go”. And her mother, always the cautious one in the family, told friends that she would be happy if the party got 150 seats or so. Ahmed Patel, the Congress’ key strategist, had a more optimistic expectation (170-180) but even he did not think that 200 was a possibility.

Given that the scale of the victory was so unexpected and that I have spent most of Saturday inside a TV studio, I have not had the time to formulate any theories about the election.

But here are some things that struck me as the results started flowing in:

n The true significance of the Congress victory lies in UP. We all know that the Congress has no proper organisation in that state. So even those of us who believed that Rahul Gandhi’s tours had attracted new support to the Congress were doubtful that this goodwill could be translated into votes.

These results show that the sentiment in favour of the Congress was so strong that the party was able to do as well as all the other well-organised outfits. In this sense, there are parallels with Indira Gandhi’s 1971 victory when, even though she had lost the party machinery to the Congress (O), she triumphed because her supporters were so determined to vote for her.

Can you imagine how well the Congress would have done in UP if it had an effective party organisation?

n I have no voting statistics or demographic numbers to back up this claim but my sense is that the youth vote swung it for the Congress.

There are two reasons for this. The first is that the BJP is a party that focuses on grievances and old issues (Bofors, 1984 riots, etc.) that young people don’t really care about. Whoever decided to go on and on about Ottavio Quattrocchi did the Congress a favour. That rhetoric showed up the BJP for what it has become: a party of paunchy, middle-aged men, who hope to make their own futures by exploiting the issues of the past.

Secondly, the two younger Gandhis, both of whom were extremely visible during this campaign, suggested an air of modernity and youth which was missing from the BJP campaign. The BJP’s second-rung of Young Jerks (headed by Narendra Modi) has begun to look distinctly old and past it in contrast to the younger Congressmen (Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, etc.)

n Throughout the UPA’s tenure, urbane BJP leaders, along with much of the media, made lots of fun of the Congress’ welfare programmes such as the Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme and the farmers loans write-off. The government was often dismissed as being overly dependent on the views of NGOs and jholawalas.

In the end, these welfare programmes helped the Congress more than the BJP had ever dreamt they would. Sonia Gandhi had said that she wanted to reach the people who were excluded from the market system. When global capitalism itself went into a crisis, this healthy skepticism about the efficacy of the market seemed to have been vindicated.

More worrying for the BJP should be its complete failure to win over any significant section of society. While it dismissed programmes aimed at helping the rural poor, it should, at least, have won some support in the urban centres.

In fact, the BJP was wiped out in both Bombay and Delhi. So who did the BJP succeed in appealing to?

I have no idea. And I doubt if the BJP does.

n One of the things that is always said in favour of the BJP is how media savvy it is. Its spokesmen are supposed to be suave and persuasive on television. It has a nice website. Cyberspace is more or less owned by the BJP. Write anything vaguely critical of Narendra Modi and swarms of bloggers descend on you. The BJP is supposed to understand polling and opinion research better than any other party.

What this election proves is that none of this matters. The BJP spokesmen who told us how confident they were of victory now seem like idiots. The bloggers have demonstrated that they do not reflect the national mood. And the pollsters took the BJP for a ride, getting everything wrong.

n It’s quite clear what will happen next in the Congress. Manmohan Singh will be Prime Minister for as long as he wants. If his health requires him to step down soon, then somebody like Pranab Mukherjee will get the job. Contrary to what you read in the papers, Rahul Gandhi is not desperate to be Prime Minister.

What happens to the BJP is less clear. The Vajpayee-Advani era is at an end. It seems to be only a matter of time before Narendra Modi takes over.

I imagine that Modi will focus on development and try and play down his past as a mass murderer. But will that be enough? This election shows us that Modi is not the unstoppable force he is sometimes made out to be. The Congress did respectably in Gujarat and in no state where Modi campaigned did his charisma seem to swing any votes. The state where the BJP gained the most was Bihar and that was the one state where Modi was not allowed to campaign.

So, I am not sure if Modi is the answer to the BJP’s problems.

Somebody like Arun Jaitley, who is in the Vajpayee-Advani ideological mainstream, may have more success.

n And finally, the three real winners of this election. The first is Nitish Kumar, who polished off Lalu Yadav and Ram Vilas Paswan once and for all and who is now looking for ways to ditch the BJP.

The second is Naveen Patnaik, who has demonstrated that if you work with dedication and sincerity for your state and run an honest administration, then you can beat anti-incumbency again and again.

And the third is Rahul Gandhi. It is fashionable in certain circles to disparage him. When he talked about his long-term plans for the Congress’ future, Opposition politicos sneered. When he held his Delhi press conference, journos looked for reasons to run him down. (In retrospect, given how things have turned out, he was remarkably prescient at that press conference.)

Rahul has shown us that there is a new aspirational young India out there, looking for new answers and new methods. He reached out to those voters even as the Mayawatis and Amar Singhs were playing their own sleazy games.

These results demonstrate that he was right to do so. Victory comes to the brave, to the far-sighted and to those who are in the right place at the right time.

First Published: May 17, 2009 02:20 IST