Opinion | Modi’s mandate shows that the age of the part-time politician is over
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mega mandate will be deconstructed for weeks and months before we understand how Indian politics has fundamentally changed. But there is one conclusion that is self-evident, and it is an especially instructive one for the beleaguered Congress. The age of the part time politician is over.
How the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has responded in the week since the results tells you that, under the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime, the party’s appetite is voracious and its energy relentless. Even before the new government could be sworn in, the party moved in for the kill in West Bengal, luring away legislators and councillors from the Trinamool Congress (TC). Swimming in the deep waters of politics, the BJP doesn’t even pause to come up for breath. You could call this perennially competitive instinct focused, aggressive or pugnacious. Some may even call this expansionist impulse a kind of paranoia: the Modi-Shah team doesn’t savour its victory; instead it constantly looks to consolidate and build on it. What it conveys is this: never take the voter for granted.
It is this, above all else, that the Congress leadership has been guilty of. The diminishing brand of the Gandhi family has been attributed to the public’s disgust with dynasty when contrasted with the self-made rise of the prime minister. While it is true that a large part of Modi’s journey has been about pushing back against elites and challenging the old establishment, data tells us a more complex story about the dynasty factor. A study by Gilles Vernier and Christophe Jaffrelot shows that 30% of the new parliamentarians are from political families, 31% of Congress candidates are dynasts as were 22% of the BJP. Dynasty continues to be an unfortunate reality of our polity and the patterns of winning and losing linked to it are patchy.
Entitlement may be a better reason to explain the electoral pushback against the political cache of the Gandhis. The assumption, that no matter what, Amethi would remain loyal to the family is an illustration of this entitlement.
Tailing the campaign on the ground I reported from both Smriti Irani and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s rallies and sabhas. It was evident that Irani was getting greater numbers and much better crowd response. Yet, till the very end, the Congress and, dare I say, much of the media, kept arguing that this was one seat that the Gandhis would never lose. It was this assumed right-to-win that the party has been punished for. That and the projection of moral superiority.
Throughout the election campaign, instead of concentrating on a simple, memorable, counter-slogan, the Congress leadership made the mistake of wanting to appear better than the BJP. The befuddling offer of love to Modi from Rahul Gandhi can also only be understood within this framework. The dependence on one family — as reflected in the still-unresolved intra-party crisis — exposes a larger structural problem in the Congress. But more than dynasty, the Gandhis appear to have been punished for coming across as part time politicians who believe they will come back to government sooner or later. In fact after 2014, there were lazy murmurs within the party about this being part of the cycle of politics. “In 2024, Rahul Gandhi will only be 53,” Congress leaders would argue — and possibly still do — as if to suggest he, or his sister, has to inevitably lead India one day or the other. It is precisely this attitude ( among a plethora of other factors) that has cost them.
If Rahul Gandhi is serious about showing commitment to the people who did vote for him in Amethi, the smart move would have been to take the first flight back the day after his defeat. He should have spent time with people and committed himself to fighting the next election from there. In this he failed to learn from his opponent, Smriti Irani. She was back within hours after a close aide was killed to offer a shoulder at his funeral, The photograph of her assertive female leadership went viral. And in 2014, when she lost to Gandhi, she did not stop her engagement with the constituency.
Modi clearly lives and breathes politics every waking minute of the day. As does Shah. The fact that the PM is a bachelor and has no children has also reinforced the perception of him as a spartan leader whose life is fully consumed by politics. More than dynasty, the Gandhis have to contend with a new-style politics that demands absolute mindspace from them. And perhaps they need to internalise that while the family name may not always be a disadvantage, it is most certainly not enough to win elections any more.
The best example of this is in the story of former Congressman, YS Jaganmohan Reddy, who has been able to shrug off the label of a dynast because of the sheer number of days he spent on the road.
Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi could learn from him, if not from the BJP.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning journalist and author
The views expressed are personal