Brand Rahul Gandhi is down but not out
“I have nothing to lose,” Rahul Gandhi had defended his dangerously close association with the fortunes of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh. “The risk is only in sitting at home.” But Rahul did have things to lose, primarily the aura of his surname that sustains an otherwise disparate party.
As the rather depressing results rolled out, he put up a brave face. “I was leading the campaign. It is my responsibility.” In no mood to give in, Rahul said his efforts to strengthen the party in the state would continue, regardless of the outcome.
It is this idealist streak that has been guiding Rahul's engagement with UP, a state with which he admits an emotional link. But in the rough and tumble of politics, idealism is cheered, but rarely voted for.And anyway, can it be an open-ended game that you play until you win? He will get his next shot at power in the state after five years — 2017. By then, he will be 47.
Idealism apart, Rahul tried to breathe in some realism about UP. He acknowledged caste as a determining factor of politics. He re-engineered the Congress to the realities of UP by stripping it off its upper-caste mooring and presenting the most inclusive list of candidates ever — a prerequisite, if the party was ever to be a serious bidder for power.
Identity politics can easily go over the top. The Congress' overdrive with the promise of reservation to backward Muslims created disquiet among Hindus. In the wake of the bad results, murmurs of protests from entrenched sections could get louder.
While Rahul responded to aspirations among lower castes, he took in defectors, many of who had outlived their political utility, weakening the whole effort.
“It's time he promoted youngsters from all sections who are available within the Youth Congress structure,” says an associate.
Personally leading a relentless campaign, Rahul tried to overcome organisational disabilities and inadequate candidates. But that wasn't enough, particularly while confronting three formidable organisations -- the SP, BSP and even the BJP.
His increased involvement is not substitute for a non-existent state leadership -- something that he should have known.
When he says he learnt some lessons from UP, the most crucial could be to abandon the party's intolerance of autonomous state leaders.
Good brands, after all, are run through franchisees. Rahul — a national figure — should take up work that agrees with his stature.
Interested and involved in state politics, but through his appointees — a switch essential for the 2014 battle for Delhi.
The electoral beating in UP has dented the equity of the Rahul Gandhi brand, but its strong enough to survive it. But repeated setbacks can irreversibly damage it.
Rahul may not like the politics of election-to-election survival, but the other extreme of considering elections immaterial to politics, too, won't work. Elections must be fought to win, and one has to be in politics to claim power.