Sometimes it takes a stinging loss for a politician to show the world what kind of leader they are. Rahul Gandhi may be about to get that chance. The 41-year-old, fourth-generation political heir of India’s Congress Party dynasty has invited the nation’s political class to look at this year’s state assembly elections in the biggest state in India, Uttar Pradesh (population: 200 million) as a test of his ability and proof that he’s ready to play on the national stage. He has spent most of the past year doing little other than campaigning in U.P., but as the early results begin to come in, it appears that Gandhi will fail to meet even his very modest goal: to win enough of the 403 seats in the UP state legislature to be the third-largest party in the state. As results come in, it looks like Congress’ position in UP may remain essentially unchanged; with the surging Samajwadi Party very close to an outright majority (as a CNN-IBN exit poll predicted over the weekend) the Congress Party may not even be necessary as a coalition partner in the state.
The bottom line for Gandhi? His party is again approaching irrelevance in a state where his family held office for four generations. The ancestral home of Jawaharlal Nehru, his great-grandfather, is in Lucknow, UP’s state capital; Indira Gandhi, his grandmother, launched her “Garibi Hatao (Abolish Poverty)” campaign from UP in 1971, setting up a landslide victory in parliament. (That same election, of course, was later invalidated by a U.P. state court, leading to two years of Emergency rule.) Former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, his father, represented UP in Parliament, as Rahul and his mother Sonia do now.
(PHOTOS: Elephant Statues Covered in India)
This poor showing makes it clear that, other than the Gandhi family star power, the Congress Party has little appeal. UP is dominated by two huge, regional caste-based parties, one of them led by the Dalit icon Mayawati, the other, the Samajwadi Party, a sometime ally of the Congress Party representing the interests of the Yadavs, a large and powerful caste group in U.P. Rahul Gandhi’s efforts to woo away those same Dalit and Yadav voters with a grass-roots campaign made national headlines. Last July, the cover of the Indian newsmagazine The Week showed him on his “walking tour” of the state, brow furrowed in concentration as he trudged through the mud (surrounded by security guards) in sneakers, a white tunic and pants, his sleeves rolled up above his biceps: “He toured Dalit hamlets, ate and slept in their houses, heard them out and assured help. The aim was to wean Dalits from the BSP.” In one speech, he promised, “I will go to every nook and corner of the state, cover each village and city and will fight along with party workers.”
(PHOTOS: India’s Turning Points)
As the campaign wore on, Gandhi decided to “get his feet dirty,” as the magazine Tehelka put it, engaging in blatant caste-based politics despite the Congress Party’s stated aversion to it:
“A seminal moment came at a public meeting in Kanpur when he [Rahul Gandhi] described [former Rajiv Gandhi adviser] Sam Pitroda as a Badhai (traditional carpenter caste). In one defining phrase, Pitroda — a man with dozens of patents to his name, an inventor and entrepreneur who made millions in the US, a technologist who revolutionised Indian telecom and the sort of meritocratic achiever who defined the first flush of Rajiv Gandhi’s Camelot — was boxed into a narrow sub-caste framework by his political mentor’s son.”
That strategy — played against two parties who are masters of the game — has clearly fallen short. “He has managed to at least change his image from drawing-room politician to someone who is willing to come to the street, but it is still far from being identified as someone who is the son of the soil who can dirty his clothes,” says Sanjay Kumar, a Delhi-based political analyst and fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies.
More importantly, Gandhi hasn’t shown voters that he can deliver. He spent much of the campaign criticizing his rivals in the state for lining their pockets instead of delivering basic services (the same allegation that has dogged his own party for nearly two years) for the rural poor. But Congress failed to offer them more than handouts (a promised pro-farmer reform of India’s antiquated land acquisition laws, for example, has made little progress). In open letter to Gandhi, the columnist Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote, “You have focused attention on India’s poor. But you appear to use the poor more than you want to trust their agency… Rather than engage on pathways out of poverty, your government seems to want to douse them with noblesse oblige.”
This election was meant to rally the Congress Party’s rank-and-file behind Rahul Gandhi’s inevitable leadership, but instead it may renew the whispers that he just isn’t ready. “Rahul’s ability to hold a more important position in the government will become that much more uncertain,” says Paranjoy Guhathakurta, a Delhi-based political analyst.
After the Congress Party’s similarly poor showing in state elections in Bihar last year, the president of the state party offered to resign. In U.P., Congress Party officials are already lining up to deflect the blame from Rahul Gandhi. Rita Bahuguna Joshi, the Congress Party president in UP, praised Rahul Gandhi as the state’s “star campaigner” and said all responsibility for a bad outcome should fall to her and to the losing assembly candidates. Protect the heir to the throne at all costs— that’s the reflex of a party in which loyalty to the Gandhi family is a paramount value. Rahul has spent the last three years promising to bring new ideas and the energy of youth to his party and to India. Here’s an idea for him: take personal responsibility for this failure. That might prove his mettle as a leader as well, or better, than even a victory in U.P. —With reporting by Nilanjana Bhowmick