One thing can be said in favour of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He has made political dynasts the object of social media sneers and symbols of unmerited inheritances. It may be another matter that Rahul Gandhi may be far better educated and genuinely qualified, but it is Narendra Modi who is seen as the one with merit, because he came up the hard way. In a country where over a million sit for the JEE to qualify for a few hundred places in the IITs, and where the winnowing process of selection for just about every admission or opening is very severe, be it a government medical college or the civil services or even to become a jawan in the military or the police, the importance of being perceived as merited cannot be ignored. The chaiwalla story is more compelling than the Doon School dynast. It is no wonder then that Narendra Modi’s rise is seen as merited and Rahul Gandhi’s ascension as unmerited.
But make no mistake. Some inheritances are deemed legitimate. A corporate scion is not perceived as unmerited. For instance, movie actors who inherit looks and talent, and doctors and lawyers who inherit practices are seen as legitimate inheritors till their lack of merit shows up. But when the doting parent or the fawning courtiers thrust a son or daughter, in the democratic age it is no longer seen as merited. Political parties are not royal courts where a hapless Mohammed Shah Rangila or an indolent Bahadur Shah Zafar can be forced down upon a nation. People have a way of showing how they feel about this. In the 2019 Lok Sabha elections KCR’s daughter Kavita was rejected in Nizamabad while the TRS went on to win most of the seats. In Uttar Pradesh, Mulayam Singh Yadav won while his daughter-in-law was defeated.
Rahul Gandhi rightly abdicated the Congress presidency after the party was soundly beaten in the last elections. But the Congress Working Committee response was to resolve that it would create a new Congress Seva Dal to replicate the RSS’ booth level election fighting machine. Clearly, the analysis was that it was the RSS’ booth level organisation that won the BJP the elections.
Nothing can be further from the truth. What won the elections was the demagogic charisma of Narendra Modi, who cast a spell with a mishmash of religious rhetoric, outright lies and distortion of, let alone the past, but even recent history. The challenge for the Congress is to create a competitive imagery that will rekindle the magic it had once cast to combat the RSS’ pernicious ideology. If it can do that the election fighting booth level machine will automatically happen. In the modern age, the currency that will keep the troops motivated and fighting are ideas and dreams. The problem is that the Congress still thinks currency is the only king.
Never a confident leader and at best a diffident speaker, with little of what makes a person charismatic, Rahul Gandhi can hardly be a foil to Narendra Modi, a communicator par excellence and a rabble rouser without a peer. In June 2014 the Congress Party reached down to pluck Mallikarjun Kharge from obscurity mostly because he was the only one other leader with some standing in the party who could reply to the new masters. He was up to the job.
He said that the NDA was repackaging work done by the UPA and asked the Narendra Modi government to implement the promises made without trumpeting and "arrogance". Mallikarjun Kharge invoked Mahabharata and said that though the Pandavas were few in number as compared to the Kauravas; still they could not be defeated. At another time he dismissed then home minister Rajnath Singh’s attempt to paint the Congress as anti-dalit by claiming that Dr B.R. Ambedkar, unhappy about how the Constitution had turned out, wanted to leave the country with a scathing riposte: “Dr Ambedkar never wanted to leave the country. He was part of the country. You Aryans came from outside. We have been putting up with your ways for five thousand years.” Rajnath Singh, a RSS man to the core, did not have an answer, as his shakha training didn’t provide him with the true historical backdrop of India.
What the Congress needs now is an ideological and social contrast to the BJP, someone who can dismiss the RSS’ mythology, with the contempt that it deserves. The Congress’ stable of princelings simply can’t do it. The Congress needs to dig deep into its small bagful of peasant leaders with a track record in government and being from the people. One can be sure that there are several others in the Congress who could lead the party. Among the chief ministers it has Bhupesh Baghel of Chhattisgarh and Ashok Gehlot of Rajasthan. Both have a record as exemplary CMs and excellent organisational men. But Mr Gehlot is a bit hamstrung because of his poor communication skills. Mr Baghel is a clear possibility.
He is a great communicator and belongs to the Kurmi caste. The Kurmi agriculturist communities have a reputation as being hard working but were considered to be a tribe rather than a caste by the authorities of the British Raj. Desiring recognition as a caste, the first Kurmi community association was formed in 1894 in Lucknow to protest against the recruitment policy that debarred them from entry to the police service. In 1894 the first Kurmi organisation came into being in Awadh and sought to draw other communities -- such as the Bhils, Mahtos, Koeri and Koli -- under a common umbrella as Kurmi. The Kurmis have a long tradition of being opposed to the brahmins who dominate our polity and call the shots in the RSS.
Clearly the RSS still sees Mr Kharge or someone like him as the danger man. Till Sonia Gandhi announced herself as the Congress president again, the RSS bot factories were churning out garbage about how Mr Kharge was worth Rs 1,000 crores, then Rs 10,000 crores. Coming from a party that spent over Rs 50,000 crores in each of the last two Lok Sabha elections, and whose leader appears dressed in an insignia suit and Gucci eyeglasses, this is rich. When somebody like Mr Kharge or Mr Baghel points this out, it will cut deep. Unfortunately, the Congress still behaves like the latter-day Mughals, with a durbar in place of an empire.