Erasing public memory is a device in electoral politics which is given acceleration by television’s magic
Sonia Gandhi declared herself the unelected, temporary president of the Congress at last weekend’s CWC meeting; as the “Group of 23” muttered “foul” under their breath. What about Rahul Gandhi’s chances of becoming party chief? If it loses in UP in March, let “mummy” carry the badge of yet another defeat. Will he become president only when victory is in sight? Will Congressmen gape at the abyss until then?
Meanwhile, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s extended agitation in Lakhimpur Kheri, scene of recent ghastly BJP callousness, would have had electoral potential if, in addition to her personability, she also had some political stamina. I pray to God that she doesn’t, like the Hare in Aesop’s fable, go to sleep after a few promising hops. But I’m afraid she may.
My scepticism is based on experience of her off-and-on style in both Rae Bareli and Amethi, two UP constituencies that are the Gandhi Parivar’s “pocket borough”. Erasing public memory is a device in electoral politics which is given acceleration by television’s magic. Priyanka’s resemblance to Indira Gandhi, the way she carries the sari, clear diction, combative demeanour, spontaneous anger, a capacity to connect with the audience, all these are useful attributes. But these also have the potential of erasing from public memory the electoral reverses the Gandhis have heaped on the Congress.
Some years ago, friends from Rae Bareli turned up in white khadi and Bata canvas shoes, looking very athletic. Priyanka invited “carefully selected Congress leaders for a Chintan Baithak (brainstorming).” The occasion for the “Chintan” was the party’s humiliating defeat in the 2012 UP elections. Worse, in Rae Bareli the Congress lost all the five seats which form segments of a parliamentary seat. In adjacent Amethi, the party lost three out of five.
After the “Chintan Baithak” led by the redoubtable Kishori Lal Sharma, gifted to the Gandhis by the late Satish Sharma, Rajiv Gandhi’s fellow pilot in their Indian Airlines days, Priyanka put up her feet and rested.
When the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign was warming up, grassroots reports indicated a total Congress rout. Rae Bareli and Amethi too may be lost. This rang alarm bells. The prospect of neither Sonia nor Rahul being a member of the House would spell disaster for the family, not the party, let it be noted. They may lose 10 Janpath. That is when Priyanka jumped into electoral battle both in Rae Bareli and Amethi. Single-handedly, she held onto the two seats for mother and brother by the skin of her teeth. These were the only two seats the party won from UP.
Everywhere, in Indian conditions most certainly, politics is a 24x7 business. Party workers, constituents consider it their birthright to lounge on the lawns and amble along the corridor, often past the master bedroom. You can’t be part-time politicians. You can’t campaign your guts out in Rae Bareli and Amethi and resume your razzmatazz lifestyle, occupying front-row seats at Lakme or Rohit Bal fashion shows. That is not the culture of Indian politics.
Rahul, likewise, has a habit of packing his bags and disappearing without notice, untraceable, presumably to some exotic locations. At the 2013 CII summit, he left the captains of Indian industry baffled, describing his journey from Gorakhpur to Mumbai by Lokmanya Tilak Express. En route he met Girish the carpenter and others whom Rahul described as symbols of India’s aspirations, who, like a billion other Indians, were remote from authority in the big cities. He invited the cream of Indian capitalism to delve into his discovery of India.
The drumbeating for the Trinity continues regardless by the likes of A.K. Antony, Salman Khurshid, Randeep Surjewala and sundry Congress stars. The party is once again blown to smithereens in 2019, but… what is the alternative to the Gandhis, goes the chant by the same lot after every debacle. Meanwhile, leaders big and small leave the party in droves and cross over, mostly to the BJP, confirming the party’s credentials as the BJP’s “B team”.
A group of 23 senior Congress leaders, a mixed bag of very successful professionals and some redundant has-beens, write a desperate letter to Sonia Gandhi in August 2020: “Please take decisions on the party, its direction.” No response. Okay, say the 23, five states will hold elections in April-May 2021. Maybe, the party will recover some ground. A slightly reassured party leadership may be inclined to bring about changes. Keep our fingers crossed. Come the elections and, lo and behold, the party is hammered out of the park once again.
Why are you being so uncharitable to the Congress at this critical time? (They will say) Look, Priyanka is getting so much attention in Lakhimpur Kheri. Who knows, this may be the Congress’ recovery curve.
This grand delusion is custom-made to disrupt any Opposition gameplan for 2024. The delusion is a function of the ruling class dream that India is somehow inching towards a two-party system, with two parties that are mirror images of each other, except for one difference: Congress will look the other way on “love jihad” allegations and oppose lynching alleged beef transporters.
It was a horrendous tragedy in Lakhimpur Kheri which first grabbed prime-time attention. But the fact that the cameras stayed on Priyanka for so long eventually helps the channels and Narendra Modi. By themselves, the siblings aren’t any threat to Mr Modi. To the contrary, the excessive media focus on them will only boost their egos to a point that they will make unreasonable demands of coalition partners, without whom there can be no credible strategy for the 2024 elections.