Gandhi can't win the vote with tired ideas

PUBLISHED : Monday, 12 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 12 March, 2012, 12:00am


For Indian's ruling Congress party, the recent election in the state of Uttar Pradesh was meant to mark the emergence of Rahul Gandhi as a 'real' politician, capable of pressing the flesh and connecting with the masses so brilliantly that he would silence detractors who scorned him as a lucky 'prince'.

This was the first time Gandhi had put his neck on the line. He led the campaign, held rallies and made speeches. He decided the strategy and chose the candidates. He was projected as the 'new and modern' face of the party, the man who would lead Uttar Pradesh and the nation to a better era.

But Gandhi failed. Congress had expected to triple the 22 seats the party held before the poll, out of a total of 403. It managed to win only six more.

It turned out that the poor rural voters were more 'modern' than Gandhi. They rejected his approach.

Gandhi reached out to voters by talking about caste and religion. He promised quotas in jobs and education for Muslims. He told the low castes they were being neglected because of their caste and chose some candidates based on their appeal to certain caste communities.

In this, he misread the new mood of the Indian electorate. Voters have matured and, while still conscious of these aspects of their identity, are no longer imprisoned by them. Today, they seek development from politicians - in the form of roads, electricity, good schools, hospitals and jobs.

It was Gandhi's rival, a young local politician, Akhilesh Yadav, who appealed to these aspirations by promising English-medium schools and free computers to the younger generation. Hence his party's triumphal 224 seats.

Yet, as Congress' heir apparent, Gandhi cannot be written off, if only because the party cannot breathe, much less function, without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm. Gandhi said the defeat was 'a very good lesson' for him. The question is whether he and his party have understood the lessons.

There are three. First, poor Indians may turn out in droves to see a charming son of a fabled political dynasty, but that does not necessarily translate into votes. Second, parachuting Gandhi into Uttar Pradesh for a few months was no match for the appeal of a genuine local leader. Third, India has new kind of voter - mature and sophisticated. As analyst Pratap Bhanu Mehta put it, they chose 'empowerment over patronage, the future over the past, performance over rhetoric, sincerity over cynicism, rootedness over disembodied charm, and measured realism over flights of fantasy'.

It's Gandhi's job now to match this depth and sophistication by the time of the 2014 general election.

Amrit Dhillon is a freelance writer in India