Rahul Gandhi’s pitch that Modi is the worst doesn’t mean Cong is the best

Shekhar Gupta
Monday, 14 January 2019

Which constituency is Congress President Rahul Gandhi addressing? How exactly does he define his base? Or, does he even know what his base is? 

Once upon a nearly-forgotten time, leaders in democracies talked to all citizens. When they were elected to office, they looked after the interests of all, including the very sizeable number who did not vote for them. Because the public office was a public trust. Now they only talk to what is called their ‘base’. The rest don’t matter.

Donald Trump is called a ranting idiot and a racist so-and-so by millions. Yet, the nuttier he looks to them, the more his base adores him. All the rest can go take a walk. If you don’t vote for me, don’t expect anything from me.

Take Narendra Modi’s BJP for example. It rides the Hindu vote to power. So, it fields no Muslim candidate in the Lok Sabha and even the assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh, which has a Muslim population of more than 20 per cent and sweeps both. It can afford to exclude the Muslims and mostly Dalits from power because it owns the Savarna, most of the upper and much of the middle-caste vote.

That’s why the 10 per cent reservation is one of the last big actions of its outgoing government.

So, which constituency is Congress President Rahul Gandhi addressing? How does he define his base? Does he know what it is? Vanilla anti-Modi-ism can’t be your only proposition to India.

We know that only 31 per cent Indians voted for Modi in 2014 and you can presume many more dislike or disagree with him. They are entertained and encouraged by Rahul’s relentless attacks on him. It doesn’t follow that they will vote for him. If anger against Modi is your only motivation, you will likely pick what you consider the best of the many choices available. In Bengal, it could be Mamata Banerjee, in Uttar Pradesh SP/BSP, in Bihar Lalu Yadav, in Kerala the Left, KCR, Naveen Patnaik and Arvind Kejriwal in Telangana, Odisha and Delhi respectively and so on.

Even if Rahul’s single-mindedness results in such crippling damage to Modi’s image that people defeat him, does it follow that they will elect the Congress instead? Today, it is most unlikely. Because one proposition (Modi is the worst), doesn’t naturally lead to the other (Congress is the best).

Until 1989, the Congress base was large enough to win everything: Lower castes, minorities, tribals, Brahmins, some middle-castes and a large number of the very poor. The BJP was then limited to the urban trader and Hindu middle-classes. That’s why Indira Gandhi would derisively call the Jana Sangh/BJP a Baniya party and almost never a Hindu party.

It follows that until she was in charge, the BJP could never call hers a ‘Muslim’ party, which the waffling UPA decade, beginning with POTA (Prevention of Terrorism Act) repeal, enabled Modi to do. Once Rajiv Gandhi had begun losing this base in 1989, the Congress had survived and prospered by aggregating its remaining vote and anti-BJP political forces. Post-2014, it will take more than that to bring the party back in the reckoning.

Approaching the big test about a hundred days from now, Congress doesn’t have a critical mass of loyal voters in any state today, except probably Punjab. It shares the east-central heart and tribals with the BJP. Dalits are elsewhere, Muslims have other choices in key states (Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Assam), the urban middle-class, especially the large, sub-25 age group, is still essentially pro-Modi. You cannot build a new voter base simply by sweeping together all those disgruntled with Modi under your tent. You can damage Modi but the benefit will be divided among many, friends and foes.

At this point, Rahul is following the Arvind Kejriwal style of 2010-14. Using Anna Hazare and much RSS throat power, Kejriwal played a stellar role in destroying the credibility of the UPA, especially the Congress. It was done so masterfully that even Congresspeople themselves were too psyched out to defend themselves against corruption charges.

It is fashionable to give credit to the BJP and the Vivekananda Foundation but the main weapon in that war against the Congress was Kejriwal. He was young, trusted, incorruptible and not bound by vocabularies and hypocrisies of conventional politics. He conjured up the ‘sab chor hain’ image for the Congress party. It is just that most of the voters he persuaded to dump the Congress did not come to him. He had not built a base for that. His gains were confined to Delhi. Elsewhere, he only succeeded in diverting those voters to Narendra Modi.

That is the peril of politics of pure negativity without offering an alternative. For which, you need to define a target base first. This is where Rahul is in danger of ending up. It is heady and effective, to be an insurgent but there is enough evidence that all you can then do in a democracy is inflict damage, not win power and gift it to someone else.

Rahul Gandhi’s success in the three heartland states, headline-hunting and most notably on Twitter, has fired the imagination of his intellectual supporters and the Modi-hating Left-liberal commentariat. But they count for too few votes and those millions of retweets and ‘likes’ are not counted by the EVMs. As in guerrilla warfare, Rahul has deftly adapted his tactics on the move. We are asking what is the strategic outcome? What does it add up to?

To toss the slur of being a Muslim party, Rahul has been making televised visits to temples, flaunting his sacred thread and high Brahmin gotra. At the same time, his party has had to be muted on the key secular-liberal issues of the day: Triple talaq, Sabarimala, upper caste reservation.

The same lack of conviction reflected in its convenient walkout from the Lok Sabha on this awful Citizenship Act amendment that effectively codifies the Zionification of India. The debate, here, is not about Zionism. Israel set itself up as an ideological, Zionist state. India gave itself the opposite: A non-ideological, secular constitution. It’s being challenged and the Congress can do no better than walk out. Both Hindus and Muslims in Assam and elsewhere are watching this.

It suits the BJP. This is what its base wants. When it calls the ‘illegal’ immigrants termites, it applauds. If it amends the Constitution to ‘clarify’ that only the Muslims among these are termites, they go rapturous. The Congress doesn’t even know what its base is or what is it that it wants to build in the next month or so as the campaign begins.

Pure, uncluttered anti-Modi-ism, however angry, can’t be an ideology or an electoral alternative. The best it can do for you is damage Modi enough for him to finish below 200. Can it enable you to cross 100, to begin with? Take a close look at the map of India, count state by state. By May, even if people get greatly disillusioned with the BJP, the Congress will not be their default choice in too many states. That’s Rahul Gandhi’s rude reality check.

Related News