Why Rahul Gandhi bombed in UP and why we got it wrong

There would have been no disaster if there was no expectation


Ajay Singh | March 7, 2012

Collective wisdom often weaves its own logic. As a journalist I am quite aware of the risk of guessing the outcome of UP election 2012 which was characterised by so many variables and imponderables that it was almost like fishing in tsunami waters. Yet I guessed that Rahul Gandhi would do very well in the UP elections. And I was proved wrong. I think I owe it to my readers to explain the reasons and circumstances under which I firmed up my view about the Nehru-Gandhi scion.

About two years ago I travelled to Bundelkhand to visit all those villages where Rahul Gandhi stayed for a night and interacted with the local people. In my interaction with villagers, I could clearly see that Rahul Gandhi had struck a chord with the people. In most of the hutments which he visited, he was looked upon as a leader who is genuinely concerned about their plight. Of course, he did not evoke the same sympathy in villages inhabited by chamars where the BSP reigned supreme.

There used to be an element of planning in every visit in Bundlekhand that he undertook. Yet the manner in which he interacted with local people and encouraged self-help groups generated a confidence. In almost all cases, he bypassed party’s local cadre and leaders, a lot which stands largely discredited in the eyes of the people. This is the precise reason why his moves, though liked by the people, had distinctly distanced the party’s organisational structure.

Rahul extended this experiment to all of UP — which is often sarcastically referred to as the prince’s “poverty tourism”. But what appeared to be quite daring was his visit to Bhatta-Parsaul in the wake of police firing on protesting farmers, a few miles away from the national capital. Rahul was not only the first national leader to reach out to victims but his presence gave solace to victims of the police brutalisation. He raised the issue of molestation and criminal assault on women by the police which was initially denied but subsequently verified by the national commission for the scheduled caste. This was followed by a padyatra which started from Bhatta-Parsaul to Aligarh and covered a significant part of western UP. He was seen walking across fields in sultry summer at a time when the BJP president fainted barely after facing sun for 30 minutes.

In his public speeches, he had been making right moves, reaching out to people, staying with them, drinking water from hand pumps and exchanging pleasantries and at times meals. Perhaps I could see him crafting politics and idioms which are completely at variance with the traditional politics of UP. Of late, all top leaders of the state tend to hop onto chartered planes or choppers to visit rural areas. Despite his status as a SPG protectee entitled to get choppers from the Air Force, Rahul has been shunning this entitlement to mingle with hoi polloi.

Just about 45 days before the polls, I travelled from Deoria to Varanasi and Lucknow to assess the people’s mood for seven days. In the course of my journey, I could distinctly see the virtual extinction of the BJP which seemed to be fighting a losing battle right from the word go. On the other hand, Rahul Gandhi had been drawing huge crowds in Bansgaon, Chillupar and parts of Gorakhpur and Azamgarh. There appeared a definite drift of the BJP support base towards the Congress which seemed only alternative to the Congress. This image was further bolstered when Rahul Gandhi stayed in the Shibli College guesthouse in Azamgarh and found himself surrounded by girl students eagerly shaking hands with him and asking blunt questions about the Batla House encounter. He deliberately allowed his stubble to grow into a full beard to fit into the “rustic look” of eastern UP. At times, he was quite at ease with the audience and emerged as one of the finest speaker in Hindi — a trait which eluded his ancestors from Pandit Nehru to Rajiv Gandhi.

Perhaps Rahul Gandhi did everything right in Uttar Pradesh which should have accrued him good dividends. But that was not to be. Why has this not happened? With hindsight being 12x12, I can now admit that I erred in counting semantics as substance in politics. Rahul not only lacked an alternative agenda but was also found wanting in evolving an effective strategy to consolidate his gains. He was no doubt a prince charming for ordinary people who loved his proximity yet found him too distant to rely upon. His intermingling with people and spending nights in night-shelters (rain baseras) in Allahabad are appreciated by people like a good fairy tale, not grounded in reality. He was loved, adored and admired for being a good soul but not trusted as a politician by people when it came to voting.

The manner in which Rahul took on Mayawati for the past one year created an atmosphere against the BSP. He raised the issue of corruption effectively and challenged Mayawati at every stage. But he could not infuse energy in his party’s organisational structure which is outdated and out of sync with ground realities in the state. This was the precise reason why he could not rein in his own leaders like Digvijay Singh, Salman Khurshid, Sriprakash Jaiswal, Beni Prasad Verma who were working at cross purposes. The indiscretion by these leaders repelled a section of upper caste vote scurrying back to the BJP which had lost substantial ground in the state. But what cost Rahul dearly is the assumption of his strategists that the electorate would vote for Rahul even if a state leader is not projected.

Apparently, this smug belief that the electorate can be taken for granted proved to be undoing for Rahul. This is in sharp contrast to approach of Mulayam Singh Yadav who managed his elections in an organised manner. He put his son Akhilesh Yadav in command and gave him free rein to modulate the pitch of campaign. For instance, Akhilesh made himself accessible to media and put his best and amiable face forward to win over fence-sitters. He effectively used the media to dispel the firmly-entrenched image of Mulayam Singh and Samajwadi Party as the ones promoting anarchy and criminality in the state.

As a resident of Uttar Pradesh and a reporter who covered the state for over two decades, I assumed that it would be difficult for Mulayam Singh Yadav to overcome his image-deficit, particularly among the upper caste people which form a substantial chunk (26-30 per cent) of the electorate in the state. There were enough straws in the wind to suggest that a section of this electorate would gravitate towards the Congress after deserting the BJP which appears to be totally adrift. As the campaign picked up, Rahul’s overemphasis on winning over dalits and OBCs seemed to have made this chunk suspicious and drove a large section of them to a desperate remedy — Samajwadi Party (SP).

That said, I must also say that I am convinced that I did not see a chimera in UP. The Rahul effect is a reality, even if it has severely under-delivered in this election. The fact that the entire country is discussing his disaster underscores one fact that is easily lost in the din: there would have been no disaster if there was no expectation. Is there any other plausible reason for nobody paying any particular attention to the BJP's equally brutal drubbing in UP? The results will tell you that there is only one party other than the most-hated BSP (for this election, I must emphasise) that has lost seats, the BJP! It has not been able to hold on to its measly 51 and dropped four. This is the third election in a row that the party that claims to be conscience-keeper of the substantial upper cast vote in UP has been spurned by its base. But that is not news because nobody expected anything from the BJP in this election too.

There would have been no expectation from Rahul also if he had not rolled up his sleeves, literally and otherwise, jumped into the ring and directly led the challenge. A politician taking a risk is not necessarily a bad thing. Rahul has undoubtedly made a space in UP's heart, he now needs to build a base on the ground before 2014.



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