Indian Congress party president Rahul Gandhi has successfully dispelled claims that he was ineffectual or entitled. Photo: AFP
Indian National Congress party president Rahul Gandhi has tried to dispel claims he is ineffectual or entitled. Photo: AFP

In one of the youngest countries in the world, jobs should be a major issue in every election. But in 2019, as incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi makes an ambitious bid for a second term, there’s no challenger of note to champion that issue.

Ideally, Rahul Gandhi, the president of the Indian National Congress and scion of the leading political family, should have emerged as Modi’s biggest rival. Inheriting the parliamentary system of government from its departing colonial masters, the British, India has largely seen personality-driven politics and Gandhi’s great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, and grandmother, Indira Gandhi, were grand personalities who dominated India’s politics until her assassination in 1984.

But as the elections approached, opinion polls, for what they are worth in India, showed Gandhi leagues behind Modi, not posing a serious threat of catching up. In 2019, for a variety of reasons, Modi is the only personality who has managed to straddle a national consciousness. He seems untouchable as far as the economic failures of his government go.

What had happened to the Nehru-Gandhi brand was a perhaps predictable case of generational drift in which Rahul appeared the elitist representative of an out-of-touch dynasty. He eventually started to get it that he would have to change and show that he had changed but it appears that didn’t happen in time to set off a 2019 wave of enthusiasm among the electorate.

Fundamental mistakes

Many close to him or sympathetic to his party point out a number of “mistakes” that Gandhi has made in their view.

“Modi and the BJP worked for years to build an image that Rahul is not only elite, he is also inaccessible,” a former minister in the Congress-led government told Asia Times. “In India, elitism is synonymous with power and inaccessibility. While Modi worked assiduously to build an image that he is accessible, Rahul never managed to do that. That, I think, was one of his first mistakes.”

Modi took to Twitter and became one of the most followed politicians long before Gandhi arrived on the platform. Modi also started a radio program, gave speeches and spent furiously on billboards and other advertisement to make himself and his carefully curated story visible. He pointed out that he was a “mere tea seller” who came from a “backward community,” unlike Gandhi. For many Indians, he was the embodiment of the rags-to-riches story.

Meanwhile, Gandhi continued to miss any opportunity to take this on and address it. Gandhi came from a system that had been in power for nearly 60 years. This ensured that many of his key party lieutenants were also sons and daughters of party leaders, who grew up in circumstances as elite as his.

“They became his closest advisors and trusted lieutenants,” the former minister said. “So any any advice coming from them was no match for what Modi and his party had in mind. They knew what the gallery wanted. Rahul didn’t.”

As a result, while the Congress tried to keep its political messaging factual and aggressive, it had little or no resonance with the voters.  A generation of Indians who had benefited from economic reforms ushered in by a Congress government in 1990 under prime minister Narasimha Rao and the then-finance minister Manmohan Singh had moved on to the the BJP.

“This was because people were now exposed to globalized norms like never before,” another key party functionary said. “Their aspirations soared and the BJP capitalized on it, by pushing the narrative that INC was just not up to speed. We never caught up and that is the dominant myth, despite huge evidence to the contrary.’

A changed man

Appointed as the president of his party, Rahul took over in December 2017 from his mother, Sonia Gandhi. She had managed the party for nearly 15 years and helped stitch together a coalition that was in power between 2004 to 2014. But things had begun to look shaky, and her foreign origins – she’s Italian-born – became a rallying point for those opposed to her. In 2014, the Congress reached a historic low with only 44 seats in Parliament, while Modi romped home with a comfortable majority.

By early 2018, people began to see a new Rahul. He seemed accessible, energetic and most importantly, aggressive. He slowly ushered out the old guard and began to gather his team, replacing key officials in his party. He also took a leaf out of the BJP’s 2014 playbook and started paying greater attention to social media, as well as big data. Both of them had played a major role in the BJP’s historic win in 2014. The social media cut out the traditional media as brokers of information, while big data helped target Indian voters like never before.

“This was certainly a time to change and Rahul brought them in, as carefully as he could,” a senior Congress leader told Asia Times. “He knew that the traditional approaches were no longer working. He also knew that the BJP had built political capital by whipping up hatred against his family. The loss of 2014 also made it clear that the old guard of the party was no longer working,” the Congress leader said.

A new media interface group was created under a former minister in the Haryana state government when the Congress was in power. Randeep Singh Surjewala was brought in to energize the team and attract more media focus. Pawan Khera, who had served the Congress’s chief minister in Delhi for 15 years, Shiela Dixit, was brought in to add more firepower. A former actress, Divya Spandana, who had worked in the Kannada-speaking film industry of Karnataka state, was tapped to rejig the social media team.

The results were visible immediately. Spandana knew how to speak to the youth. Khera, a past master at explaining complex issues simply, became an able partner to Surjewala as they began a fresh new approach to communications.

The Congress’s manifesto was a carefully thought out exercise. “We brought in a host of young experts who knew various sectors,” a party member who was part of the exercise told Asia Times. “Former ministers like P Chidamabaram and Jairam Ramesh became the linchpins for the exercise. The idea was to open it up to the people and take their suggestions on board. This would become a participatory exercise, but also have experts weigh in on suggestions and ensure these could be implemented.”

The exercise succeeded and a major welfare program, that promises to transfer up to Rs 72,000 to each of India’s poorest people became a major talking point, at a time when large parts of the media had switched their allegiance to the ruling BJP.

However, while data were on the side of the Congress, voters continue to remain wary of the party. An analysis of economic growth under the Congress-led government between 2004 to 2014 by economic columnist Vivek Kaul clearly reveals that even the worst years under prime minister Manmohan Singh were much better than the best under Modi. Furthermore, a number of economists including Gita Gopinath, the chief economist for the International Monetary Fund, have expressed their doubts about statistical data under Modi. Many believe that data are now being fudged to shore up really bad numbers that reveal a sinking economy.

Changing the subject

But none of this seems to have brought Rahul Gandhi into range to dislodge Modi. One big factor here is that Modi knew that he would not be able to shape the narrative for 2019 on his economic track record so he found another issue.

The demonetization that Modi had ushered in on November 8, 2016, sucked out 87% of India’s cash overnight. It led to massive stress to the economy, while destroying millions of jobs in both the formal (taxed and government-monitored) and informal sectors. The BJP manifesto makes only a single mention of demonetization now.

But the car bomb terror attack killing 40 Indian policemen on February 14 became a powerful opportunity for Modi. He deftly diverted attention from his government’s failure to prevent the attack. Instead, any questions raised by the opposition parties were immediately labeled as “anti-national.” Modi turned the election into a national security narrative.

Gandhi once again tried to play catch up. He asked a former Indian army general of considerable repute to put together a report on reforms needed for India’s national security. But the report came and went without making waves.

“There was nothing new in it,” another retired Indian Army general summed up. “The report was incremental at best. They are promising to only make a bad system better, when the system needs to be junked and a new one brought in.”

In some ways, that was also Modi’s mantra in 2014. He promised a paradigm change. He failed, but Gandhi is not even promising a new paradigm in 2019.

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