Rahul Gandhi prepares ground for a political future

By Gilles Verniers


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The election campaign in Uttar Pradesh has sunk into relative apathy, the main parties involved in the competition waiting quietly in the wings for the post-poll negotiations. One exception to that lethargy is the youthful Congress MP, Rahul Gandhi, who keeps multiplying road shows and bold statements and spares no effort to build a space for himself within the Indian polity.

The Congress party has, in the current campaign, reposed all its faith and expectations in the heir of the Gandhi family. He, in turn, has taken the Congress' campaign in his hands and has succeeded in imposing his vision on the way it should be conducted.

Thus, a quarter of the party's candidates are less than 40 years old and the second most represented age-group largely includes those in their forties. They are people of Rahul's generation, are generally well-educated, fighting their first election and, for a large number of them, "inherit" a constituency previously held by their fathers. Secondly, he has managed to brush aside some of the deadwood that has been systematically barring the way to the party's electoral success.

Thirdly, he has crafted, with the help of communication and marketing experts, a general political line based on youth, political rejuvenation and tech-based development. Finally, he has multiplied controversial statements that have ensured him nationwide media attention, inaugurating in a rather populist fashion his entry into political competition.

Despite all these efforts, it is not certain that this strategy will pay off during the current elections. Many reports and comments tend to underlie that the current wave of support expressed at Rahul Gandhi's road shows might not necessarily translate into actual votes for the party's candidates. Indeed, for many voters, at least in Uttar Pradesh, the Congress party and the Gandhi family are often seen as two distinct entities.

Voters tend to support those who might be in a position to induce change (possibly in their favour), so the very people who cheer and greet the scion of the Gandhi family may not want to "lose" their vote by giving it to the Congress party. Secondly, there are many parties in a position to benefit from the anti-incumbency factor. This should play a minor role in the future result of the Congress party.

Even if it increases its tally, it will be difficult to assess whether it can be attributed to the Rahul factor. Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi tends to visit cities and towns where the seats have been labelled by the party's strategists as "winnable".

In the meantime, he has been carefully avoiding the constituencies in which the Congress has been recently totally decimated. The capacity of the Congress to win seats in Amethi and Rae Bareli, two VIP constituencies that counts very few Congress MLAs (legislators), would however confirm this hypothesis.

This may lead one to think that the purpose of this bustle lies beyond the current polls and is part of a larger strategy, crafted in order to prepare Rahul Gandhi for his planned political future. The fact that he is not projected as chief ministerial candidate attenuates de facto his involvement in the current electoral competition and is intended to avoid a backlash on his person in case of defeat.

Indeed, the party can at best hope to become the spare wheel of a coalition dominated either by the Samajwadi Party or the Bahujan Samaj Party. Aligning young candidates will allow him to breed a potential new generation of political cadres faithfully dedicated to him.

Finally, the controversial statements he has formulated on his family are used as reminders of the strong role it has played in the past and are intended to assert his position and ability as heir. All these aspects strikingly remind us of the strategy set up by the late Rajiv Gandhi in the early eighties. Rahul clearly emulates his example, and it is not surprising then to see some of the former advisors of Rajiv cocooning his son today.

In a nutshell, Rahul Gandhi and his team of experts are using the current UP election as a risk-free popularity test as well as a laboratory for his political ideas. Given the state of the Congress party in UP at the moment, it might just be the only relevant thing to do.

(Gilles Verniers is Ph.D scholar from the Political Studies Institute of Paris and is currently based in Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. He can be reached at [email protected])