Now that the Karnataka Assembly election outcome is known, let us acknowledge one fact: The Rahul Gandhi magic is still working. He would do a Houdini or Dynamo or our own PC Sircar proud. In Karnataka, where by most accounts the Congress regime led by Siddaramaiah was with some ability fending off the mounting challenge from the Bharatiya Janata Party, the Congress president came (on many occasions), he saw (virtually nothing) and he demolished (his own party). From a high of 122 seats which it had secured in 2013, the Congress slumped to less than 80, while the BJP more than doubled its tally to stop a few seats short of the halfway mark. Across all regions of the State, barring one, the Congress lagged behind the BJP in vote-share. After all this, all through the day right until the time of writing, the Nehru-Gandhi scion was missing. It was left to Sonia Gandhi to reach out to HD Deve Gowda to stitch an alliance — though one that is a gross betrayal of the people’s mandate.
From the initial media reports that have been coming, Rahul Gandhi’s strike rate in the rallies he addressed has turned out to be poor, and pathetic when compared to that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. It is now official that he made a minimal positive contribution to the prospects of his party. The Karnataka embarrassment could have been written off as an isolated case but for the string of defeats he has led his party to, both as president and in his earlier avatars. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Rahul Gandhi is a huge asset to the BJP; so long as he helms an electoral campaign, the BJP can hope for success. One is reminded of the famous cartoon that had appeared in The Indian Express in the days when Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi was running a vendetta campaign against the daily over the latter’s exposures on the Bofors scandal, and scaling up its sales figure. The cartoon had depicted Rajiv Gandhi as the circulation manager of the newspaper. Today, Rahul Gandhi is in a similarly complimentary position for the BJP.
On a more serious note, just what is wrong with Rahul Gandhi that he cannot evolve as a leader of credibility? It cannot be for want of trying: He had approvingly endorsed his party’s divisive campaign in Karnataka that sought to divide the Hindu community along Lingayat/non-Lingayat lines; he had remained silent when the Congress struck a tacit understanding with the dubious, hate-mongering Popular Front of India — which finds mention in documents of various probe agencies including the National Investigation Agency, the Kerala Police, and the Enforcement Directorate; he felt elated when the Congress went all out to polarise the electorate by celebrating the birth anniversary of the controversial ruler, Tipu Sultan; he sought to sell the false narrative that the Modi Government was out to destroy the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes Act; he ridiculed GST and demonetisation. The problem clearly has been that he tried the wrong things. Either he genuinely believed that such questionable methods would impress the voters or that he had been brainwashed by his courtiers into believing that. Either way, he has no defence.
The problem is not that Rahul Gandhi makes mistakes; most politicians do at some stage or the other. The problem is that he learns nothing from them. During the earlier Gujarat Assembly campaign he had employed nearly the same tricks, and this resulted in the Congress’s defeat in an environment when everything seemed to be going right for the party: anti-incumbency against a two-decade-old BJP Government; rural discontentment against the ruling party; dissatisfaction among its traditional voters, the Patel community; the social rainbow that the Congress had created with leaders of the Scheduled Castes and Other Backward Classes. The most potent weapons in the armory of divisive politics had been at his disposal, and he used it freely. Yet the party failed to dislodge the BJP regime. The lesson he should have learnt is simple: If you seek to polarise on grounds of caste and religion, then be prepared for a counter-polarisation as a consequence. But Rahul Gandhi being Rahul Gandhi, he replicated the very same failed tactics in Karnataka as well.
Congress leaders are not going to revolt against their failed president. Rahul Gandhi is not an ordinary man, which PV Narasimha Rao or Sitaram Kesri was — and thus could be dispensed with. But others in the opposition camp are not obliged to entertain him despite his repeated failures. In other words, the Congress’s grand dream of leading a united opposition under Rahul Gandhi’s banner to take on the BJP and Modi, has all but collapsed because the regional satraps, more so after the Karnataka debacle, are going to keep him at an arm’s distance.
it is now being said by Rahul Gandhi’s apologists that the game is not over yet. Later this year, they claim, the party is all set under his leadership to unseat the BJP regimes in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. What happens in these two States, we will have to wait and watch. But of course the game is not going to be over for Rahul Gandhi — it never will unless the Congress ejects the dynasty. That’s hoping against hope, though.