Rahul Gandhi has the chance to bring Dalit votes back to Congress before the Gujarat polls, but he's content to just go with the flow
Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi at the inauguration of the Dr B R Ambedkar International Conference 2017 in Bengaluru on Friday. Pic/PTI
Good riddance to any crotchety old neta's departure from his party, whenever it happens. Recently Shankersinh Vaghela left the Congress party in Gujarat and it's doubly gladdening because of his double-facedness. The only reason he left his Hindutva home was opportunism, and the only reason Congressmen panic about his leaving is because of their bankruptcy of ideas. Why else would they rely on a double-crosser for 12-15 seats in north Gujarat in the Assembly election due this year-end? Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, however, hasn't exactly impressed anyone with battle-readiness for this poll. Vaghela's departure was a purge or house-cleaning, just the usual Congress factionalism and manipulation. The party was subdued. It should have asserted to voters that it will not be a B-team to the BJP - the impression that Vaghela gave.
Instead, the Gujarat development can't help but feel that Rahul Gandhi is content to go with the flow. Even his meeting with Chief Minister Nitish Kumar didn't convey any assertiveness from Rahul on trying to save the ruling Mahagathbandhan in Bihar. Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah must be slapping their knees with laughter. Rahul poses no threat for 2019, or even 2024. The BJP can stop relying on cheap tricks like using an old food festival photo of Rahul and his sister Priyanka with Chinese diplomats to question his patriotism during these tense times at Doklam near the India-Bhutan-China trijunction. Rahul is just no threat.
It is true that Rahul's presence on social media has increased. On Twitter, he is as acid against Modi as Modi once was against Dr Manmohan Singh. Of course, our politicians are unlike US President Donald Trump, who does his own tweeting, much to the chagrin of his staff; both Modi and Rahul's social media presence is managed by special teams. If Rahul is suddenly spouting wit, it's Divya Spandana/Ramya that Modi must thank.
Then there's Rahul's stump speech whenever he addresses crowds around India. Saying that Modi is like Hitler is fine; it may not backfire given the PM's personal popularity, but Rahul doesn't demonstrate that he himself is not Hitler. His criticism is misplaced because those Indians who know who Hitler is actually want a Hitler to run the country and fix things (though Modi, during his three years in office has shown, like Trump in America, that he's more capable of empty disruptions like demonetisation than actual constructive policy). Modi might well be Hitler, but Rahul — what are you?
Rahul has been lambasting the BJP for its treatment of Dalits. It's good that he recognises the real battleground — the Dalit vote — but do his words recognise the changing reality of Dalit thinking in India? Many Dalits feel anger at the University of Hyderabad and ABVP's actions that forced Rohith Vemula to take his own life, or at the flaying of four Dalits in Una, Gujarat; yet just as many Dalits have also accepted Modi's narrative that he will better their lot if they throw their lot in with him. There are enough Dalits, both North and South, who are buying into the RSS narrative of Brahminism — in Tamil Nadu, there are Dalit organisations that are against reservations, an irony in the very state that facilitated greater reservations.
It is all the more important that Rahul sway such Dalit voters, who are often young voters, away from Modi by not just attacking the BJP's upper caste revivalism, but by offering on behalf of the Congress a positive programme for such voters. It's not simple identity politics that will bring the Dalit vote back, but something additional: A programme that is identity-politics-plus.
Rahul currently has an opportunity to do so, since it appears that within Dalit politics there is lately a churning: Former UP CM Mayawati, who since 2012 has lost a parliamentary and two Assembly elections, looks demoralised (her threat to quit Parliament did not seem like it was done from a position of confidence); and on the ground, organisations like the Bhim Army led by Chandrashekhar seem to be galvanising supporters after their work following the Saharanpur riots in May. Her adamance on personalising politics around herself may soon catch up with her.
Perhaps Rahul could use the departure of Vaghela as an opportunity for a game-changing move within his party that focuses on swaying the Dalit vote back to the Congress. This doesn't seem likely, given Rahul's poor track record in trying to clean up his party machine and take on the entrenched local factions. He is in a position to cut the Gordian knot in the Congress organisation if he wants to give Modi and Shah an electoral shock in their home state; but he doesn't seem to be willing to do what's needed. Rahul just goes with the flow.
Aditya Sinha's crime novel, The CEO Who Lost His Head, is available now. He tweets @autumnshade. Send your feedback to email@example.com
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