Verdict 2019: Rahul Gandhi led from the front and is the moral Victor

If Rahul Gandhi devotes himself to developing this concept of love, compassion, and service as the basis of governance, India will remember him as a leader who tried to change paradigm of politics

Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Congress General Secratary Priyanka Gandhi
Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Congress General Secratary Priyanka Gandhi

Sudheendra Kulkarni

A true leader is one who never gives up on the mission he believes in. He soldiers on valiantly even if he faces initial failures and setbacks because of his conviction that his mission is sacred and, hence, bound to succeed. In the case of some leaders, their effort bears fruit after they depart from the scene. But when the fruit arrives, people know who planted the tree, as happened in the case of Ho Chi Minh, who died (in 1969) before the Vietnamese defeated the mighty American army (in 1975).

Such leaders are not born. They make themselves. Birth certificate has never automatically made a person a history changing leader. Without an unceasing self-effort, without consistent, patient, determined and disciplined self-sculpturing, without brutal honesty in introspection and correction of one’s mistakes, there is no way a leader emerges as a change-maker capable of weathering menacing storms, of swimming against mighty currents, and of ultimately changing the track of history in a better direction.

In trying to do so, he has to be ready to receive a barrage of ridicule, face stiff opposition from known and unknown quarters, and even hear voices insistently telling him to give up since the trans formative agenda he has chosen for himself is either flawed or doomed to fail. But a true leader stands firm, because he has unwavering belief in both the mission and in himself.

It is about such leaders that Mahatma Gandhi had said:

First they laugh at you

Then they ridicule you.

Then they attack, Then you win!

Honestly, it is too early to say whether Rahul Gandhi will emerge as a leader who will change the course of India’s history. He clearly has a long, a very long, way to go before history gives its verdict that he came, he struggled, he faced impossible odds, but ultimately succeeded in dispelling darkness and ushering in light and positive change, as embodied in the noble Idea of India and the irrepressible Aspirations of a Billion-Plus Indians. Nevertheless, if any potential hero has emerged out of all the din and dust of the long campaign for Elections 2019, it is Rahul.

It is undeniable that Rahul has already caused some important, and hope-giving, changes of long-term significance. The centre of gravity of Indian politics will begin to shift away from the BJP. The forces of communal polarisation and majoritarian nationalism, whose aim is to kill the Idea of India and transform secular India into a Hindu Rashtra, will be weakened.

The forces that mounted a scary assault on the institutions of democracy – and hence on the pillars of our Constitution itself – will be severely challenged. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s politics of arrogance, megalomania and contempt for the opposition (and even for elders in his own party) will no longer go unquestioned – and this is in the event (as the exit polls suggest) of his returning as PM, which is a possibility but not a certainty at the time of writing this article three days before May 23.

Rahul has been the initiator and the principal driving force behind these changes, which augur well for India’s future. No other politician challenged Modi with so much courage of conviction and self-confidence as the young Congress president did. What is more, never did he compete with Modi and his BJP counterpart, Amit Shah, in lowering the campaign discourse to coarse levels.

When some of his own party colleagues said something objectionable or indefensible, he lost no time in censuring them publicly. This is the hallmark of a principled and decisive leader, a feature that is bound to stand Rahul in good stead in future.

Contrast this with Modi’s morally compromised position in the face of the nationwide outrage over the BJP’s decision to make Pragya Thakur, who is facing charges in a terrorist crime, a star candidate for the Lok Sabha seat in Bhopal. He defended the decision in a TV interview. He kept mum when the lady, who is most undeservingly called a ‘Sadhvi’, described Hemant Karkare, a martyr in the Pakistan-sponsored 26/11 terror attacks on Mumbai, a “deshdrohi” (traitor). When the same person eulogised Mahatma Gandhi’s killer as a “deshbhakt” (patriot), Modi’s words of disapproval hardly sounded genuine.

Modi has left a big scope to doubt the genuineness of his reaction to Pragya Thakur’s praise for Nathuram Godse for the simple reason that his own aggressively vocal support base agrees more with her than him on this issue. Never in independent India’s history have we seen so much hatred for Gandhiji and what he stood for, and, as a corollary, so much openly expressed support for Godse as we have in the Modi years.

Godse might not have always figured in the Sangh Parivar’s ideological onslaught on the Idea of India. Nevertheless, one of its targets has been the idea and ideal of Hindu-Muslim unity, which is a central pillar of the Mahatma’s life and legacy. The fact Modi himself does not believe in the equality of status and rights of the majority and minority communities in secular India was quite evident when he slammed Rahul for deciding to contest from Waynad in Kerala.

The contrast between the campaigning of Modi and Rahul was quite evident on several important counts. Whereas the prime minister never stopped talking about himself – he almost never spoke in election rallies or media interviews without repeatedly taking his own name, Rahul Gandhi was a picture of humility and self-effacement. He once asked in a press interview: “Mere bahadur Congress karyakartaonke bina main Rahul Gandhi kaun hota hoon?” (Who am I, Rahul Gandhi, without my brave Congress workers?).

Whereas all of Modi’s interviews were held in the imperious environs of his official residence, and scripted to ensure no tough questions were asked, Rahul invariably gave interviews at the venues of campaign meetings where journalists were absolutely free to ask him any question they wanted.

As a result, there was palpable authenticity in the way Rahul faced the media, and severe lack of it in the way Modi did the same. The contrast between the two leaders was also seen in the fact that Rahul addressed many press conferences in the election season, whereas Modi addressed none. Indeed, in the only press conference in which he was present, a couple of days before the last phase of polling, he refused to answer a single question! This showed both his arrogance and his utter contempt for journalists’ right and freedom to ask critical questions and follow-up questions.

Rahul tried to focus his campaign (and so did his sister Priyanka Gandhi) on real issues facing the people and the nation – the crisis in employment, farmers’ distress, the disastrous impact of Demonetisation and flawed GST on the economy, the misuse of democratic institutions and politicisation of the Armed Forces for electoral benefits.

The substance and style of Modi’s campaign were very different. They had three features – polarisation, distraction, and self-glorification. First, Modi sought to polarise voters on communal lines. And making Pragya Thakur a BJP candidate was a part of this strategy. Second, he repeatedly tried to distract people’s attention away from the real issues, even at the risk of politicising the Defence Forces, an offence for which he knew the Election Commission would be too scared to reprimand him. Third, he and his party adopted a strategy of political marketing in which re-endorsement of Brand Modi became the main issue in this election.

Now that Modi has become Prime Minister again, it is less on account of a pro-incumbency vote and more because of a few costly mistakes on the part of the Congress and the rest of the opposition, for which Rahul also must accept blame.

The first and most critical mistake was the failure of anti-BJP parties to forge a common national alliance to present itself to the electorate as an alternative to the BJP. Secondly, and this is linked to the first failure, the Congress and other opposition parties failed to provide an answer to the question that was uppermost in the minds of many voters – “Modi nahin to kaun?” (If not Modi, who else can lead the nation?).

Thirdly, the weakness of the Congress organisation at the grassroot level in many states is severely undermining its prospects for growth both in those states and nationally. Fourthly, even as the Congress manifesto was far superior to that of the BJP, Rahul and his team ought to have planned and executed a plan far in advance to popularise its overarching philosophy and salient points.

Both Rahul and all other Congress leaders must be unsparingly self-critical and objective in assessing both the minuses and pluses of their efforts. Despite all this, one thing is absolutely certain: India has seen a new kind of leader in Rahul Gandhi, ably assisted by Priyanka and several other young and committed colleagues.

I am saying this because, one of the most distinguishing features of Rahul’s (also Priyanka’s) campaign was the emphasis on love as an antidote to hatred. This is a completely new language in Indian politics – I would go so far as to say that this is a completely new language in world politics.

In his widely appreciated interview to Ravish Kumar of NDTV, Rahul said, “I shall stand by even the RSS if it becomes a victim of violence.” Only a highly principled and courageous leader can speak so. In the coming months and years, if Rahul and Priyanka devote themselves to developing this concept of love, compassion, dialogue and service of the people as the basis of politics and governance, and remoulding the Congress party’s own conduct on these lines, India will remember them as leaders who tried to change the paradigm and practice of politics in the country. It’s not at all easy to succeed in this effort, but a party that claims the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi should not shy away from trying.

My concluding thought: The future of the Congress is bright – and hence the future of India is safe - because of Rahul’s leadership.

(The author was an aide to India’s former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee)

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Published: 24 May 2019, 7:30 PM