After two consecutive debacles in general elections of 2014 and 2019, the grand old party of India is going through a leadership crisis. After much criticism, the Gandhi family scion, Rahul Gandhi, has resigned from the post of Congress’s President.
A question that many are now asking is whether Rahul was ever a mature politician who could have headed the Congress successfully? Did he have the necessary wherewithal to become its prime ministerial candidate?
This article has been divided into three phases covering the political journey of Rahul Gandhi from the point of view of how he was sought to be projected and how that may have caused the current turn of events in his political career.
Phase 1 – The Initial Years (2004-2009)
Phase 2 – Rise within the Party (2009-2014)
Phase 3 – Dwindling Fortunes (2014-2019)
In the year 2004, Rahul Gandhi was elected as Member of Parliament from his family bastion Amethi. This was the beginning of Rahul Gandhi’s career and nothing much could be said about his leadership skills because he had not done anything of note yet. However, he was already being cast as the young man who would lead the country some day.
In 2005, an article published in Times of India titled “A track that gives Rahul Gandhi his kicks”, wrote about Rahul Gandhi’s love for fast machines, his status as the most eligible bachelor of India, as well as declared him as the “the young man, who is billed to lead the country someday”.
From the praise above, it is difficult to understand as to how a man who loved fast machines like his father was billed to be the future prime minister of India.
In 2007, he was appointed the General Secretary of the Congress when the party was fighting to revive itself in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections. However, despite Rahul Gandhi’s campaign, the Congress was defeated and Rahul had conceded the defeat, cautioning, it’s too early to expect anything. He may have been correct then as he needed more time to learn the ropes..
In 2009, the country had general elections and Congress was fighting for another term. The Manmohan Singh led UPA government had announced a major farm loan waiver a year before the election. This announcement was widely seen as a significant factor for Congress’s better performance in 2009 than 2004.
This was also the first general election which saw Rahul Gandhi’s involvement for the first time. The articles on Rahul Gandhi’s coming of age started coming projecting an image of Rahul Gandhi as the dynast who was ready to claim his position.
For instance, a news report was published in the NDTV on May 05, 2009 right during the Lok Sabha Election 2009.
Another article in BBC Hindi was also published during the Lok Sabha election of 2009.
Public discourse was being shaped as if it was Rahul Gandhi who led the party to better performance. Interestingly, two more articles in two more different publications hinted at the same phenomenon within a span of one month.
The good performance of the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, especially, was laid at Rahul Gandhi’s door, even in an election where there could have been many other factors leading to the victory of the Congress. At the moment, the glory for the Congress’ success in UP was Rahul Gandhi’s.
These encomiums would be put to test in the next test that he had, his second chance to revive the Congress in Uttar Pradesh in the 2012 assembly elections. NDTV held a special show titled “The Political Evolution of Rahul Gandhi” during the assembly election in Uttar Pradesh in 2012. Rahul Gandhi as the face of the party had campaigned for Congress candidates in the state.
But, as in 2007, he failed and Congress could manage only 28 seats in Uttar Pradesh assembly. He lost to Akhilesh Yadav of Samajwadi Party who was more successful in understanding the pulse of the people. This election was a reality check for the charisma of Gandhi scion. Moreover, this unimpressive performance also should have seeded doubts on whether the impressive performance of the Congress in 2009 should be credited to Rahul Gandhi. However, not many such genuine questions were asked.
Despite failure, the Congress continued with his promotion and made him the Vice President of the party in 2013. And, in the same year after becoming second-in-command, Rahul Gandhi had torn apart an ordinance brought by his own party’s government in 2013, in a widely-covered public appearance. The lack of any counter to his action also showed he had complete say over his party already, an astonishing fact given that he had brought no demonstrable electoral utility to the party so far.
Despite the failure in Uttar Pradesh assembly elections 2012, the general elections of 2014 gave Rahul Gandhi another chance to prove himself. By now, he was already the Vice-president of the party and had all the resources at his disposal.
Interestingly, Rahul Gandhi, who was coming of age in 2009, was still coming of age in 2014.
But what happened in 2014 needs no mention. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi led his party to its lowest performance ever, 44 seats in Lok Sabha. This was a humiliating defeat for the party. Moreover, Rahul Gandhi himself had relatively struggled to win his family seat of Amethi where his victory margin came down. Thus, he had failed in both Uttar Pradesh assembly elections and general elections.
However, in the year 2015, a Mahagathbandhan experiment worked in the state of Bihar where Congress too tasted success riding on the back of Nitish Kumar, a popular chief minister of the state and Lalu Prasad Yadav’s party base. The chance for the Congress, at least in a grand alliance, got revived.
After this, started another series of Rahul Gandhi coming of age as a leader even though the Congress kept losing states one after the other post-2014.
There came a time when the BJP had formed government in more than 20 states in India. And, it is not that Rahul Gandhi was not campaigning in these states. He had put in all he had at his disposal, but he was not able to win the confidence of the people.
Rahul was, however, able to lower the tally of BJP in Gujarat assembly elections 2017. He was declared a winner without even realizing the fact that BJP was contesting the election for the fourth term, facing massive anti-incumbency.
Similarly, Rahul Gandhi had a third chance to revive Congress in Uttar Pradesh in 2017. But, Congress came down to just 7 seats, losing all 4 assembly seats of Amethi, a Gandhi stronghold. This was the earliest projection of what was to happen to Rahul Gandhi in 2019, but, perhaps, the warning signs weren’t heeded.
In 2017, he was made the President of the party without holding any elections for it.
In 2018, Congress under Rahul Gandhi’s presidency fought elections in states like Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh among others. In Karnataka, BJP had emerged as the largest party, but Congress was able to stitch a post-poll alliance with Janata Dal (Secular), even though they were at loggerheads with each other during the campaign.
However, Congress’ win in the state of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh gave a boost to Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. In the state of Madhya Pradesh, Congress was fighting an opponent which was contesting for its 4th term and despite that, the vote percentage of BJP was higher than the Congress. And, Congress had just managed to form the government by a whisker. The case of Chhattisgarh was also similar; BJP was contesting for its 4th term. The state of Rajasthan is known for the election of alternate parties every election.
Without regard to such nuance, the Congress’ victories in these states were projected as a ‘coming of age’ of Rahul Gandhi, again.
According to some, he was clearly emerging a game changer in 2019 general elections.
But then, Rahul Gandhi yet again failed in his major exam of Lok Sabha elections of 2019. His rise in the party clearly coincided with the fall of his party.
Had it been any other leader in the Congress, would he/she be given so many chances despite repeated failures?
This seems to be the case of a prince in an ivory tower who never had any access to or taste for honest criticism or tough questions. Without these, no individual can ‘come of age’. For about 15 years, every victory was made his but every failure was rewarded with a promotion. With such a lopsided incentive structure, is it any wonder that Rahul Gandhi finds himself at his current position today?
Moreover, Rahul Gandhi’s resignation shows that this constant projection of him as the next great hope has bred in a false sense of righteous anger. He questions all institutions of the country for his defeat, rather than question his own performance as a leader. He even hints that his party was not with him as he fought ‘alone’ at times.