Well before the results came last Sunday, an alarming degree of panic was palpable in the leafy avenues of Lutyens Delhi. It spread from the corridors of power and the splendid bungalows of political leaders to the drawing rooms of chattering socialites so that on the evening before the results were due from Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Delhi, it was hard to meet anyone who was not talking about what might happen. My Congress friends were more infected by anxiety and panic than anyone else but they continued to believe that Chhattisgarh and Delhi would go their way even if the portents from the two big Hindi heartland States was grim. They cheered themselves up by saying things like ‘Congress is the natural party of governance’ and ‘there is absolutely no Modi wave.’
Once the results started coming out on Sunday, it became quite clear that the Congress was doing badly everywhere but they continued to say that there was no Modi wave and spent much time stating that the drubbing could not be blamed on Rahul Gandhi. In the TV studios in which political pundits were obliged to spend the day, the anchors pointed out that it was Rahul who had given out tickets and he was the one who had led the campaign, which made the Congress Ministers, including its spokespersons very angry. It was as if their only mission after the defeat was to shield their leader from blame. When he himself appeared with his mummy to address reporters late that afternoon saying he had listened to the message that the people were sending with his ‘head and his heart,’ his spokesperson admitted grudgingly that there was need for ‘introspection’. But, what will this introspection reveal as long as it does not allow questions about the role that the Gandhis have played in a defeat that seems like an ominous trailer of what is likely to happen in 2014?
Rahul Gandhi indicated in his brief conversation with reporters on Sunday afternoon that he was going to bring drastic changes soon. He said, “Both the major parties are thinking of politics in a traditional way. We need to think about empowerment of the people and I am going to do this very aggressively…the Aam Aadmi Party has involved people that the traditional parties have not done.” When I heard Rahul say this, I did not doubt for a minute that he was sincere in what he said. What I do have doubts about is whether he realises who the ‘aam aadmi’ is today. During his campaign, the point that he made repeatedly in his speeches was that while the BJP was a party that directed its policies only at rich people, the Congress was a party that concentrated on empowering poor people. He talked of how he wanted to see Adivasi women look up at an aeroplane and think of how their children would fly in it one day and how the reason why he wanted highways built was because he wanted ‘poor people’ to use them.
When I heard him repeat this over and over wherever he went, I was reminded of speeches that his grandmother used to make. They had a resonance in Indira Gandhi’s time because most Indians were desperately poor. I remember that her rallies were filled almost entirely with men and women who bore all the ugly signs of acute malnourishment and grinding poverty. Their teeth and hair were usually discoloured from poor nourishment, their eyes had a vacant look, they were usually barefoot and dressed in clothes that looked like rags. Has Gandhi’s grandson noticed that today’s ‘common man’ wears jeans and T-shirts and that he nearly always has a mobile phone in his pocket? Has he noticed that he looks as if he has enough to eat and that his aspirations are not to get the next installment of cheap food grain from a Government ration shop but to get a job that pays him well enough to send his children to an ‘English-medium private school’?
Political pundits always have theories at the end of an election and my theory after these elections is that neither Rahul nor Sonia Gandhi have noticed how much the ‘common’ Indian has changed or how much India has changed. The crushing defeat of the Congress Government in Rajasthan is proof of this. The former Chief Minister sincerely implemented the economic policies that Sonia Gandhi and her National Advisory Council have forced the Prime Minister to follow. Not only was MNREGA implemented faithfully but in the past year, the people of Rajasthan were given all kinds of other charity. Free medicines, dowries for brides, pensions, loans for homes and a long list of other things but Vasundhara Raje in her meetings used these very things against Ashok Gehlot.
“Take everything he gives you,” she would say “because it is your money that is being spent on these things. Just remember not to vote for the Congress.” On the day I spent with her on her ‘su-raaj’ (good governance) yatra, I saw her also use very effectively the things that the Gehlot Government had not provided. Do you have electricity? Clean water? Do teachers teach properly in the school? Does the health centre work? To each question the crowd would roar ‘No’. In doing this, she cleverly drew attention to the fact the Government had failed to provide the things that really mattered. They cannot be provided under the Sonia Gandhi economic vision because it has taken away the money from building real rural infrastructure that goes into building the handout economy that Gehlot built so faithfully. So, if there is to be real introspection within the Congress before the general election what should be examined is the role of the Gandhis who have played in causing such a humiliating defeat. Had this introspection happened after Bihar and Uttar Pradesh were lost Congress may have been able to reinvent itself. Now, it could be too late to change the image that the ‘aam aadmi’ has of it as a party that is corrupt, leaderless and run like a family business. So, for the moment, it would not be wrong to say that the political party that is likely to suffer most in next year’s general election is the Congress. Rahul may be sincere in his efforts but it could take him a long while to understand what the Aam Aadmi Party already has the ‘aam aadmi’ is no longer what he used to be.