Friday, January 27, 2012

Congress lands in its own trap

(First published in The Pioneer on January 25, 2012)


As much as the Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh is a battle of the ballot, it is also a battle of words. The verbal duets are often at the level of allegations and counter-allegations on ideology and policies, but they also take a more personalised shape.

While the tu-tu-main-main is always a welcome source of entertainment for the voters and the media alike, these verbal exchanges do at times change the perception of the voters towards the candidates and the parties.

But such personal barbs are a double-edged sword because they can cut both ways. Rahul Gandhi, who is considered by the Congress as the ‘tallest’; leader in the party (after Sonia Gandhi), learnt this truth the hard way recently. Soon after it became formal that Uma Bharati would contest the election from Charkhari constituency in the Bundelkhand region of the State as the BJP candidate, Mr Gandhi immediately fired a salvo.

He ridiculed her ‘outsider’ status saying that she had migrated from Madhya Pradesh. But before Mr Gandhi’s sycophants could begin celebrating their icon’s ‘master-stroke’, the fiery BJP leader hit back, and hit where it hurts the Congress the most. She pointed out that his mother Sonia Gandhi had come all the way from Italy to India (and Rae Bareli in Uttar Pradesh which she represents in the Lok Sabha). Whoever suggested that line to Mr Gandhi must have been really dumb.

If it was the brainwave of the Congress’s heir apparent, then Mr Gandhi has a long way to go, and ought to really be more careful. He is comparatively still a greenhorn, and as political veterans will tell you, getting entangled with Ms Bharati is entirely at one’s own risk.

In any case, coming from the Congress, the charge that a political leader is an ‘outsider’ does not sound credible. Perhaps Mr Gandhi has forgotten that its most ‘celebrated’ Chief Minister of Delhi — Sheila Dikshit — hails from Uttar Pradesh.

When she was brought to Delhi to turn the Congress’s fortunes, which were then at a low, regional satraps had strongly objected to the move on the ground that she was an ‘outsider’. But the Congress had brushed aside those misgivings. Today, neither the Congress nor the Opposition raises the issue of Ms Dikshit being an ‘outsider’. One wonders what the Chief Minister of Delhi has to say about Mr Gandhi’s comment on Ms Bharati.

Mr Gandhi appears to have also conveniently forgotten that his party’s Prime Minister represents Assam with which he has no connection. Also, the ‘youth leader’ must keep in the mind that his party’s MP, Mohammed Azharuddin has come all the way from Hyderabad to represent Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh.

The fact is that the Congress is jittery over the damage that the BJP leader can inflict over the former’s prospects at least in the Bundelkhand belt which Mr Gandhi has been regularly visiting for months now. He has been unfailingly reminding its residents of the region’s backwardness and the lack of opportunities that they have for growth and prosperity under Ms Mayawati’s regime.

He has been telling them how the Congress can do wonders for them — if only they would vote for the party. He has left nothing to chance, goading the Government into announcing a ‘special package’ for the region, and then accusing the Mayawati Government of bungling in the implementation of that package. In December last year, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Montek Singh Ahluwalia too joined the act by expressing concern at the ‘tardy progress and widespread irregularities’ in the scheme for which more than Rs 3,600 crore had been released by the plan panel more than 18 months ago.

The Congress is worried that the lack of any real progress on the ground will cost it heavily in terms of votes in the coming election and, more important, result in a loss of face for Mr Gandhi. The people here will not buy the Congress’s argument that Ms Mayawati alone is responsible for messing up the region although the Congress-led UPA had given its money for development.

Their reasoning is: If the State Government has indeed mismanaged central funds, why has the Union Government not taken action against it?

The Congress believes that it has this time a good chance to dent the BSP’s support base in the region, given that the anti-incumbency factor is said to be strong throughout the State. In the last Assembly election in 2007, the BSP had unexpectedly swept Bundelkhand, winning 16 of the 21 Assembly seats, while the Congress had to be satisfied with a mere three seats.

But the arrival of Ms Bharati has become a spoiler for the Congress. The BJP has nothing to lose in the region and everything to gain; it had drawn a blank in 2007. Analysts believe that any gain by the BJP in Bundelkhand will be at the cost of the Congress.

By raising the pitch against Ms Bharati, the Congress, and especially Mr Gandhi, has invited from her another retort that could well define the future shape of an already contentious political relationship within the Congress: That of between Mr Gandhi and Digvijay Singh. Call it the glorious uncertainty of Indian politics, Ms Bharati is in a way pitted against her old bete noire Digvijay Singh whom she had trounced in Madhya Pradesh in 2003 and who is now Mr Gandhi’s advisor of sorts on Uttar Pradesh.

In fact, there is little doubt that the Congress’s scion’s forays in Uttar Pradesh have been largely crafted by Mr Singh. After Mr Gandhi’s ‘outsider’ remark against her, the BJP leader did not stop at castigating him but went a step further and said that his “guru” Digvijay Singh too would be cut down to size in Uttar Pradesh like she had done to him in Madhya Pradesh.

If the Congress does worse than the worst-case scenario that it has worked out, Mr Singh’s credibility and job should be at stake. In such a situation it may become difficult for him to retain Mr Rahul Gandhi’s confidence. But even if the Congress manages to do somewhat better than it did in 2007 when it ended up with just 22 seats in the 403-member House, it will be seen as a defeat.

Since no leader of the Congress will dare point to Mr Gandhi for the cause of the poor show, Mr Singh can become the fall guy. So, by clubbing the two Congress leaders as “guru-shishya”, Ms Bharati has made sure that any setback to the Congress in the election is seen as much a failure of Mr Gandhi’s leadership as it is a voters’ rejection of Mr Singh’s dubious guidance.

Calling names does not work beyond a point in politics, and Mr Rahul Gandhi should be educated about that. When Mrs Indira Gandhi was dubbed a dumb doll — “goongi gudiya” — by her opponents within the Congress when she first became the Prime Minister, it must have given a kick to all those veterans who had ganged up against her. But she had the last laugh.

When Ms Sonia Gandhi injudiciously referred to the likes of Chief Minister of Gujarat Narendra Modi and his Government as “Maut ke saudagar” in an implied way, she ended up dramatically polarising support in his favour that led to the BJP sweeping election after election in that State. So, has Mr Gandhi done a favour to Ms Bharati? Let’s see.

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