The shift in public perception about Rahul Gandhi has been astonishing in the past year. Surf any news article about Rahul and you will find thousands of negative comments. Seldom has a scion of the first family been criticised so much. One wonders if he will be the last major leader of the first family, much like Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal.
The rise in negative opinions about Rahul is a worrying sign for the Congress, which projects him as its future leader. Of course, many in the Congress believe the internet is a CIA-RSS conspiracy, and they may well ignore these warning signs. However, should they choose to address it, there are steps they may take to stem the growth of this negativity.
Let us understand what has happened. Less than two years ago, Rahul was hailed as a people person, a hope for the future and a youth icon. The nation applauded him for taking a surprise local train ride in Mumbai to counter the Shiv Sena and the MNS. However, today, people are wondering if he is taking us all for a ride instead.
There are two main reasons.
First is the perceived lack of genuineness. Yes, the media still swoons over his trips to villages and halts at dalit homes, but the perception of a lack of sincerity in these efforts has begun to solidify. At least in the educated middle classes, the most often cited question about Rahul is — what has he done? This lack of personal accomplishment, and covering it up with gimmicks, has made it difficult for people to warm to him. Indians have changed a little. Yes, they still love dynasty, but they also want the new successor to have credentials apart from heredity.
If Rahul wants, he could take a challenging, yet manageable role in which he can prove himself. The chief minister’s position in Delhi, or even in any of the other Congress-ruled states, could be a good start. Or, he could take on the education ministry and really reform the system to win over the youth. Without true accomplishment, it will be difficult for the educated voter to believe Rahul deserves the top job.
The second reason is Rahul’s adoption of the once effective but now totally outdated weapon of the Congress — silence. The silence on corruption scandals and the Anna movement (apart from a last-day, misfired attempt to score the winning shot) and staying away from the media when it comes to important issues do not go down well with the youth. If he wants the Lokpal to be a constitutional authority, why doesn`t he come on TV channels and explain his case for it? Why did he bring it up so late, anyway?
Silence may allow you to evade such questions, but you cannot wipe them away from people`s minds. People keep asking those questions on the internet; they resonate, people assume the worst and ultimately destroy the reputation of a silent person. Talk with humility, sincerity and honesty works better than a contrived silence.
Of course, many in the Congress may smirk at all this, for they believe the educated middle classes don`t matter in elections. Yes, the numbers are still relatively small, but they are rising fast. There are more than 30 million people on Facebook alone, and they are more than doubling every two years. A look at the vote share difference between the two parties will tell you that the margin of victory is not that large.
The Congress may count on the rural vote and claim the voter numbers are much higher there. However, such support is likely to shrink over time. Rural voters are habituated to subsidy schemes like NREGA but are facing high inflation, so their vote is not assured. As rural affluence and education rise, they may also feel less enamoured of dynasty and seek competence instead.
The Muslim vote, the core strength of the Congress, is also not something that can be taken for granted over time. Almost every political party is claiming to be secular now. The new generation that hasn’t seen as much communalism as in the previous decades may not feel as persecuted as a community as its elders and may be more ambivalent about its vote.
These shifts in Indian demographics and mindsets are good for the nation. However, they come at a tough time for the Congress. The Congress may well want to align with the trends above, but it currently also faces the risk of an internal implosion — a fallout of the blame game arising from the mishandled Anna situation. The Congress not only needs to project new leaders who look young, but who also think in a new manner.
Rahul’s future will depend on these factors. There are some real, solid risks to his career at the moment. However, i wouldn’t write him or the family off yet. The lack of a formidable opposition, and hopefully, some sane voices in the Congress might save the day. After all, there are differences between Rahul and the last Mughal. One, the last Mughal wrote wonderful poetry. Rahul doesn’t. Two, the last Mughal did not have a sister like Priyanka. And that may finally matter after all.