Rahul Gandhi succumbs to divisive, caste-based electioneering in Uttar Pradesh, in the long, hard climb towards India’s top post

(20 January 2012) — Rahul Gandhi, the fifth-generation guardian of one of the longest running political dynasties in the modern world, and more importantly, the man whom many in India see as the nation’s future prime minister, has become the first Gandhi to publicly exploit India’s social arithmetic for electoral gains.

Putting into practice an idea that is contrary to his stated vision of a contemporary, progressive India, he is asking the 110 million voters in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh (UP) to vote for his party’s candidates in the upcoming February-March 2012 elections on the basis of the castes and sub-castes that they represent.

That is not all. He is also appealing to the religious sentiments of UP’s largely poor and religiously-sensitive electorate by supporting a proposal to include a 4.5% sub-quota for minorities in the existing quota of reservation for Other Backward Classes (OBC). Reservation in India is a form of affirmative government action and the minorities are largely Muslims, who form 18% of UP’s population and can influence about 100 of the 403 electoral seats.

In the process, he has abandoned his oft-repeated promise of inducting only the youth and clean grassroot workers of his party the Congress, and given away tickets to those who can win seats in the forthcoming elections.

Disappointing as it may be from a moral perspective, political analysts are seeing this as the coming-of-age of Rahul Gandhi, the politician.

Mission 2012

It has been eight years since Rahul formally entered politics in 2004. The forthcoming UP elections are seen as not just a referendum on his organisational abilities, but also a barometer of his political ideology. More importantly, the UP election results will show whether the Gandhi scion is ready to lead his party in the 2014 federal elections, and the nation after that.

The state of 200 million not only forms 20% of India’s population, but also sends the most number of representatives, 80, to the Indian parliament. A handsome victory in UP, coupled with victories in a few more states — out of a total of 29 Indian states — can almost guarantee a party the pole position in national politics.

The Congress once ruled virtually uncontested in UP but bowed out in the December 1989 elections with a mere 94 seats, well below the majority mark. In the last election in 2007, Congress won just 22 seats. With the party losing ground in other states too, the need to re-establish a good base in UP has magnified, leading Rahul to formulate Mission 2012: The rebuilding of Congress in UP.

Not even the most ardent of Congress supporters are talking of forming a government in a state that has rebuffed the party for 22 years. But a sense of revival is running through the organisation due to Rahul’s aggressive campaigning and, more importantly, his shrewd caste-oriented tactic.

Verities of UP Politics

“Frankly, the only reality in Uttar Pradesh politics is whether your caste arithmetic is right or wrong. If the Congress wants to make a breakthrough and emerge as a party in reckoning both in 2012 and 2014, it has to talk this language, whether the national media likes it or not,” a Rahul aide in UP told weekly news magazine Tehelka on January 15.

And Congress is walking the talk, with 80 of its 325 candidates announced so far belonging to the OBC as well as the MBC, the so-called most backward of the OBC. Billboards at Rahul’s public meetings carry images of heroes and iconic figures of specific MBC groups. He also mentions these castes by name.

He is also making sure that he does not walk alone. In the western part of UP, Congress party has tied up with Rashtriya Lok Dal. The party is led by Ajit Singh, whose father Charan Singh led the first OBC opposition to Congress in UP in the late 1960s. This eventually reduced Congress to rubble in the state by the 1990s. Rahul is attempting to reverse this entire course. In the central and eastern parts of the state, Rahul has also forged similar caste-conscious alliances.

But Congress is not alone in the social engineering bid.

The ruling Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and the Samajwadi Party (SP), the likely winner of the election going by most opinion polls, are running campaigns focused on consolidating their core, caste-defined constituencies. Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), India’s principal opposition party at the national level, is also trying to put together the perfect caste bouquet for the UP election. These imply that caste will continue to decide electoral fortunes in many parts of India for some time — and that Rahul has made the correct strategic choice.

The Stakes

In the event of less-than-spectacular success in the UP elections, Rahul will remain his party’s best bet for the prime ministerial post in 2014. But a good showing would almost certainly entrench his claim to the nation’s top post.

The question is, at what cost?

By playing on social divides for electoral gains, Rahul is demolishing the idea of a progressive and inspirational India that his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru had hoped for, and sullying the Nehru-Gandhi identity associated with it. This is an identity that has allowed Congress to claim the higher ground over all parties through India’s modern history.

With the ageing prime minister unlikely to seek a third term, and Sonia Gandhi, the supreme leader of the ruling coalition, reportedly suffering from a debilitating illness, the nation’s leadership transition looks set to be decided by caste arithmetic in the dusty lanes of UP.

It is two steps back for Indian politics, and a crying shame for the Gandhis.


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