By Swapan Dasgupta
In December 1984, Rajiv Gandhi secured by far the most categorical endorsement from the Indian voter. The landslide victory was described by many as the ‘sympathy wave’ that arose from Indira Gandhi’s assassination. However, chroniclers also noted that the grief over Indira’s death was accompanied by an expectation of change. Rajiv, it was clear even during the campaign, was different from the run-of-the-mill khadi-wearing Congress leader. His idiom was markedly different, and even anti-political in many respects. As Arun Singh, his close associate with whom he fell out subsequently, put it evocatively, Rajiv symbolised the coming of age of the “Beatles generation”.
The more things change, the more they remain the same. Some 25 years after Rajiv’s famous victory, it is tempting to see parallels with the just concluded Lok Sabha poll. True, the mandate for the Congress is nowhere as categorical and the party’s candidate for the top job is far removed from all manifestations of youthfulness. Yet, it is undeniable that the crucial swing votes which enabled the Congress to win more than 200 seats on its own came from two sections that are in the frontline of change and modernity: The middle classes and the youth. The inference is that, as in 1984, the Congress received an endorsement both for the present and for the future.
Disaggregated surveys will reveal the magnitude of ‘modern’ India’s support for Congress but the instant conclusion is that Rahul Gandhi helped tilt the balance in favour of the incumbent. His energy and willingness to take risks complemented the note of reassurance provided by Manmohan Singh. These considerations will weigh heavily on the Congress when it charts its future course.
To reduce the appeal of Rajiv in his prime and Rahul in this election to merely a function of age would be unduly simplistic. The Congress didn’t field that many ‘young’ candidates this election. Most of its candidates were tried and tested political functionaries-in fact often the very ones who received a drubbing in the 1990s. In Delhi, where the party registered its most categorical victory, only two of its seven candidates corresponded to the so-called new look and both had tasted their first parliamentary victory in 2004. In Uttar Pradesh, where the party recorded a spectacular advance, its victorious candidates were mostly old political hands. There were about five exceptions.
This is not to suggest that the impact of Rahul in this election has been exaggerated. Rahul, it would seem, bolstered one of the main attributes of the Prime Minister: He enhanced the decency quotient of the Congress.
The association of decency with the Congress may seem quite galling for a generation that still remembers the Emergency, the high-handedness of Sanjay Gandhi, the brazen cover-up that was attempted during the Bofors controversy and the bribery of MPs that occurred during Narasimha Rao’s regime. To this may be added the wheeling-dealing that took place during the trust vote last July.
Why were these misdeeds of the Congress overlooked in the 2009 poll? One of the obvious answers is the moral equivalence drawn between the Congress and BJP. The BJP, which was once noted for its disciplined dedication, was perceived to be as much a problem as the old guard of the Congress. The Congress’ integrity quotient didn’t rise; the BJP's fell dramatically in the past decade.
If there was a dismal but level playing field between the Congress and the BJP on the integrity front, the Congress stole a march over its rival on the decency front. Manmohan came across as upright but politically somewhat innocent, and Rahul’s appeal was his energy and earnestness. This doesn’t imply that LK Advani was viewed as being disreputable. Advani commanded respect but it was a veneration that was befitting the family patriarch. The BJP’s “majboot neta” campaign would have been spot on if voters saw the election as a presidential contest involving Manmohan and Advani. Unfortunately for the BJP, the people not only voted for their today but also their tomorrow. On the latter count, the BJP didn’t have a message. The idea of a Resurgent India which the BJP successfully sold in the 1990s was lost in transmission this century.
This disconnect owes quite substantially to the party’s low decency quotient. The fact is that there is something in the overall ethos of the BJP which argues against a new common sense that has developed in India. The BJP has not fought any election on the basis of assertive Hindu nationalism since 1996. Its best victories were won on the strength of bread-and-butter issues of stability, development and anti-incumbency. Gujarat 2002 was the only exception. Despite this, the party has come to be associated with menacing communalism of the Ram Sena and Kandhamal varieties and tasteless hate speeches. Against this, Rahul’s innocent earnestness and desire to “do good to people” has been preferred. The BJP has been seen to be caricatured politicians cast in the 1990s mould; Rahul and Manmohan are viewed as non-politicians and, therefore, more decent.
But the Congress isn’t the only beneficiary of being more responsive to the new common sense. In Orissa, Naveen Patnaik has redefined the calculus of electoral politics on the strength of his personality. After a decade in power, Patnaik’s command over the vernacular remains halting and his Government's achievements are modest compared to, say, Gujarat. But Patnaik exudes sincerity, epitomises personal integrity and, despite his ruthless streak, doesn’t correspond to people’s mental image of the ugly politician. He personifies the blend of sincerity, uprightness and humility that voters have found irresistible.
These are also the qualities the people upheld in 1984 and have reaffirmed once again in 2009. With Rajiv, the euphoria proved woefully short-lived and triggered the Mandir-Mandal backlash. If the Manmohan-Rahul experiment falters, the reactions could well be equally spirited.