Sunday, March 11, 2012

Pitfalls of arrogance

By Swapan Dasgupta

One of the pitfalls of political leadership is the inclination to hear what is convenient. Last week, there were at least two leaders who must have wished they had been less cocooned: Mayawati and Rahul Gandhi.

For the dalit icon whose victory in 2007 had been interpreted as a tectonic shift in social attitudes, the results were unexpected. Mayawati had expected a decline in her share of assembly seats but her charmed circle never countenanced the loss of more than 100 seats. Mayawati failed to see that her imperious aloofness and her indulgence of corruption had negated all her good work-improvement in law and order, spanking new roads and the rise in the state's GDP.

It was not a casteist counter-revolution that contributed to her downfall. If there was a determination on the part of floating voters who had supported her in 2007 to defeat her this time, the reasons lie in her perceived arrogance. Indian elections have repeatedly demonstrated that the key to electoral success lie in forging a social coalition of castes and communities and diluting doctrinaire beliefs. Mayawati once held the potential of forging a dalit-led social coalition. Her style of governance added to dalit self-confidence but it alienated other communities. They combined against her and neutralised the impact of a stupendous dalit mobilisation.

The BSP combined the attributes of a social movement and a political party. Kanshi Ram's vision had envisaged dignity and empowerment through the capture of political power. Mayawati carried forward that legacy, achieving electoral victory in a caste-ridden society. But over the past five years, that purposefulness came unstuck. The BSP's grip on dalits remained broadly intact but the nimble footedness and flexibility necessary for a political party suffered as a consequence of her own high-handedness.

For Rahul Gandhi too, the hyper-involvement and aggressive posturing of the past month was driven by a desire to set the Congress back on track in India's largest state. The heir apparent of the Congress knew that a good showing in UP would firmly establish his political legitimacy. This understandable mission was, however, marred by impulsive politics.

First, Rahul based his intervention in UP on the belief that the Youth Congress had established a formidable network of young Indians driven by a desire to change the culture of politics. The problem was that the network Rahul sought to create had little or no relationship with the pre-existing Congress. UP saw the bizarre spectacle of an 'old' and largely dispirited Congress being out of synch with those who fancied themselves as the new inheritors. The argument that the party organisation failed to harvest the goodwill generated by Rahul is specious. The UP Congress suffered from the problem of incoherence.

Secondly, having chosen a (flawed) management model to undertake a blitzkrieg, Rahul chose to supplement it with a blend of paternalism and sycophancy. The overuse of the family in the Amethi-Rae Bareili-Sultanpur belt, the inclination to refer to himself in the third person and his inability to go beyond the lofty generalisations of 'development' ensured that his energetic campaign was seen as part of the seasonal tamasha-no different from the Amitabh Bachchan shows hosted by a beleaguered Samajwadi Party in 2007.

Rahul professed to stand for a modernity that would transcend the preoccupation with caste politics . Yet, his style was paternalistic and more befitting an inheritor than a reformer. The Congress' disappointing performance wasn't entirely the responsibility of Rahul but it exposed the limitations of Rahul's messaging-particularly when contrasted with the understated earthiness of Akhilesh Yadav. India has changed, but Rahul persisted with an outmoded imperial style.

Finally, Rahul failed to factor in the absurdity of Delhi dictating the political agenda of an increasingly federal-minded India. He didn't gauge that regional parties can't be beaten by a squad of paratroopers. After 1991, UP is becoming more self-contained. Rahul tried to reverse this localism with a contrived national thrust which, alas, was a euphemism for his own political career.

The UP election should, ideally, add to the learning curve of all the four parties. Unfortunately, despite the routine assurances of 'introspection' that come with setbacks, the inclination to disregard history has been unfailing.

Sunday Times of India, March 11, 2012

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