//Two Leaders and Their Parties, The Telegraph

Two Leaders and Their Parties, The Telegraph

I visit Delhi half a dozen times a year. I was most recently there from February 5th to 11th, to fulfil commitments made several months ago, these fortuitously coinciding with the casting and counting of votes in the Delhi elections. Naturally, all my conversations, with friends and strangers alike, were about their party preferences in the capital and beyond.

Much of the commentary on the Delhi elections of February 2015 has framed it as a battle of David versus Goliath, these standing for Arvind Kejriwal and Narendra Modi respectively. This reading is not altogether incorrect, for his party’s propaganda and his own campaigning made it clear that Narendra Modi saw the contest in Delhi as extremely important. Even so, there remains a profound asymmetry between the Prime Minister of India and the Chief Minister of a Union Territory which is not even a State. Moreover, in terms of what the Delhi election results portend for the future course of Indian politics, it may be more useful to frame it through a Arvind Kejriwal versus Rahul Gandhi lens instead.

The contrast between these two men is often invoked by younger voters. When I asked two activists of the Aam Admi Party why they admired Kejriwal, they compared his career thus far with that of Rahul Gandhi. Both men were in their forties, but that was about the only thing they had in common.

Born in a middle-class home in a small town in Haryana, Arvind Kejriwal had studied diligently at school, and then passed one of the most fiercely competitive examinations in the world. Having graduated from an Indian Institute of Technology, a lucrative job in the corporate sector was his for the asking. He turned his back on the likes of Goldman Sachs and Hindustan Lever, and instead appeared for a public examination that equalled the IIT Joint Entrance in its competitiveness. This was the Civil Services test, where too he succeeded. This time, he took the job, but, after a decade, gave up the security and status that a Class I post in the Central Government provides for the uncertain life of a social activist.

Rahul Gandhi’s early trajectory was altogether different. He was born in the heart of Lutyens’s Delhi, in the home of his grandmother, who was then the serving Prime Minister of India. When he was ready to go to university his own father was Prime Minister. He got admission to Delhi’s most prestigious college, St. Stephen’s, not principally on the basis of his high school grades, but via a certificate of his apparent skills in rifle-shooting. After a year he dropped out of St. Stephen’s, but was then admitted—again, through some amount of sifarish—in one of the world’s top-ranking universities, Harvard. But he dropped out of this place too, eventually graduating from Rollins College in Florida.

As a student, Arvind Kejriwal had created his own chances and seized them. Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, had been granted opportunities by his family background, and yet thrown them away. The pattern continued into later life. Kejriwal ran an NGO that directly addressed the problems of the poorer citizens of Delhi. His grassroots work won him a Magsaysay Award. His credibility established, he then threw himself into two wider campaigns, to bring about a Right to Information Bill and to have the Government appoint an anti-corruption ombudsman or Lokpal.

While Arvind Kejriwal started an organization from scratch, Rahul Gandhi entered one that was more than a hundred years old and in which his mother occupied the powerful post of President (as his father, grandmother, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather had done before her). From the time he joined he was regarded as the second most important person in the Congress Party. Yet he refused to own up to the responsibility that is presumed to come with power. He rarely made speeches in Parliament, declined to serve in the Cabinet, and campaigned indifferently and ineffectively in state elections.

After the Congress victory in the 2009 General Elections, some party spokesmen attributed the win to Rahul Gandhi’s appeal to first-time voters. This appeal has been conspicuously absent in subsequent elections. On the other hand, from its inception in November 2012, the Aam Admi Party has effectively reached out to the young. Its activists are mostly in their twenties and thirties, often well educated and articulate, and adept in using social media. They are usually to the left of centre in their political views, and cosmopolitan in their social orientation. Ten or twenty years ago one would have considered them natural Congress voters (and workers). Yet if they work full-time for the Aam Admi Party now, it is to a great degree because they find much more to admire in Arvind Kejriwal than in Rahul Gandhi. One is self-made, the other is a child of privilege. One is accessible, the other aloof. One works furiously hard, the other works sporadically. One admits to his failures, the other lays these at the door of his partymen.

It is these young admirers of Kejriwal who provide the organizational sinews of the Aam Admi Party. It is they who run its social media campaign, who articulate its positions in television studios, who print and put up posters, who organize meetings and processions. It is their collective zest and energy that has compensated for what—compared to the behemoth BJP—was a serious deficit of financial resources.

The Congress has lost more than potential activists to the Aam Admi Party. Field reports on the Delhi election suggest that it has lost some previously solid vote banks as well. Dalits, Muslims, residents of unauthorized slum colonies, residents of super-authorized upper-class colonies—all these have migrated in large numbers from Rahul Gandhi’s party to Arvind Kejriwal’s party.

Among these Congress-turned-AAP voters is the great sociologist André Béteille. Professor Béteille, who is half-French, half-Bengali, and wholly Indian, comes from a family of Congress nationalists. His mother, an admirer of Mahatma Gandhi, always wore khadi. He is himself a liberal who admires (with qualifications) Jawaharlal Nehru, distrusts the politics of caste and religion, and is a longstanding critic of the dogmatism of communist parties. In sum, this estimable scholar and democrat is as close to being a ‘natural’ Congress voter as one can possibly be.

When Professor Béteille told me he had voted for AAP, I asked whether this was the first time—in six decades of exercising his franchise—he had not voted for the Congress. No, he said, there had been another occasion—the General Elections of 1977, when because of the excesses of the Emergency he could not bring himself to vote as he normally did. Then he added, apropos the just concluded Delhi elections: ‘The Aam Admi Party has learnt from its mistakes. The Congress is incapable of learning from its mistakes’.

Can what happened in Delhi be replicated elsewhere in India? Can AAP make inroads into the Congress’s traditional vote banks in larger States? In the short to medium term, this may be possible in smaller states close to Delhi, such as Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, where the echoes of their stunning win in the capital shall resonate, and where Kejriwal himself is fairly well known and his eloquent Hindi diction widely understood. But in the states of the South, the East and the West, AAP needs first to build a solid organizational base and nurture local leaders who have an authority and credibility of their own, rather than depend on Kejriwal’s blessing or benediction.

One can be more certain, however, about the future of the Congress. Its continuing decline cannot—I repeat, cannot—be reversed unless it frees itself from the control of a single family. Immediately after their Delhi debacle, some voices in the Congress asked for Priyanka Gandhi to take over the party. She has no political experience, and brings with her the baggage of her husband Robert Vadra and his dealings. In any case the Nehru-Gandhi name has lost much of its sheen, while the younger (and even older) Indian voter increasingly demands proof that prospective leaders have achievements independent of their family name. Priyanka Gandhi, if she enters politics, will be scarcely more successful than her brother has been, and for the same reasons.

In a column published in these pages in January 2013, I described Rahul Gandhi as a ‘well-intentioned dilettante’. It is time to withdraw the qualifying clause. A leader who shirks responsibility, who works erratically in what for everyone else is a 24×7 profession, and who, above all, has a consistent record of failing to win elections and yet refusing to relinquish his post—such a leader does not wish his own party well, still less his country.

by Ramachandra Guha
(published in The Telegraph, 21st February 2015)