Why Rahul Gandhi is the Dilip Kumar of Indian politics

The career of Congress scion Rahul Gandhi has seen at least four moments of tragedy since Narendra Modi arrived on the national scene in 2014

Pratik Sharma
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There is nothing wrong with what Congress mascot Rahul Gandhi is attempting to do in his party’s campaign for Lok Sabha elections in 2024. He is positioning himself as more new-age, open and accessible. And that may be open to interpretations.

It’s something that has been attempted by politicians in the West quite successfully. From Bill Clinton playing the saxophone to Barrack Obama forever putting on his dancing attire with the former First Lady! But that is also where the coolness wears off and the reality — brutality if you may — of Indian electoral politics.

Gandhi is pitted against Prime Minister Narendra Modi, whose slogan was ‘Congress-mukt Bharat or family-mukt Congress’. Modi is a killer election-winning machinery, who has forced the Congress and Gandhi to go high and low in search of a new theme.

Let’s look at the Congress and Gandhi from 2004 to 2014 and 2014 to 2024. In 2004, Sonia Gandhi’s son became MP for the first time in Amethi, winning by a margin of almost 50% or just under 3 lakh votes. He kept winning the seat till 2014 although the margin of his victories kept reducing.

From 2004 to 2014, the Congress won two Lok Sabha polls in 2004 and 2009.  In the same period, it managed to win a total of 27 elections on its own or in alliances. It lost 43.

Until about 2012, the Congress was building itself while also projecting Rahul Gandhi as a potential successor to Manmohan Singh. He didn’t become a minister at the Centre, with the will-he-won’t-he debate raging for almost 5 years between 2009-2014.

His life was set to take a dramatic turn in 2012 when, after winning the 2009 Lok Sabha election, the Congress started to fancy a revival of its fortunes in the biggest political state of Uttar Pradesh.

In the 2009 Lok Sabha poll, the Congress got 21 Lok Sabha seats. Extrapolated in assembly terms, the party led or was a close No. 2 in as many as 150 assembly segments.

BSP supremo Mayawati was finding the going tough for herself as, despite getting a full-majority government, she found it difficult to shrug off the ‘corruption’ tag.

Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi had built the right atmosphere for his party in UP. On 14 November 2011, at a proposed rally in Phoolpur, Rahul Gandhi was to be asked to throw his hat in the chief ministerial ring, a move that would have made all the right political sounds at the time. His party had lost its base in UP and was dependent on fluctuating support either from the BSP or SP, for which it always had to pay a heavy price. 

Three tragic moments in the career of Rahul Gandhi

But sources say that Rahul’s moves were scorched by the senior leadership of the party. They reportedly felt it was too much of a gamble and that it would harm the future prime ministerial ambitions of the dynast.

The Congress managed only 28 seats in that assembly poll in UP and Rahul dejectedly went for a walk with sister Priyanka then — to seek some solace. The first big tragic moment for Rahul Gandhi! 

And look at where things are today! Let’s go back now to a pre-and post-2014 comparison by The Squirrels.

Since 2014, the Congress has won only 14 assembly polls and lost 37. In the preceding ten years, it had managed to win 27 state assembly polls while losing 43. Rahul Gandhi himself ended up losing his Amethi seat in 2019 to Smriti Irani. The oldest party’s Lok Sabha presence in big states like UP, Bihar, Rajasthan and MP has now been reduced to almost non-existent.

Even post-2014, the story of Rahul Gandhi being ‘so near, yet so far’ continued.  The Gujarat assembly poll of 2017 was amongst the closest between the Congress and BJP. Rahul campaigned hard and played a janeudhari Brahmin. Yet, his party machinery ultimately failed to counter Modi’s last-week election surcharge on Ayodhya and his karmabhoomi. That was Rahul’s tragedy moment No. 2. So near, yet so far!

Even in 2018, when the Congress scored in all three Hindi heartland states of Rajasthan, MP and Chhattisgarh, Gandhi thought his moment had arrived. He unleashed the ‘chaukidar chor hai’ diatribe against Modi.

The comment backfired badly, Pulwama and Balakot happened, and the rest is history. The BJP scored almost three times its votes polled in 2014. That was Rahul’s tragedy moment No. 3.

Since 2019, Rahul hasn’t got the opportunities he had between 2012 and 2019. He has been forced to tie up with parties responsible for eating into the Congress base in the first place. From the AAP to SP to BSP, all alliances have been tried.

He has one more opportunity in 2024 to try and at least perceptively beat the optics game.  

The Amethi-Raibareli conundrum: More tragic moments

But it was not to be. Rahul moved to Raibareli and Priyanka didn’t turn up! He could have looked up to Kejriwal for inspiration, who became what he became by taking on big guns like Sheila Dixit and Modi. That was his tragedy moment No. 4. 

Another potential failure against Modi now in 2024 will perhaps dent Rahul’s chances for a long time. His confidantes are still playing on mathematical theories of probability. His advisers are banking on the probability that the BJP cannot repeat its near-peak saturation performance in states like Rajasthan, MP, Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Haryana, Bihar, Gujarat and Maharashtra. They also think the BJP cannot grow any further in West Bengal.

Finally, there is this issue of esoteric expressions. What percentage of Indian voters relate to Grandmaster Gary Kasparov? If many don’t, why did Rahul’s advisers urge him to include a game of chess in his image makeover campaign? While Rahul Gandhi may well have managed to come out of the shadows of being described as a Pappu by his opponents, he is still a very long way off from managing electoral victories.

2024 Amethi Narendra Modi Rahul Gandhi BJP