I, we and all of them who watch

I, we and all of them who watch

By M.J. Akbar | 25 January, 2014
Narendra Modi’s “Main Nahi, Hum” slogan of 2011 (l) and the Rahul Gandhi 2014 advertisement.
Congress has paid a heavy price for complacence, but no one in Rahul Gandhi’s team has the tiniest scar to show for failure.

Every electorate may or may not get the government it deserves. Voters can fall for a bluff: if they did not believe a promise so sincerely, they might not punish an incumbent so severely either. But every political party certainly deserves the advertising it gets.

The first advertisement of the Congress campaign for 2014, focused inevitably on Rahul Gandhi, has been received with jeers despite being created by the very sniffy agency, Dentsu. It blundered its way into conversation through a gaffe of serious proportions. It adorned Rahul Gandhi with Narendra Modi's plumes by lifting its slogan, Main nahin, hum [Not me, we] from a Modi poster for "Team Gujarat" without the minimal courtesy of changing even a comma.

The agency should not be blamed. A chef will produce only what the customer has ordered. This ad proves that neither Rahul Gandhi nor anyone in his workplace has a political memory. Otherwise, an alarm bell would have rung somewhere in the subconscious, loud enough to persuade the agency to double check. It was not as if the slogan was carbon-copied from a message delivered a decade ago. It was used by Modi as recently as in 2011.

The most dangerous fault-line in the culture of dynasty is that accountability plays second fiddle to loyalty. In politics, just as there is high reward for success, there has to be some penalty for failure. But if you belong to a magic circle of jee huzoori, it is always someone else's fault, never yours.

Rahul Gandhi and his core team have presided over a series of electoral disasters since the return of UPA in 2009. One could begin with the shock defeat in Punjab, which marked the beginning of the end of this phase of Congress fortunes. Congress has never recovered from the reversal in Punjab. Rahul Gandhi may not have been the sole leader in the Punjab operations, but he was most certainly commander in chief when UP went to the polls, taking charge and rolling up his sleeves with noticeable frequency. UP was personal. He told anyone who would listen — and there were many who did, both in media and the Central Hall of Parliament — that Congress would get around 100 seats, and 80 would be the worst-case scenario. This would not only ensure the restoration of Congress in the Ganga-Jamuna swathe, but also justify the ascent of Rahul Gandhi to the office of Prime Minister.

We all know what happened. What many do not know is that nothing happened to those who orchestrated the UP and subsequent campaigns. If nothing happens once, nothing will happen again. And so the unwavering descent from UP to last year's December Assembly results has been a straight line. Congress has paid a heavy price for such complacence, but no one in Rahul Gandhi's team has the tiniest scar to show for failure. The only response has been a throaty "Next time, we'll show you!" Well, has the last of the "next times" arrived? No. The next next time will be 2019.

Will this slogan, "Not me, we", change? It probably has to be amended, since the embarrassment has only begun. But whoever planted the seed has drawn a forest of narrative as well, proving again that the agency was only delivery boy, not original thinker. Rahul Gandhi's election pitch is going to be that one person cannot rule this country. He may be speaking for himself. He is certainly not speaking for his great grandfather, the titan Jawaharlal Nehru, or his grandmother, Mrs Indira Gandhi, or indeed his father Rajiv Gandhi, who were all hands-on leaders of their governments. Indira Gandhi was often described as the supreme figure in her Cabinet, in an analogy which is politically incorrect now ["the only man in her Cabinet"]; some admirers equated her with India ["Indira is India"]. If Rahul Gandhi's intention is to debunk Modi's style of functioning, he may have chosen the wrong year. The voter wants firm governance in 2014.

The advertisement is untidy in other aspects as well. There is, for instance, no Sikh in the array of faces on either side of Rahul Gandhi. Is this a Freudian slip? Has Congress given up already on Punjab and the Sikh voter? But such carelessness can always be corrected in the next visual. The more important debate will be over the "I-us" theme. Modi has already put the counterpoint into public discourse. He, and Team Gujarat, were there first. His Team India claim has precedence.

The election schedule will be announced in the last week of February, and polling will begin in early April, so there is time. Not too much, but enough for course correction. If responsibility for correction is entrusted to those who did not make the mistakes in the first place, it will be a significant step forward for Congress.

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