That dynasty is not a killer for a political career became apparent in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where Akhilesh Yadav and Tejashwi Yadav scripted bypoll victories for the SP and the RJD. Mulayam Singh’s low profile in the UP campaign left the spotlight firmly on his telegenic son. Since the SP’s Assembly elections defeat, rather than surrender to the “Old” Samajwadi Party, Akhilesh Yadav instead widened the distance between himself and the SP’s “Gen Past” and steadily raised the percentage of new entrants in leadership positions. This has strengthened the public perception of a reset SP. Likewise, the absence of a jailed Lalu Yadav and the stepping back into home life by Rabri Devi have by default handed over the leadership of the RJD to son Tejashwi. Should he avoid the more egregious of both Lalu and Mulayam’s misjudgements (such as giving prominence to majority community goons and to Wahhabi fanatics in preference to decent and moderate individuals from both communities), the RJD will be on course to win the largest number of seats from Bihar in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls. Among Candidate Modi’s strong electoral cards was his being from the “backward” castes, but in the fifth year of his rule, birth identity matters much less than the overall performance of his government. Despite becoming Prime Minister of a country eager for change, Narendra Modi retained almost the entire ministerial core team of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who had lost the 2004 polls with this very team. In his suite of civil servants, the new Prime Minister left pride of place to the very civil servants who had enjoyed a privileged status during the decade when Manmohan Singh was the Prime Minister, some of whom were accomplices to UPA-era corruption. Not unexpectedly, Modi has found it difficult to implement any except incremental changes in governance, while his most consequential initiative, demonetisation, was rolled out in a manner less than favourable to the economy. The UPA faced headwinds caused by the 2008 global financial meltdown and high oil prices, and yet achieved a higher average annual growth the next six years than Modi has managed in four years of faster global growth and low oil prices.
70% of the BJP’s 2014 victory was due to voter disenchantment with UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. Hence she being perceived as the leader of a new anti-Modi alliance is likely to harm rather than help the anti-BJP opposition at the hustings. Many in India, especially among the middle classes, are disenchanted with Team Modi, but few amongst them wish to see a return of the Sonia-led 2004-2014 UPA. Unless Rahul Gandhi rebrands the Congress Party in the way Akhilesh Yadav is doing with the SP, its electoral results will remain well below potential. Rahul has to transition from going by the guidance of “Gen Past” the way he unfortunately did during 2004-2014, to promoting “Gen Next” policies. Such a shift is essential to take advantage of the palpable inability of the BJP to convince the bulk of the electorate that a “Naya Soch” and not just a Naya Pradhan Mantri arrived in 2014. In UP and Bihar last week, many of those who voted for Modi in 2014 stayed at home rather than vote. A year later, unless the direction and chemistry of governance changes substantially from what it has been for the previous four years, many BJP supporters of 2014 are likely to vote for whatever opposition party or combination they believe can defeat Modi. There has not been enough perceptional change in substance since 2014 from the Vajpayee (or the UPA) years to convince tens of millions of voters in 2019 to wait till 2022 for Modi’s promised “Achhe Din” to arrive. In both villages and cities, the effects of (a) demonetisation (b) a harsh GST and (c) “tax and persecute” policies are turning away voters. If the present situation continues, the best hope for Prime Minister Modi would be for Sonia Gandhi to remain the source of Congress policy, and the pivot around which opposition unity forms. The continuation of Sonia as the primary face of the anti-BJP campaign may cause enough anti-Modi voters to stay at home, thereby ensuring just enough LS seats for the BJP in 2019 to enable the party to put together a coalition government.
As much as for Amit Shah, the results in UP are a wake-up call for Rahul Gandhi. It was an act of grotesquerie for Sonia Gandhi to say, as she did recently, that her effort during the UPA decade was to ensure “equal treatment of all”. This when she ensured through abominations such as the RTE that frankly discriminatory policies got deepened rather than jettisoned. Certainly the passing of the RTI Act was a welcome move by the UPA, but the subsequent filling up by Team Manmohan of RTI posts by former or current civil servants (including policepersons) made a mockery of the purposes of the measure. By now, the official machinery has managed to defang the RTI into an irrelevance, with added speedbreakers and exemptions to ensure that the lack of transparency of the pre-RTI past is fast returning. If he is to succeed in positioning his party as the speartip of the anti-BJP opposition for the 2019 polls, Rahul Gandhi will need to demand the strengthening of the RTI. He must call for the elimination of contra-democratic laws such as criminal defamation or laws against freedom of diet and lifestyle. He will need to call for lower taxes and regulations, and for giving the citizen of India the freedoms a democracy of 70-year vintage should assure. Rahul will need to support the consensus among the moderate majority to build a Ram Temple at Ayodhya, and celebrate the past of India, rather than deny it. To succeed, Rahul Gandhi needs to repudiate the failed policy mix of the Congress Party’s Gen Past, and instead call for fulfilling the needs of Gen Next.