Where did it all begin to go wrong for the UPA government? The precise point, if there is ever such a thing in the rolling caravan of politics, is a decision made by Mrs Sonia Gandhi after re-election in 2009.
Mrs Sonia Gandhi has always been the person in command in the two terms of UPA; she was the power in front of the Manmohan Singh throne rather than behind any veil. She chose the PM; she gave the orders on who got which portfolio; she had the last word on critical decisions; and she was the arbiter when senior ministers did their pirouette with one another, a familiar competitive dance in every hall of power.
When BJP’s seats actually declined after five years in opposition, Mrs Sonia Gandhi concluded that BJP had become an irreparably damaged brand. The stage, she and her advisers thought, was set for Congress to remain in office for the foreseeable future. An UPA 3 was a common refrain within the wider Congress punditry of Delhi till even a few months ago.
There was, consequently, no particular reason to hurry Rahul Gandhi towards Dr Manmohan Singh’s chair. He could remain on a well-financed holiday for another few years, emerging only in time to campaign for 2014. The young heir was missing from action even when the youth of the country were on the streets, venting their rage, as over the horrific instance of rape in Delhi.
But Mrs Gandhi, wisely, also recognised that there was a serious danger in leaving opposition space untenanted. This however induced a fatal mistake. She decided that she, and the Congress party, would act as the pretend-opposition while Dr Singh continued to behave as the pretend-government. Two instances will serve as illustration.
When Dr Singh, aided and abetted by officials like Shivshankar Menon and M.K. Narayanan, made a totally unwarranted concession to Pakistan over an alleged Indian role in the Balochistan insurrection during the 2009 nonaligned summit at Sharm el Sheikh, Mrs Gandhi publicly censured the PM she had selected. But she did nothing to actually change the PM’s soft policy towards Pakistan. Second: During a budget debate in the Lok Sabha, she ostentatiously applauded the populist points made by the Marxist MP Gurudas Dasgupta. Once again, in actual practice she did nothing.
The anecdotal evidence from the ground after more than a hundred constituencies have polled, is that Congress is sinking without much trace. The voter is taking a call on what Modi will do in the future, for jobs and the economy.
You can always see a boomerang hurtle away; you rarely see it on a return journey. This thin duality did not work. But the Congress establishment was so pleased with itself over the management of Delhi politics, that it either missed or underestimated the real challenge — a subaltern earthquake with Gujarat at its epicentre.
Narendra Modi did induce a degree of unease among Congress leaders, but they thought it was a problem that could be defused by character assassination. And so we witnessed in the past decade the most intense scrutiny ever done on any Indian politician since 1947 through police, courts, academia, media and NGOs. The aim was never really to discover the full truth about the Gujarat riots, but only to establish somehow, anyhow, that Modi was personally culpable. Such was the frenzy that every irony was lost. Even today, we do not seem sufficiently aware that Congress continues to protect and reward the principal accused in the 1984 riots, Sajjan Kumar, and others like Jagdish Tytler.
This effort floundered when nothing was found that could establish personal culpability. But in the process, demonisation became the template weapon. This is now a staple of Rahul Gandhi’s campaign, and little changes despite the fact that the electorate is cold to this stream of hot air. The anecdotal evidence from the ground after more than a hundred constituencies have polled, is that Congress is sinking without much trace. The voter is taking a call on what Modi will do in the future, for jobs and the economy.
The prospect of electoral disaster has unhinged Congress rhetoric even further. When all you have in your arsenal is questions of a marriage that was arranged by impoverished parents in another age, and which led to virtual separation by mutual consent, then you are truly descending to personal depths which Indian electoral politics has avoided for more than six decades. At least one senior Congress leader from Gujarat has asked his party to desist from such tactics.
This election is about jobs, jobs, jobs — and jobs for everyone. It is about development up and down the line. It is about rescuing a national economy turned moribund by governance that lost its way between the confusion of duopoly and the inertia of complacence. It is about turning the young into a powerful engine of growth, rather than abandoning them outside the station. The person who drove the car on a recent trip to Mumbai put it succinctly: if this kind of governance continues for another five years, the middle class of Mumbai will disappear. He considered himself middle class, and was staring at the possibility of poverty.
This election is about India’s revival. That is why the young are voting for change.