An open letter to Rahul Gandhi

By Rajdeep Sardesai
01 June 2011 23:50 IST

Dear Rahul,

Since you rarely, if ever, interact with the media, an open letter seems the only way to communicate with you. Last week, your visit to Bhatta-Parsaul village in UP grabbed the headlines. The cynics saw it as a publicity stunt with an eye on next year's UP elections. But even if your arrest seemed like a well-choreographed photo-op, even if your claims of rape and killings are being contested, at least you have finally stepped into the heat and dust of the battle for the Hindi heartland. But will Rahul Gandhi sipping tea with angry villagers become a Belchi-like moment, a reminder that your grandmother Indira Gandhi's return to power began on the back of an elephant through flooded waters in the 1970s?

The answer to that question may lie in the assembly election results that hold out lessons for any aspiring politician. Take Mamata Banerjee, for example. For close to three decades, she has been an indefatigable one man army, taking on a formidably entrenched Left empire. Not once, despite numerous political defeats, has she wavered from her singular ambition of dismantling Marxist rule. She has seen many Bhatta Parsauls: beaten and arrested by the police, attacked by the left cadres, through soaring heat and pouring rain, Mamata never gave up. She never sought refuge in the trappings of power, her crumpled sari and jhola part of the common man self-image. Over the years, she consciously built herself as the anti-establishment hero with the result that when the Bengali voter tired of the Left, she became the obvious magnet for change.

In Tamil Nadu, the lesson is offered more by the loser than the winner. For the last five years, the DMK reduced a once proud socio-political movement to a family concern. The Indian voter no longer believes in a feudal notion of a divine right to rule. Karunanidhi and family made the mistake of taking the voter for granted, of believing that cash for votes was a permanent winning ticket. The Tamil voter took the colour TV, but didn't get swayed by it. Instead, the television images of members of one family virtually monopolising the state machinery for personal benefit - be it a literary sammelan or a telecom ministry - repelled the average voter.

In Kerala, the real winner was undoubtedly VS Achutanandan, the veteran Marxist who you felt at 87 was 'too old' to lead his state, but who eventually was just two seats away from a major election upset. What many of us who want a more youthful political leadership sometimes forget is that a voter still values a certain old-fashioned moral asceticism in their netas. To the rest of the country, he might have seemed a doddering old politician, but to Keralites, he symbolised a selfless lifelong commitment to probity and peoples' struggles. He too has seen many Bhatta Parsauls: from organising coir workers in the 1940s to his most recent fight to ban endosulfan.

Even the Congress's big winner in Assam Tarun Gogoi has proven the value of being a tried and tested leader. As he candidly admitted, his success stemmed from the fact that he wasn't seen as an 'imposed' leader but a homespun Assamese chief minister.

How should all this have any bearing on the political future of someone who it would seem is pre-ordained to lead the country? Quite simply, because as the assembly election results confirm, the Indian electorate is now more demanding than ever before. The catchy sloganeering and symbolism of an earlier era no longer works. Family surnames will not guarantee success beyond a certain point nor will dramatic, made for TV appearances draw in the votes.

Moreover, the electorate wants leaders who they can identify with, who are seen to speak in a vocabulary they can understand. This is an era of the 24 x 7 politician, someone who eats, breathes and lives politics, will never be contemptuous of the masses, but who will be their constant companion through good times and bad. The era of the parachute politician, as you have already discovered in Bihar, is well and truly over.

Which is why Bhatta Parsaul cannot be a one day 'event', but must be part of a deeper commitment to people-centric issues. If land acquisition is to be debated, then the debate must not be confined to Greater Noida, but to Congress-ruled states as well. If farmers are fired upon in Srikakulam in Congress-ruled Andhra Pradesh, then you must be willing to wipe their tears too. Else, you will be open to the charge of practising double standards.

Let me offer a concrete suggestion. A few years ago, you made a speech of Uttar Pradesh being your 'karmabhoomi'. UP goes to the polls next year in what many believe is a make or break election for the Congress in the state. Why don't you abandon the cosy power structures of Delhi and just move bag and baggage for the next 12 months to Lucknow? Just criss-cross India's most populous state, not merely spending the occasional night in the home of a Dalit family, but campaigning relentlessly for a year and explaining to the voter why you believe the Congress offers a viable alternative to Mayawati and Mulayam Singh.

Even more dramatically, why don't you offer yourself as the 'face' of the Congress party in Uttar Pradesh, someone who is even ready to become the chief minister of the state if the party wins the election? Fighting Mayawati and Mulayam on their home turf may well be a high-risk trial by fire, but just your willingness to take up the challenge will rid you of the Amul Baby tag forever.

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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