The Congress has begun its campaign — for the general elections of 2012-13. All over Kolkata, to take a revealing instance, the party has put up hoardings with a single face, that of a smiling, heavily-dimpled Rahul Gandhi. The visual message is “cute”. The written message is unambiguous: this is the face of the future. He may be forced to share the limelight with his elders in 2009, but this is the last compromise.
The campaign accepts, without stressing the fact too much, that Dr. Manmohan Singh is the Congress candidate for Prime Minister this year, but marks him as a transition figure, or in Arun Jaitley’s more
ebullient phrase, as a “night-watchman”. Dr Singh sort of lurks around the edges of the campaign, visible occasionally, out of courtesy, but far from dominant. He may get a few extra hoardings in the city where
he lives, Delhi, but the proportion sinks rapidly the moment you move out of the capital.
It is curious, given the need for clarity and discipline in communication, that the party should announce a transfer of power before the shift has taken place, offering Dr Singh the dubious distinction of a lame duck, but passages of life are never easy to handle. In any case, it is evident that even if the Congress manages
to retain power after the April-May poll, the office will go to Dr Singh but power will shift towards Rahul Gandhi. We have had a bipolar Government so far, divided between Dr Singh and Mrs Sonia Gandhi. This
is being stretched into a triangle. But a second Manmohan Singh administration will serve at least one useful purpose: the Cabinet will include Rahul Gandhi, along with a dozen of his peer group. This will be the answer to the “experience” dilemma. A couple of years in office will be cited as proof of ability to deliver as Prime Minister.
The Kolkata campaign is relevant for another reason. Rahul Gandhi’s hoardings are not restricted to constituencies where the Congress could contest if an alliance with Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamul Congress
became a reality. It has already flowed over into Mamata territory. Once again, the meaning is utterly clear. The Congress strategy is focused on building up Rahul Gandhi as leader of the whole country, not merely of those parts of it that have been left to it by coalition politics. This is the last election that the Congress is going to fight with such a profusion of partners. If alliances happen in 2009, it will go along with them, whether in Bengal or Tamil Nadu. Even in States where the Congress is ready for an alliance, it is using this
campaign to establish the difference both with the Opposition as well as with its poll partners. If talks over seat sharing fail anywhere, the Congress will not break out in a sweat. It is confident of retaining enough seats in the next Parliament to be a player at the roulette table that will open for business as soon as the election results are declared. The logic is transparent. Two thirds of the country is below the age
of 35. The young want someone young. QED.
There is of course a degree of naiveté in this equation. The young are not a category without distinctions. The child of a field labourer who joins the Naxalites at 20 is not as eager to inhale the fragrance of Fair and Lovely as the college student whose parents are spending a comparative fortune to get him or her through a private college. It is interesting, therefore, that Rahul Gandhi is speaking like Mamata Banerjee in Gujarat, while the Congress is hammering Mamata inBengal for being anti-development. Rahul Gandhi accuses Narendra Modi of precisely the same sins that Mamata Banerjee holds Buddhadeb Bhattacharya guilty of: of creating jobs for the rich at the expense of the poor. Even the phrases are similar, as is the symbol, Tata’s
Nano project. It is only a matter of time, I suppose, before Mamata Banerjee, citing none other than Rahul Gandhi as her inspiration, describes Buddhadeb Bhattacharya as the Narendra Modi of Bengal. That
should make the CPI[M] cringe!
It is perhaps inevitable that a national party should be tripped up by contradictions when there is such divergence in regional realities. But this is a difficult one since it addresses a fundamental issue of the core constituency: jobs. Urban youth want Nano, and rural youth do not want to sacrifice their minimalist insurance policy, land. Narendra Modi has provided jobs through industrialisation, and won the endorsement of his State, of the young and of industrialists. If you criticise his economic performance in order to reinforce your minority base, you sow doubt about your intentions. While politics is a flexible art, it is not so very easy to lambaste industrialisation in Gujarat and seek it in Rajasthan.
This election effectively shuts the door on the ambitions of Dr Singh’s peer group in the Congress. There is no space for anyone else to become Prime Minister. If Dr Singh relinquishes office on grounds of ill-health — his heart is not in the best condition — then there will be no dispute within the Congress as to who shall be the successor. If the allies do not accept Rahul Gandhi, they may be forced into an unwelcome early election. The track record of the last five years shows that no small party, or semi-small party, is willing
to surrender the privileges of office until a Constitutional deadline puts an end to the fun. What about the chances of claimants from outside the Congress or the BJP? That option will be in play only if the Congress gets less than 120 seats, and the UPA is punctured. This is not impossible to visualise. The anti-incumbency factor is far stronger in UPA States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra than it is
in NDA States like Bihar, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat. A skewered result would encourage ambition. Sharad Pawar has already made his intentions evident. Others, like Chandrababu Naidu, prefer
discretion. Silence travels a longer distance than noise in Delhi.