The story of this Bihar election is that of a 30-year-old Tejashwi Yadav rallying his party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) to a near-victory. Alas, he couldn’t get across the line, not least on account of his coalition partner Congress’ poor performance.
Congress leader Rahul Gandhi’s twinning with Tejashwi Yadav, just as his pairing with Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh with the much-hyped ‘UP ke ladke’ campaign in 2017, couldn’t make any impact. Nevertheless, Gandhi can learn a lot from younger colleagues like Tejashwi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav.
Tejashwi Yadav’s Election
When the Bihar elections were notified, it was a foregone conclusion that the Chief Minister Nitish Kumar-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) would win by a comfortable majority owing to the caste arithmetic. Tejashwi Yadav was not even considered a viable alternative. However, once campaigning was on, with a well-thought-out promise of a million government jobs, apart from concentrating on bread-and-butter issues and targeting Kumar, Tejashwi Yadav successfully positioned himself as the alternative for the youth.
There was also a clear strategy involved in not responding to divisive issues, and in obliterating the pictures of his parents from the posters. In the end, he turned the election presidential, and punched much above the RJD’s weight to win a similar percentage of votes as the winning NDA combine — and herein lies a template for Gandhi to emulate.
Rahul Gandhi’s Weaknesses
Unlike Tejashwi Yadav, about 20 years younger to him, Gandhi still comes across as someone unsure of his footing. If Tejashwi Yadav took to politics like a duck to water, Gandhi still gives the impression of someone still figuring out the art of politics.
In a polity people want a leader who can solve their problems, who knows the answers to their questions, and someone with a can-do attitude—and not someone who comes across as a drifter. This is all the more so important when Gandhi’s political opponent is Narendra Modi who always succeeds in giving an impression of being self-assured.
Thus, giving an air of confidence becomes imperative; instead, we often see Gandhi as someone seeking answers from people while fumbling through his speeches. Although it is great to be self-effacing, a leader is expected to lead the way and come across as a problem-solver. Still, this is not the least of Gandhi’s problems.
Fixing The Flaws
Correcting these flaws in Gandhi, if the Congress cannot think beyond him, becomes imperative unless the grand old party is banking on anti-incumbency and voter fatigue with Modi to see it through in 2029 or later. But then, whether the party can survive another loss in 2024 is equally debatable.
Therefore, it becomes even more important to fix these flaws. Apart from his inability to posture, Gandhi’s poor connect with the masses is another issue, attributable to his poor command of the Hindi language.
A close observation of Gandhi’s speeches would reveal that poor situational awareness – choice of topics in different places – aside, his poor Hindi is also a huge drawback in the Hindi heartland. Being a decent orator, after all, is important to be taken seriously as a leader.
Writing in National Herald, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991, Jaswant Singh noted: “Rajiv Gandhi was hard-working; he was fastidious about matters of detail, and was also painstaking. But with these he did not combine any great ability of oratory, whether in Parliament or outside.”
But then, Rajiv Gandhi was a much better orator than his son. Being hard-working is neither a quality that anyone would attribute to Rahul Gandhi, with a particular weakness for taking off on vacations.
Poor oratorical skills or a poor command of the Hindi language is not something that cannot be fixed. The King’s Speech beautifully captures how King George VI of England, who had to cope with a stammer, manages to deliver the wartime address by working with a speech therapist. As for being industrious, there is no solution to fix that unless you develop the will and hunger.
Lessons From Bihar
Rahul Gandhi can take a leaf out of Tejashwi Yadav’s conscious decision to not respond to communally-charged statements from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Yet, Tejashwi Yadav succeeded in making it into a presidential contest by taking on Kumar by focussing on core issues.
Whether this strategy would have worked regardless of the pandemic and the migrant exodus is moot. In any case, shifting the discourse away from communal issues to economic issues and organising people around them is the only way going forward for the Congress.Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.