Frank Huzur has sent this exclusive piece for Pak Tea House from New Delhi.
I’m youth, I’m joy, I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg. These words of legendary Scottish Novelist James Matthews Barrie were ringing in the ear of Indian pollsters and Pundits with resonant frequency by the early afternoon of 16 May. The verdict over 15th Lok Sabha elections was trickling in thick and fast. Citadel after citadel, bastion after bastion of fanciful imagination was dying instant death in the shooting Mercury. Many myths were raveling fast, and one of the greatest myth was unraveling of The Rahul Gandhi factor. The factor fast spread into a phenomenon over the next 48 hours as the Congress Party, the grand old party of India, clenched its fist over its most impressive tally in the past two-and-half-decade. Rahul Gandhi, apparently, had propelled the fledgling Congress party and its pre-poll allies to striking distance of magic figure of 272. The Congress was grinning like Cheshire cat with 206 seats in the lower house of Indian Parliament, quite a feat by any conceivable standards.
The wily fox of the Hindu nationalist party took potshots at Rahul Gandhi’s political wisdom many a times in course of over 45 days electioneering saying he was merely an exaggerated stereotype of a boastful and careless boy like the original character of Barrie of the Neverland. He can only fly, not land on his own, was the constant refrain in ivory towers of Opposition. When leading trend halted a little over 200 in the seat tally, shock, horror, cynicism and disbelief was written all over the face of vanquished, a large army of losers in the battle for hearts and minds of over 700 million Indian voters. Rahul Gandhi, 38 years old general secretary of the Congress party had succeeded in unfettering himself from his baby-tooth image.
The great grand son of India’s first Prime Minister Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru had defied pollsters and pundits. He has handed over an unprecedented verdict to the Congress Party. Courage is the thing. All goes if courage goes. The grand revival of the party in largest battleground state of Uttar Pradesh is attributed to this very dash of heir apparent to Manmohan Singh’s office, as and when the transition is solemnized. It’s a matter of years now, though blushing, dimpled cheek Rahul would have grapevine in India and abroad guessing to death at this silly games.
Was there an air of anticipation that the Congress party will taste sweet sound of electoral revival in 2009 Parliamentary polls? When the sealed ballot boxes were being carried from strong-rooms across the country into hundreds of thousands of counting centre, the Bhartiya Janta Party Prime Minister-in-waiting Lal Kishanchand Advani might well have heaved a huge sigh of relief over the beginning of final countdown to consummation of his ultimate dream. The long-running dream to become the 18th Prime Minister of India! Alas, it was not destined to happen!
It took less than a couple of hours before the principal architect of much controversial Ram Rath Yatra, creator of Hindutva brand of politics, felt the flames of bridges to 7 Race Course Road burning.
There was no blaze of camera flashing high and low on his shiny, bald head and bushy moustache. The former deputy Prime Minister of India had well begun his walk into the sunset while the Sun was still striving to shoots its sizzling arrows. The BJP was distant second in the hot race with only 116 Lok Sabha seats, its motley group of allies groaning in deep pain. Gone with the hot wind were high-flying ambitions of ruling India of Dalit chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh Mayawati and dozen of regional matriarch and patriarch, including J Jayalalithaa of AIADMK, Lalu Prasad Yadav of Rashtriya Janta Dal, Sharad Pawar of Nationalist Congress Party, Chandrababu Naidu of Telugu Desam Party and few more, including Samajwadi Party supreme Mulayam Singh Yadav, who until the other day were blushing in eternal hope of cornering the spoils of power.
So, what pulled the race in favour of the Congress Party? No matter what middle-age and old-age poll skeptics might say, the 15th General Elections have been all about assertion of Young Indian voters. Youngistan voted for the Congress-led coalition government in firm, decisive manner. Indian youth set a precedent by turning out in strength all over the country out of fear of being called ‘Pappu the truant’. They gave thumbs down to extremist of Right and Left wing parties and their divisive, complex set of policies. They wrinkled their nose during campaigns at the scaring talks of Ram temple and caste-based reservation. They frowned upon tradition-weary conducts of their father and grand-father, mother and grandmother who spurred them until the eleventh hour to hold on to caste and religious lines while exercising the adult franchise. It is a vote against century-old-Indian tradition of following caste and religious kinship. It is a mandate against communalists, demagogue, rabble-rouser and stormy petrels. One may ask the after-effects of this sizzling mandate to Varun Gandhi, another Gandhi scion in the BJP, and it would be loud and clear where the game ended.
Rahul Gandhi volunteered to campaign in over 100 Lok Sabha constituencies. In shining white Khadi shalwar Kameez, the Harvard-educated general secretary of the Congress spoke in simple, straight and lucid tongue. He is not the one to raise his voice even in face of vituperative provocation and insulting insinuation. His feet were firmly on the ground, his smile never disappeared in the rising Mercury on the campaign trails from Pondicherry to Patna. When the party economist Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was ridiculed in public by principal rival L K Advani, Rahul Gandhi pitched in his inimitable style, throwing some sensible guards to the BJP Prime Ministerial candidate. He approached every question with an open mouth and collected head during three much-watched and scrutinized press conferences he took during the campaigning.
Bombay attacks in the dying evening of 26 November 2008 had set the adrenaline rushing roughshod in Indian political corridor. The barbaric tragedy and consequent bloodbath painted the Indian social and political landscape in blood-red colour. The country was still in the middle of Assembly elections-Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi, and the tension was palpable in the air. The terror was an issue, and it was up for maximum exploitation once more at the hustings. The BJP in opposition hit back hard in its characteristic style by splashing advertisement with images of its stalwart former Prime Minister and Prime Minister in waiting LK Advani in national dailies, with election symbol of Lotus in prominence, asking Indian voters to vote out the ruling UPA government for its failure in pre-empting Bombay tragedy. At a time pollsters and pundits were predicting clean sweep for the BJP in Delhi and Rajasthan and other states. The Congress stormed to power in these states in middle of the army operations at Hotel Taj and Trident in Mumbai. For once, the BJP failed to convince the average voter about its indispensability in preventing terror attacks on Indian soil.
The offensive, all-option-open stance adopted by the Congress generallisimo led by Pranab Mukherjee virtually brought two nuclear-armed arch-rival New Delhi-Islamabad to the brink of catastrophic war. In face of everything, despite much prodding by Hindu Nationalist forces to point the finger at over 175 million Muslims in India for its complicity in occurrence of the horrendous tragedy, the Congress party didn’t buckle under pressure. The mother-son duo of Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi didn’t bite the bait. Not a single Muslim of India was called into question for the tragedy. Rather, the issue acquired international hue, as New Delhi put Islamabad into tight spot by providing with credible evidence of complicity of its own citizens, what with the arrest of Azmal Amir Qasab.
The artillery fires didn’t ring across the border, war didn’t break out between India and Pakistan as one would predict in the first 72 hours of the tragedy. But, the agenda for General elections just a couple of months ahead was set right out there. The Congress had won the first round of battle of wits with its principal opposition, BJP. It marched confidently to consolidate the further lead once springtime gave into searing heat of May.
The Congress party chose simple, direct action campaign punches to keep its opponent fretting and fuming. Terrorism was integral to virtually every single campaign speech of Sonia Gandhi, Congress President, Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. When L K Advani whipped up public sentiment by describing the Prime Minister as most weakest Prime Minister ever, the one who can’t take single decision without consent from Sonia Gandhi (Advani was compulsive in attacking Prime Minister with almost frenetic frequency—All decisions of Prime Minister office are taken at 10 Janpath, the residence of Sonia Gandhi), he was given lesson in ‘weakness and strength’ by all the three star campaigners of the Congress—Rahul Gandhi didn’t flinch in joining the issue as he spoke about Advani’s strength during Kandhar hijacking crisis when the then NDA government released Maulana Masood Azhar and Omar Sayeed in December of 1999. Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh evoked mass sympathy in asking direct question to the crowd as to who was weak, Manmohan Singh for all his sagacity and audacity in going for commando operations in Bombay attacks or LK Advani who couldn’t control a series of terrorist attacks during his tenure as Home Minister of India. The three-pronged attack had its direct bearing on the final upshot of the elections. Now that the same dispensation which cornered Pakistan in ring of International diplomacy has stormed to power, will there be quick respite in the frozen turbulence between New Delhi and Islamabad. It is a wishful thinking, because the Congress government has been famous or infamous for driving hard bargain with Islamabad. Islamabad wouldn’t be much pleased with the results, as Manmohan Singh government can’t take unilateral decisions to resume the bilateral dialogue or to lift the dark veil of mutual distrust anytime sooner for variety of reasons at work. In the past couple of decades, issues dealing with Pakistan and Muslims in India have been cornerstone of Hindu nationalist parties like the BJP and Shiv Sena stoking hysteria in public. Ahead of sending warm signals of bonhomie and reconciliation, New Delhi will think many times, as it already has set the benchmark in asking for comprehensive action on 26/11 suspects, now in custody of the Pakistan Investigation agencies. Peaceniks across the borders might not have much to rejoice in near future. More than anything else, common refrain on streets of India and Pakistan remains that the Congress created Pakistan, and the Pakistan in turn created Hindu nationalist party like the BJP. The Congress in turn takes potshots at the BJP by driving home the point that it was her much revered leader Indira Gandhi, grandmother of Rahul Gandhi, who divided Pakistan on 16 December 1971. For now, Indo-Pak relations will remain in deep freeze.
The BJP Prime Ministerial contender Advani would tolerate insinuations from Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh. Catching a tartar in Rahul Gandhi, all of 38 years of age, was fast turning out to be a nightmarish experience for the octogenarian contender. He appeared rattled in quite a few public press appearance, and it further convinced free-floating electorate of his vulnerability to lead the nation where half the population in over one billion are less than 35 years of age. If you once forfeit the confidence of your fellow citizens, you can never regain their respect and esteem. The sermon of Abraham Lincoln has had stupefying impact. Rahul Gandhi was virtually appealing to young Indians in these lines—you may fool all of the people some of the time; you can even fool some of the people all of the time; but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.
Rahul’s estranged cousin, Varun Gandhi was not derided for his anti-Muslim speech in Pilibhit (Varun won his seat though) by the BJP. In contrast, BJP poll managers, including the party president praised him to heights, deluding themselves of the peace-loving, secular credentials of majority of Indian voters. Varun Gandhi won his Lok Sabha seat, a maiden victory to give him a gallery view of Parliament proceedings in the world largest democracy. His solo victory buried his party’s desperate quest for power crutches for the next five years. He became a hate mascot much like Narendra Modi has become outside Gujarat. In Uttar Pradesh, home to 160 million Indians, the most populous province, Varun’s vitriolic address scared secular voters. Far from polarizing caste-ridden Hindu society, it could result in more than couple of seats more for the BJP. Indeed, there is a thin line between politics and theatricals. The esteem of religion for the BJP politics might have been profitable in the past, the principles of it are troublesome, as it appears now. Uttar Pradesh was, by all accounts, the battleground state, where the contest was multi-pronged as usual. While state Chief Minister Mayawati of BSP was aiming to become the first untouchable Prime Minister, Mulayam Singh Yadav-Akhilesh Yadav-led Samajwadi Party was targeting huge slice of 80 seats to push for the ultimate bargain in the power-sharing arrangement. The Congress, like the BJP, was nowhere in the reckoning until the afternoon of May 16-the counting day. The Rahul Factor silently built up a public opinion, which left everyone scratching their hairs in disbelief and dismay. The increase in the Congress tally, overall 21 seats, over 20 percent vote-share, busted the myth of Third Front and Fourth Front. Didn’t Mark Twain once say public opinion is everything, it is held in reverence and it can settle everything? Some say it is the voice of God. The Congress was in moribund condition in UP for the past 20 years. Rahul Gandhi has rejuvenated it with his smiles and simplicity. His is the voice of god among disparate crowd of congressmen, who until this election didn’t have any idea whether they have a winnable contender in their midst. Small wonder the party had to bring in outsider like former Indian cricket captain Mohammad Azharuddin all the way from Banjara Hills of Hyderabad to contest from Moradabad-city of brass, wherefrom he comfortably romped home.
Rahul Gandhi has shown the way to the Congress in Uttar Pradesh, where the party is still low on grassroots workers, no organizational structure, not the least where its state party president Rita Bahuguna couldn’t even win her own seat from Allahabad, the holy city for Hindus on the confluence of Ganges, Yamuna and Saraswati-the river consigned to history. If anyone could stem in the raging Rahul storm in Uttar Pradesh, it was father-son socialist duo of Samajwadi Party. Only the Cycle could confront the marauding advance of ‘Hand’, as Akhilesh Yadav, another foreign educated silken tongue charmer, all of 36 years of age, kept his flock together. Muslims in Uttar Pradesh were up in arms over his father extending olive branch to former BJP Chief Minister Kalyan Singh, (It was under the Chief Minister Kalyan Singh’s tenure in December of 1992 that Babri Mosque was demolished). Nevertheless, Muslims, a sizeable presence in the state, maintained their two-decade-long loyalty and belief in secular credentials and manifesto of Samajwadi Party. Akhilesh himself criss-crossed the state, stepping the cylinder on BJP and Congress rivals. He reaps the rewards now with 23 seats, which ultimately makes his party the third largest party in Indian parliament after the Congress and the BJP. However, the sudden rise in fortune of the Congress party in UP doesn’t warrant any power-sharing opportunity for the Samajwadi Party, as it is once more unwanted in the Government. The party is extending outside support to the UPA. However, Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh were in double mind whether to ask the Samajwadi Party to join the government for its gargantuan service in saving the UPA government in last week of July over the much trumpeted India-America Civil Nuclear Deal. The good or bad thing about Indian democracy is it is not neat, orderly or quiet. It requires a certain relish for confusion like Molly Evins would have us believe. The sharks in the Congress party wouldn’t want to share power with their principal rivals in the battleground state of UP. Mark it, it is not the BJP, but the Samajwadi Party, which has been conquering this most vital state for years, trouncing both the BJP and the Congress.
Only Mayawati, with her upside-down social engineering, coaxing Dalit voters with Brahmins at the highest rung in the caste pyramid, has managed to topple Samajwadi Party’s bastion of Yadav and Muslim in recent past.
Rahul Gandhi wants to conquer, or to be more politically correct, devour both these bulwarks. The politics of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where caste allegiance still reign supreme, is the politics of grievance. The phenomenal rise of caste-based political stalwarts like Lalu Prasad, Mulayam and Maywati and Nitish Kumar (incumbent chief minister of Janta Dal-United who swept Bihar in alliance with the BJP) is much attributed to the Congress’ flip-flop with backward and under-privileged castes during its over 40 years hegemony until ghost of Mandal Commission rose like Phoneix under the wings of former Prime Minister Vishawanath Pratap Singh. VP singh died the same evening after prolonged illness when Bombay attacks was numbing the entire Indian nation. The news of his passing away couldn’t garner an inch of space in the national media for apparent reasons, not terrorist attacks of monumental proportion, but entrenched enmity and indifference towards the executioner of Mandal Commission reports amongst power elite in Indian media corporations. VP Singh triggered a bomb of ‘Identity Politics’ in Indian politics, especially low-caste Identity politics, and the battle doesn’t seem to be over. All the talk of revival of national parties, with much improved showing of the Congress doesn’t look more convincing, as there are regional parties ruling the roost in more states than those ruled and controlled by the BJP and the Congress.
If the Congress has to recapture its lost glory in UP and become a monolithic force once more, it would want to bury the fortune of Samajwadi Party, like Rashtriya Janta Dal of Lalu Prasad Yadav in Bihar (Lalu is a decimated force, with only four LS seats this time and no ministerial berth this time for the former Railway Minister who made all the good noises for his sterling performance and great turnaround in revenue collections).
Rahul Gandhi is firm and clear on waging further battles for clean sweep in Uttar Pradesh. He has tasted blood. He is hungry for more ahead of next Assembly elections a couple of years later. Which is why he is not falling for ministerial berth, let alone Prime Minister office despite high-decibel prostration by a vast crowd of obsequious congressmen about whom the heir apparent to the highest office is neatly aware of. He is invincible in Amethi, the Lok Sabha constituency he has won for second consecutive terms. He didn’t have to nail the tents and canopy in Amethi to ensure his victory. His apolitical sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadhera with her affability and charming glibness of tongue ensured he should visit only three times during entire campaign. Priyanka turned out to be a top grosser with not only masses but also with media. With her sharp sense of humour and quick repartee, she baffled Saffron poster boy Narendra Modi with her much-lapped retort over ‘Congress budhiya party ha—Priyanka gudiya hain—Priyanka had shot back, ‘do I look like a budhiya-old woman?) Politicians are like diapers. They both need changing regularly and for the same reason. This dictum has been true in much progressive and educated society of the West. In certain pockets of India, too, voters have come to realize that they need to vote against, not always vote for the same party or candidate. Little wonder, there are going to be about 100 fresh faces in 15th Lok Sabha. And, most of the fresh faces are younglings who belong to Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party. What brought about this turnaround where the nation is debating about the youngest-ever Parliament? Needless to say, Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi combine pulled in all socks in introducing pro-farm policies like the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, a $ 5 billion rural work scheme, which provided for 100-day-job for landless and deprived plebeians in nook and corner of the country.
The impact was immediate and invigorating in over 200 districts, including Raebarelly, the Sonia Gandhi Lok Sabha constituency, as it generated social equity outside stock-market crazy shining India. Rahul Gandhi carrying a scalpel and saucer full of soil on his shoulder became a Kodak moment for television-hooked viewers. Rahul took pride in serving the poor of India as he was categorical in his tours that he wants to see and experience India from the eyes of the poor, he wants to take forward the poor of the country. When the moment of waiving farm loan to the tune of $ 15 billion arrived, all hell broke loose over offering sop to unproductive India as it was in its scope, coverage and financial cost, Farm Loan waiver was the most ambitious scheme undertaken by any Indian governments post-Independence. The scheme benefited over 40 million small and marginal farmers across the country, who were doomed to kill themselves. In the last decade alone, over 1.80 lakh Indian farmers have killed themselves out of penury and debt.
Not only does Rahul talk about poor or those below poverty line (rechristened in Indian political discourse as BPL), he practices his philosophy. He slept with a dalit family on rickety mat in Amethi, the very act which gave sleepless nights to self-styled Godmother queen of Untouchables, reigning chief minister Mayawati. The cries shot through the roof when he invited visiting British Foreign secretary David Miliband to breathe in the breeze of a Dalit village late last year in December. The opposition, including the BJP, had ridiculed the move by firing salvoes like Rahul Gandhi is taking British Foreign Minister on ‘poverty pornography show’. Nothing of such callous labeling irked the young Gandhi, nor did it deter him from practicing his ‘Aam Aadmi’ creed. He is making friends everywhere, from dark hamlet in India to treasury benches in House of Commons. He also has friends in Pakistan, as Imran Khan, legendary cricketer-turned-politician, has praised Rahul on numerous occasions, and has gone on to suggest Bilawal Bhutto to take a leaf out of Gandhi’s books. This was a masterstroke in clinching a battle for the future, and consolidating the faith of rural India. In order to become the master, the politician poses as the servant. Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi duo played their cards, and Rahul did the rest of the job with his charming countenance, boyish talk applying the remedy. Of all the remedies Rahul Gandhi applied was the decision to go solo in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. He is a mental explorer like a true Gemini. He is born (June 19, 1970) in the zodiac of John F. Kennedy, the charming prince of American democracy. Like he has shown his mettle in being a truest dark horse in this round, he is good at disguising his true motives and real desires. He can really twist Indian voters, in coming times, like a pretzel with his mental karate, get them to agree with him and love him.
As Indian political discourse enters into frenzy over whether Rahul Gandhi makes better politician than his father Rajeev Gandhi, former Prime Minister of India, even the most indifferent political creature on Indian soil nowadays swears by one thing—Rahul Gandhi has arrived on national consciousness, and he has arrived fast, with a bang. The Grand Old Party of India, the Congress, the very party ridiculed by opposition of socialist and communal hues in the past couple of decades for its dynasty worship—is no longer a droopy bird in a cage with its wings clipped. It is a free bird, its feathers and wings fluttering in the summer breeze. Hail the Rahul Gandhi, the actual game-changer with vivid political imagination and restless energy. He is restless to conquer more and more, as his ambition is limitless.
(Frank Huzur is an author, poet and journalist based out of New Delhi-London. His forthcoming book, Imran Versus Imran-An Untold Story (The official biography of Imran Khan) is due in few months from Falcon & Falcon, London, http://www.falcon-falcon.co.uk. He is available at firstname.lastname@example.org )