By Mosarrap H Khan
It’s 7 O’clock in the morning in Doha. My Kolkata flight has landed half an hour ago. I’m waiting for my connecting flight to JFK. As I log into the airport wi-fi and scroll through my Twitter timeline, I must admit I’m surprised at the Karnataka assembly election results. Like many, I too had thought Siddaramaiah was going to form the next government, going by most pre-poll surveys and exit polls. His populism appeared to have gone down well with a segment of Karnataka voters. After all, from Mamata Banerjee to Siddaramaiah, this is an age of populism.
It’s 9.41 am Doha time. However, I’ve already left Doha and airborne en route to JFK at the moment, having travelled 550 kilometers (as the personal display board onboard suggests) from Doha already. I log into onboard internet and check the Karnataka election results. BJP has decisively surged ahead and probably going to form the next government in Karnataka.
As it often happens when I take a long flight, I’m unable to do much sleeping, nor am I into watching films. Most of my time go into speculating and thinking about various imaginary scenarios. What better time than this to speculate on Rahul Gandhi’s impact (or Gandhi dynasty’s impact) in Karnataka election?
Could we really blame Rahul Gandhi for the debacle in Karnataka? Well, if the credit for a close contest in Gujarat was attributed to him, the failure to seal a victory in Karnataka must be his, too.
Why is Rahul Gandhi failing in helping the Congress form governments in different states? To me, the reason for his failure lies in the nasty word: DYNASTY. Rahul Gandhi as such, I am sure many would agree, is a likeable person. He tries hard to appear a commoner, do things that a commoner does like going to watch a film, eating ice cream at a parlour, partaking of food at a local dhaba, etc. Despite complaints of being unapproachable, he appears level-headed, though aloof.
Though there is nothing much to suggest that Rahul is disliked as a person, why can’t he win elections? When the historians of the future would grapple with this question, they must look for an answer in the social context of his emergence. To give a brief idea, for last 30 years, we didn’t have a Gandhi leading the country. Sonia Gandhi came close in 2004 but finally relinquished in favor of Manmohan Singh, one of the architects of India’s liberalized economy. In these last thirty years, India’s political demography has changed significantly, along with the economic structure. Those who were born in the early to mid-seventies have a faint personal memory or a cultural memory of Indira Gandhi’s assassination and Rajiv Gandhi’s rule. But how about those born in the late-eighties or post-liberalization? This is a generation that is completely unfamiliar with the Gandhis. Their acquaintance with Gandhis is more like their familiarity with film stars: they look good from far and must be adored from a distance (by the way, not many film stars can win an election, despite their massive popularity).
This social context is crucial to our understanding as to why Rahul Gandhi is failing repeatedly. To put it bluntly: India has moved on. Moved on from the dynasts. Moved on from a particular kind of feudalism. We must not be delusional to claim that India is no longer a feudal country. You have to only look at the way our domestic and public spaces are structured, the way we deal with waiters in restaurants, the way we unquestioningly uphold certain regressive practices, in our gendered thinking, etc. But that’s not what I have in mind when I say, ‘a particular kind of feudalism’. Feudalism is a vestige, corroded constantly by changes in economic structure, ultimately rendering many of today’s practices obsolete.
Be that as it may, India has certainly moved on from dynasties. The feudalism of a dynastic rule doesn’t appear an attractive proposition to most in India. Why is it so? The simple reason is that most people in today’s India are ‘self-made’. Many of them come from the most marginalized segments of the society, from remote places, from families which have enjoyed no cultural capital for generations. This is the India in which Rahul Gandhi appears more as a curiosity factor, than a real impactful politician. Feudalism adds glamour and piques curiosity. But curiosity is not the same thing as impact. For someone to have real impact, identification matters, relatability matters. For all his megalomania, Narendra Modi is relatable to a large segment of India’s population, often young, technocratic Indians. For all the boorishness and corruption, Lalu Prasad Yadav is still hugely relatable for many backward class population. Is Rahul Gandhi relatable? I’m not sure. If relatable, then to whom? And how is he exactly relatable to today’s Indians who are carving out a niche for themselves? To call these Indians simply ‘aspirational’ is doing a huge injustice to them. They are a product of a democratic system (however screwed up that system may be) with its struggle, violence, betrayal, and occasional success.
Here is a speculative thing. I feel if Rahul Gandhi was leading the Congress party in the mid to late-nineties, he would have more success because India was still awed by the glamour and charm of feudalism. The old elite in India still held a sway in media, academia, and every other sphere. Just to give an example, if you saw the earliest recruits to NDTV, that would give you an idea of how they were all children of very well-connected elite. This is the generation that still hankers for a Gandhi to lead the Congress. Today’s professional class is slowly breaking away from the stranglehold of this old elite class. That’s why I say, today’s Indians are mostly self-made for whom dynasty is a dirty word or just a matter of curiosity. It’s all sheen without real impact.
India has moved on. Wanting to click a selfie with a dynast is not the same thing as voting for him. Today’s India is a very different place.
Since my onboard lunch has arrived and I am hungry, I must move on, too.
Mosarrap H Khan is a founding-editor at Cafe Dissensus. Twitter: @mosarrapkhan
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