A setback for Rahul Gandhi and the Grand Old Party

Samajwadi Party supporters dance with coloured powder on their faces as they celebrate an early lead of the party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh state election in Lucknow, India. Samajwadi Party swept the polls in Uttar Pradesh

Are India's state election results a blow to Rahul Gandhi's bid to become a truly national leader and bolster the flagging fortunes of his Congress party?

On the face of it, it does seem so.

The party has fared abysmally in the politically crucial state of Uttar Pradesh, leading in only 27 of the 403 seats at the time of writing. This after the party heir-apparent and prime minister-in-waiting toured the length and breadth of the state over three months, speaking at over 200 campaign meetings. Remember, during the last state elections in 2007, Congress picked up a miserable 22 seats.

Congress was expected to cash in on traditional anti-incumbency in the opposition-ruled Uttarakhand and Punjab, but it appears to have failed here too. At the time of writing, the regional Akali Dal and Hindu nationalist BJP alliance had romped ahead in Punjab, while in Uttarakhand, the party was running neck-and-neck with the ruling BJP. The only consolation has been in the tiny north-eastern state of Manipur, but even here Congress's victory is attributed to a strong local leader rather than a powerful party.

No guarantee

All in all, despite a brave face put up by its leaders, it has been a dismal performance by India's Grand Old Party.

So what does this performance tell us about Mr Gandhi and his party?

Rahul Gandhi campaigning in Uttar Pradesh Rahul Gandhi led his party's campaign in Uttar Pradesh

For one, say analysts, it shows that when your party-led federal government is battered by allegations of corruption, indecisiveness, and stasis, unleashing a relatively young and sophisticated scion of the country's most famous dynasty on the campaign no longer guarantees votes in today's restless and aspirational India.

I had been sceptical of the English-language media's often uncritical endorsement of Mr Gandhi's campaign and mentioned this in a previous post, quoting leading political philosopher Pratap Bhanu Mehta: "I think Rahul Gandhi is making the biggest mistake in thinking that political mobilisation and outreach can happen independently of your record in government." To be fair, Mr Gandhi has accepted blame for the defeat, despite public pronouncements by his faithful flock that their leader was not responsible.

It also proves that all the hard work put in by Mr Gandhi - and nobody denies that - does not translate into votes and seats if the local party organisation is weak and leadership is virtually non-existent, as happened in Uttar Pradesh.

The stranglehold of the dynasty has led to the emasculation of local leaders and feeble party networks. In today's India, centralisation no longer works as political power has devolved to regional leaders and parties. Congress, analysts believe, needs to foster and empower local leaders, but it is difficult to see that happening under the overwhelming aura of the dynasty and the preening obeisance of party rank and file.


The results in Uttar Pradesh also tell us something about the way India is evolving.

Mayawati Ms Mayawati's party lost the poll in Uttar Pradesh

For one, it points to the unfettered growth of regional parties - the victory of Mulayum Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party and the marginalisation of Congress and the BJP, the two national parties, again proves that the state has become, in the words of a political scientist, "a two-dominant-party, multi-party system".

The defeat of the Bahujan Samaj Party, led by the mercurial Mayawati, redoubtable leader of India's dirt-poor Dalit, also offers some sobering lessons. Without Ms Mayawati's politics of assertion, Dalits would have never become politically empowered as they are today. This is what analyst Manini Chatterjee so eloquently calls the "irony of empowerment." But "empowerment has also meant awareness and aspiration, impatience and restlessness," says Ms Chatterjee.

Ergo, voters are no longer satisfied with paltry patronage. They demand more. They are less likely to turn a blind eye to corruption, which they are inured to. And no party, this election proves, can take voters for granted in today's India. Indian elections, as political scientist Vivek Prahladan says, are now being decided on how parties successfully link the "politics of belonging (identity) and the politics of belongings (offerings from the welfare state)".

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • Comment number 11.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    Whoever comes to power need listen to will of the people. Voters are wiser; votes will not come from your name, whom you slept with or who your friends may be. India is truly awakening to democracy. It will take more than free laptops to impress an electorate. India's problems are too fierce & embedded. It will take ingenuity, diplomacy, keen intelligence & heart.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    I am pleased at the result. Congress has behaved arrogantly, as though they were masters of India. In my opinion, they mishandled Ramddev & Anna Hazare agitations (You can't lock up the truth about corruption.). Oftentimes, Congress seemed lost - rudderless. In face of this analysis, why would I expect Congress to win?

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    Dynastic politics is simply an anachronism.

    The reason incompetent people get elected is because most of the voters are not educated. The dynasties simply use the ignorance of the people to come to power by making false promises.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Well, ell, well...New Delhi: India's largest state Uttar Pradesh has given its mandate firmly to Samajwadi Party, with party now hovering very close to the clear majority mark. The Congress has failed miserably. I am somewhat shocked at the scale of the loss, but when I think about it, it was to be expected.

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    Congress: similar to New Labour party in UK. Secular and bit to the left.
    BJP: similar to BNP/EDL in the UK. Not just conservative, but nationalist.
    BSP: officially supports the poorest of the poor.Secular and bit to the left.
    SP: Secular and bit to the left.

    Sadly, all of the parties are equally corrupt, and many of the MPs have criminal records.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Only the Indian English media and language channels and papers run by them saw Rahul has saviour of congress and the nation. I doubt the real state of affairs has dawned on them. They will continue to harp on this theme till next elections for center.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    India is now awake & the lessons of the electoral dance are very simple-people want G= Governance; chief campaigner who is not going to stay back & face the ground challenges is someone who is not acceptable.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Ordinary Indians are coming to senses and realize that Italian and Malayala mafias are making a mockery of them. They will put an end of corrupt Congress regime that collaborated with the Sri Lankan regime in committing crimes against humanity. The Ghosts are haunting the Congress leaders.

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Elections in the World's biggest democracy affect the whole world including Britain. Could someone please explain the policies of the participating parties - perhaps in terms easily understood by this white British secular person (me). I.e. where do the various parties stand in terms of left or right - if this is valid terminology for Indian elections?

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    Politicians work hard during election campaign and they hibernate when they are in power. It’s a good lesson for Congress. Rahul doesn’t deserve to be next congress leader any way. What difference has he made in parliament so far? What are his achievements? We need a leader who has a vision and ability to reduce India’s poverty.


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