The Rahul rejig

For Rahul, the problem is that despite strong economic growth over the past decade, inequality in India has been surging.

Updated: February 11, 2014 2:56:19 pm
‘Connect,’ says Rahul Gandhi’s posters that dot the pillars of the Gurgaon Rapid Metro. Raj Kamal Jha ‘Connect,’ says Rahul Gandhi’s posters that dot the pillars of the Gurgaon Rapid Metro. (IE Photo: Raj Kamal Jha)

In the last stretch before the elections, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi seems to have suddenly shifted gears. There is an effort to communicate, be more visible, and an energetic ad blitz centred around just Rahul — no Sonia Gandhi, no Priyanka Gandhi and no Manmohan Singh.

His backers say the prime minister’s announcement that he is no longer in contention for the top job seems to have unshackled Rahul, who until then had been asked to respect boundaries by his mother Sonia. The last time Rahul breached that limit was when he announced the ordinance to save convicted lawmakers from disqualification should be “torn up and thrown away”. This was when Prime Minister Singh was abroad, and Sonia spoke to him later to say she had told her son this was not the way to voice dissent.

The Rahul team feels that had it not been for this need to respect limits, he would have been able to respond strongly to the challenge posed by the Aam Aadmi Party, while others say “he could easily have prevailed but chose not to”. “There will always be two views on everything,” says Satyavrat Chaturvedi, MP. “He was busy with organisational work. Now with elections close, he has to interact with the people.”

The belief in the Rahul camp that Kejriwal hijacked their agenda and their target support base is at the heart of the project to repackage Rahul and reclaim the perceived “lost space”. With his anointment as the head of the party’s campaign comes a remodelled strategy based on the abbreviation NRMB (non-rich, non-middle class, non-BPL). This, according to Congress strategists, represents 70 crore people comprising largely the unskilled and semi-skilled, service-providing population below the middle class.

The effort took off with a rather choreographed interaction with street vendors beamed live on TV in what is tied to the idea of an open manifesto-making process — again a leaf out of Kejriwal’s book, but one that Rahul’s aides claim was in fact their idea but which hadn’t found traction in the Congress. Rahul plans similar meetings with domestic workers and construction workers. “He will focus on class politics rather than caste politics,” a senior leader said.

Then came his appearance at Jantar Mantar to join agitating students from the Northeast. This again was part of an attempt to reclaim the perceived space ceded to the AAP. It’s not that he has not identified himself with popular issues in the past, cases in point being his involvement in the Bhatta-Parsaul agitation and his support to Niyamgiri tribals. In Delhi, however, he had been silent during protests over the gangrape of a student in a bus, the debate over the Lokpal Bill, and the flight home of northeasterners who had perceived a threat following ethnic violence in Assam.

“I think it is good and see it as a natural evolution,” says AICC general secretary Shakeel Ahmed. “As a general secretary, he confined his activities to the Youth Congress and the NSUI. He chose not to encroach upon the territories of other leaders and general secretaries. Now he is the vice president leading the party into the elections, he is leading from the front.”

From an ad agency on contract have come a proliferation of posters. Their taglines — “not I but we”, “not advice but results”, “not politics but work”, “don’t divide, unite” — are clearly aimed at packaging Rahul as inclusive, and a clear shot at the AAP for failing to govern.

“He is hoping to merge the old-fashioned class politics activism practised by comrades with new-age, issue-based activism that appeals to the middle class and is championed by Kejriwal and Co,” says a leader.

Consider some of his recent actions:

He used the AICC stage to exhort the prime minister to increase the cap for subsidised gas cylinders to 12, hoping to reach out to this broad consumer base.

He showed solidarity with students from the Northeast, and asked Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde to set up a time-bound committee to look into their concerns. He sent AICC secretary K Jayakumar to Arunachal Pradesh to represent the party at the funeral of the student killed, a way to show he can deliver results more effectively than the AAP.

He met civil service aspirants agitating against some of the changes in the examination pattern. Those close to him say the demands on age relaxation and additional attempts have a resonance among the youth, a group seen as supportive of the AAP.

He has been trying to claim the anti-corruption platform with a “Lokpal-plus” package. Hence the push to get six pending anti-corruption laws passed.

He has voiced his support to the LGBT community after the Supreme Court reversed a high court order decriminalising gay sex.
Coupled with these is an aggressive pan-India media strategy:

Rahul will meet media leaders in each state and give interviews to leading vernacular newspapers and news channels; there will also be more informal interactive sessions with Congress correspondents and senior editors.

A dedicated wing within his office to address media queries; professionals hired to deal with media queries.

Live telecast of his speeches on the revamped Congress website through web-based INC TV. The footage will be put up on multiple social media platforms.

Back to his jeans and kurta for an image makeover to connect with the young.

Rahul’s critics within the party say his attempt at repackaging himself has come too late in the day. “We cannot underestimate the wisdom of the people. All these have come close to the elections. Unlike in the BJP, there was no confusion over the leadership in the Congress. It was clear who the number two after Sonia Gandhi is. So, he should have become more active when the going had started getting tough for the government and the Congress,” a senior leader said.

In fact, the selection of the ad agency itself overshot the deadline. The cause cited is the complexities in the Congress. “It is not a simple system as one would imagine from outside. There are many complexities at play. He did his best to create an image. But he could not have gone against the prime minister or the government openly as the Congress president did not want him to undermine the PM,” one of his associates said.


Unpacking The 70 crore: little in common, generally left out

The estimate of 70 crore for Rahul Gandhi’s target population seems to have been arrived at with simple arithmetic —the country’s overall population of 123 crore minus the 27 crore people estimated to be living below the poverty line and the approximate 25 crore people that make up the Indian middle class — which leaves a balance of 71 crore.

While getting to the figure may have been easy work, the hard part would be to try and categorise these 71 crore into a single bracket and then target the entire lot for political gains. For, unlike the other two broad categories of BPL and middle class, where some semblance of homogeneity is evident, the remaining population would have very little in common.

For Rahul, the problem is that despite strong economic growth over the past decade, inequality in India has been surging. The Gini coefficient (a measure where 100 means high levels of inequality and 0 no inequality in an economy) may be comparatively low at less than 35 for India compared to that for other emerging markets, but this figure has largely been increasing since economic liberalisation.

Also, while the UPA government, in the last 10 years, can claim credit for having tried to specifically offer something for those on either end of India’s income-based population pyramid — the BPL population gaining from state welfare programmes, and doles and the middle-upper classes from the high rate of economic growth, especially in the years preceding the global meltdown — those in the middle may have a reason to feel somewhat left out. Especially on the aspirational front, considering that the 2011 census showed only 4.6 per cent of India’s population owned all four of these assets — television, computer/laptop, scooter/car and telephone/mobile phone. If the 21.9 per cent falling under the BPL bracket are excluded, the remaining 73.5 per cent would fall straight into Rahul’s new target group.

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