Two days after he “reached out” to partners in the National Democratic Alliance, Rahul Gandhi’s comments at a press conference have been subjected to very different interpretations. His party men, exemplified by M. Veerappa Moily, have hailed his praise of leaders such as Nitish Kumar and N. Chandrababu Naidu as being “statesmanlike”. Others have termed it an attempt at a naked power grab in the middle of a difficult election. Other interpretations exist as well: Gandhi was just naïve in saying what he did.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
What can be safely said is that his comments are at odds with the kind of politics he is seen to espouse. Gandhi is seen as an idealistic young leader who is concerned about India’s poor, is interested in development and wants to revive the fortunes of his party. He is seen as trying to engage with the country’s youth, attempting to bring down entry barriers in his party and make politics more meaningful.
These goals, idealistic as they are, have a time horizon that is significantly longer than that of day-to-day politics, specifically the kind of politics that aims at forming governments in states and at the Centre. For any political party in a polity as diverse and splintered as India, aligning short-term interests and goals with long-term vision and goals is, to put it mildly, difficult. Gandhi’s comments can be viewed in this light. But even in terms of such short-run politics, overtures of the kind made by him may not yield a good pay-off.
His signals to the Left, for example, have backfired on all counts. It has upset the Congress’ new friend in West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee. The Left is clear in wanting a non-Congress, non-Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre. Similarly, in the case of Naidu, what Gandhi said has disturbed his party men in Andhra Pradesh, where they are locked in a bitter battle against Naidu and others. In Bihar, his praise for Kumar yielded a “thanks, but no thanks”, and upset the United Progressive Alliance’s faithful partner, Lalu Prasad.
Such tactics make for poor choice in a landscape of great political complexity. The level of polarization in state politics between the Congress and non-Congress parties, and now between various regional parties, has increased greatly in the last decade or so. As a result, if what Gandhi said were to become reality, that would be akin to running with the hare and hunting with the hound. The gains would be equal to the losses, if not less.
Rahul Gandhi: naïve idealist or a shrewd politician? Tell us at firstname.lastname@example.org