Congress president Rahul Gandhi must have rejoiced at the sight of thousands lining the streets to catch a glimpse of him in Wayanad, in Kerala, where he had gone over the weekend to thank its people for electing him to the Lok Sabha. On his many pit stops during his roadshows, Gandhi repeatedly said, as he had during his 2019 election campaign, that the Congress represented “truth, love and affection.”
Gandhi’s remarks implicitly conveyed to the people that these values will inform his second innings as an Opposition leader. He contrasted himself with Prime Minister Narendra Modi who he accused of resorting to “lies, poison and hatred” during his campaign.
Yet, ironically, Wayanad was the most inappropriate laboratory Gandhi could have chosen to forge his idea of love into a political weapon. This is because Gandhi polled over seven lakh votes in Wayanad and outgunned his rival by a mammoth 4.31 lakh votes. His victory margin illustrates that the people of Wayanad do subscribe to the ideology of the Congress or, to put it another way, love him.
Nor is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the threshold of appropriating the Opposition space in Kerala, where the political pendulum swings between the Left and the Congress-led alliance. Let alone Wayanad, the Congress won 15 seats in Kerala, its allies another four, and the BJP drew a blank. Gandhi’s articulation of love as an ideology in Wayanad was as good as, to use a cliché, preaching to the converted.
There is much confusion about what Gandhi’s idea of love means. Few know that Gandhi has adapted the Buddhist precept of Maitri, or loving-kindness, to script the revival of the Congress. Pithily, loving-kindness aims to perceive the humanity behind the most hurtful action and use the insight so gained to bring about an inner transformation in people for social change.
Gandhi, for sure, must be hurting at the Indian electorate’s rejection of him and the Congress. He needs to comprehend why people dislike him to vote against his party before he can think of using love to win them over. Wayanad was just the wrong place to begin his voyage of discovery.
For fashioning love into a political weapon, the Congress president should have chosen Amethi as the first place to visit after the drubbing his party received in the Lok Sabha election. It would have displayed his fortitude in withstanding, metaphorically, Amethi’s blazing heat that burnt him politically. Once a veritable family borough from where a Gandhi was routinely elected, Amethi became a waterloo, so to speak, for the Congress president, who lost to Union Minister Smriti Irani by over 55,000 votes.
Gandhi, however, received 4.13 lakh votes, up from 4.08 lakh he received in 2014. This means over four lakh voters remained steadfast in their fidelity to the Gandhis and the Congress, not swayed by the political wind blowing in favour of Modi and the BJP. Their disappointment at Gandhi’s defeat in Amethi must run deep. Gandhi should have forgotten his own shock and humiliation, as the defeat in Amethi must have been for him, to console those politically loyal to him.
Perhaps Gandhi should have drawn a lesson from Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister Jaganmohan Reddy’s experiment. When his father and Congress Chief Minister YS Rajasekhara Reddy died in a chopper crash, there was a rash of suicides in Andhra Pradesh. In 2010, sweeping aside his own personal sorrow and apprehensions of being politically marginalised, Jagan went on what he called Odarpu Yatra, or Consolation Tour, visiting the families whose members had courted death in their unbearable sorrow at the demise of his father. The yatra laid the foundation for Jagan to build his own party from scratch and capture power nine years later.
To give a political shape to the Buddhist idea of love, Gandhi could have visited those who did not vote for him. Irani bagged 4.68 lakh votes; a mysteriously long list of 25 unheard of political parties, Independents and NOTA (None of the Above) together bagged 60,545 votes. It is easy to identify from the Election Commission’s Form 20, which provides data on votes cast in each polling booth, where the bulk of those who did not vote for Gandhi reside in Amethi.
Imagine the frisson Gandhi could have generated by visiting those who rejected him, by entering into dialogue with them to fathom why they defied Amethi’s electoral history to not vote for him. It is possible they could have given Gandhi a mouthful, incessantly cribbed about his team responsible for overseeing Amethi, or perhaps even shown black flags. Such display of emotions could have embarrassed Gandhi no end.
Yet it could have also enabled Gandhi to turn the abstraction of love intelligible to the people and fashion Maitri into a political weapon. As of now, Gandhi’s idea of love sounds too esoteric and woolly-headed for the masses to relate with it. It could have also established him as a leader who does not shy away from those who rejected him.
Philosophy apart, Amethi and Rae Bareli together constitute the relatively most stable perch the Gandhis have in the Hindi heartland, where it seems caught in an interminable downward spiral. The party picked up just four seats from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Haryana. By contrast, out of 52 seats it won in 2019, 29 of these came from South India, suggesting its mass base there is durable.
That is why Gandhi’s choice of Wayanad for his first foray post-Lok Sabha results risks being perceived as his and the Congress party’s reluctance to emerge out of their imaginary world; of deluding themselves of the goodwill they enjoy and hoping it will, miraculously, bring a turnaround in their fortunes; of presuming they do not, therefore, have to resuscitate the moribund party organisation.
This attitude was on display when a two-member Congress panel visited Amethi to examine why Gandhi lost from there. Local leaders accused Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) workers of voting for Irani, apart from claiming that the absence of a BSP candidate from the fray in Amethi saw the transfer of that party’s votes to Irani and not to Gandhi, as had been hoped.
It is indeed an eloquent testimony to the depths to which the Congress has plummeted that it has to depend on regional parties, with whom it sparred during the election campaign, for Gandhi’s victory. It could not even find candidates from inside the party to field in Uttar Pradesh – 23 of its 62 candidates there were inducted into the party between January and April this year.
That is why the show the Congress mounted in Wayanad over the weekend seemed eerily delusional. Gandhi should understand that speaking of love to those who love him, as the people of Wayanad seem to, is akin to staying inside an echo chamber. To turn his idea of love into a political weapon, he needed to visit those who spurned him in Amethi. That is what the Buddhist idea of Maitri would have demanded.
The writer is an independent journalist. The views are personal.