Have Modi’s Mistakes Made Rahul Gandhi More Appealing to First-Time Voters?

Rahul Gandhi seems to be closing in on Prime Minister Narendra Modi when it comes to popularity. Gandhi has already overtaken Modi on Twitter, and his regular press conferences throw Modi’s silence (and preference for clearly scripted questions) into a poorer light.

Gandhi has gradually managed to shed the ‘pappu’ tag — a combined product of his earlier amateurism, and systematic vilification and over-exaggeration by the BJP’s IT cell – especially after the Congress’ recent victories in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan.

He’s also trying to shift the election conversation away from Hindutva and nationalism to issues that may just be closer to most young Indians – employment and gender equality.

A quick review of the past four years 

Modi made a lot of tall promises when he came to power in 2014 and his failure to deliver has left certain sections of our population deeply disappointed. For instance, Indian youth, particularly first time voters, can’t help but notice that the promised two crore jobs have not arrived. Meanwhile, the newly-elected Congress governments in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan are already working to implement campaign promises such as loan waivers.

The BJP’s also dealing with the resurrection of old jibes against it. For instance, in 2015, Gandhi accused the Modi government of being a “suit boot ki sarkar” and prompted an image overhaul within the BJP. In his book, How the BJP Wins, Prashant Jha argues that Gandhi’s comment compelled Modi to reinvent himself as a leader of the poor, and later the same jibe contributed to the populist idea of demonetisation.

The tag, however, has come back to haunt Modi again — among other allegations, the Modi government is accused of corruption in a deal involving Rafale jets and a company owned by Anil Ambani. Over the last few months, the government has had to defend itself repeatedly, showing that voters’ trust in the party and its leader has definitely eroded. A government can’t champion economic prosperity and be suspected of lining its own pockets at the same time – not something lost on young voters.

Pro-Hindutva rhetoric, erecting statues and renaming cities can’t distract from the anti-corruption gaffes of this government. Modi could not recover the large sums of black money he promised; his government has also failed to convict Vijay Malya, Mehul Choksi and Nirav Modi.

Modi can no longer convincingly use anti-corruption as his USP against the Congress, not without providing some answers of his own.

In addition to this, this government’s proclivity to meddle in institutions – ranging from the Reserve Bank of India to the CBI to state universities – is not lost on the students whose education has been compromised by the “patriotic” changes made in our syllabus, especially history textbooks.

Rahul Gandhi’s not Modi, and he’s using that to his advantage

Apart from party-level actions and policies, Gandhi has also positioned himself as diametrically opposite to Modi. Recently, the prime minister targeted the opposition – the Gandhi family in particular – with comments like “50 crore ki girlfriend” and “Congress ki vidhwa“. He is also known to follow abusive trolls on Twitter.

On the other hand, Gandhi has spoken up for promoting gender equality through better representation of women in parliament. He has written letters to the chief ministers of Congress and allied state governments to pass a resolution in favour of the Women’s Reservation Bill.  It, however, must be noted that the Congress failed to pass the Bill during its tenure.

Moreover, Gandhi’s recent sexist jibe on Nirmala Sitharaman cannot be ignored. While many are keen to give him the benefit of doubt following his clarification, I am personally not convinced.

What to expect this year

For the first time, the Congress, led by Gandhi, has started setting the agenda and the Modi government has to adopt a defensive position. He has not only become better at political rhetoric, but he is also talking seriously about policies and issues. He recently spoke about restructuring GST.

What is often cited as ‘weaknesses’ of Rahul Gandhi — that he does not comes off as ‘strong’ as Narendra Modi; that, unlike Modi, he does not seem to have the answer to everything; that he does not take decisions unilaterally — might actually be good for India. The country needs a prime minister who is willing to accept that he/she does not have all the answers; a leader willing to listen to others and work with them. Modi and Amit Shah’s top-down style of working does not leave much scope for involving others — including the youth — in decision-making; whereas Rahul Gandhi has already taken initiatives to involve the youth and give them important roles.

Am I suggesting that Rahul Gandhi is the best candidate we have or will ever have? Certainly not. The very limited point that I am trying to make is that the TINA factor — there is no alternative — is not true. Rahul Gandhi can be an alternative to Modi.

The first-time voters — presumably in the age bracket of 18 to 23 years — were too young to judge the UPA governments; the Modi government is all they have experienced. And they might just decide to give Rahul Gandhi a chance.

Fahad Hasin is undergraduate student, studying political science at Ashoka University.