Upside down: How is Rahul Gandhi seen in the state that he now represents?

In south India, Rahul is not taken as a joke. It is from here that the Congress should try to rebuild the party.

 |  5-minute read |   17-07-2019
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Paragon is the most famous restaurant in Kozhikode, a region with one of the tastiest culinary traditions in India. Queues at Paragon involve waiting for an hour to get a table. In Kerala last week, I was told by local residents that Rahul Gandhi loves the food at Paragon — he eats there or the food is packed for him when he is en route to Wayanad, 84 km away.

I'm so glad the food is to his liking as Rahul Gandhi now has multiple opportunities to enjoy a decent meal as the MP from Wayanad. He is apparently taking it seriously if we note that his first intervention in Parliament after the Lok Sabha defeat and subsequent resignation as Congress president was actually about farmers' suicides in Wayanad.

rahul-690_071719104323.jpgRahul Gandhi's first intervention in Parliament after his subsequent resignation as Congress president was about farmers' suicides in Wayanad. (Photo: Reuters)

How is Rahul Gandhi perceived in south India?

We know that Uttar Pradesh, where he lost his own seat Amethi has rejected him. But do voters in the state from where he is now MP also feel that Rahul Gandhi is a political failure?

In Kerala, I spoke to a cross section of some of the more politically aware people of the region. I asked people what they thought of Rahul Gandhi, did they think he was a joke as some TV channels project him to be, were they happy he resigned, do they see Priyanka as a better option.

Here are the answers:

1) In south India, Rahul Gandhi is not a joke. He is liked and even considered charismatic in Kerala and reportedly, Tamil Nadu. He was seen as some-one who had developed a pro-people's politics. These kind of issues are scrutinised closely in a literate population such as that in Kerala. The Nyay scheme got a mention from two people I asked; his attack on crony capitalism too was mentioned.

I was also told that in Kerala, many Left voters also voted for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) because they saw the Congress as the primary force taking on the BJP. They, therefore, saw Rahul as an individual who was developing in the right direction.

2) I found no one who thought Priyanka would be an improvement on Rahul. This is very different from the sort of incantation you find among the distressed Congress members in the north — where they seem to believe that in the end a Gandhi, most likely Priyanka, alone can save the Congress. In Kerala, instead people spoke of specific positions Rahul had taken on specific issues and asked what positions had Priyanka taken. I was told that she is not a serious politician so why should she replace Rahul. I persisted, but is she not more confident? The answer was uniformly that if Rahul really goes the replacement should be a new young and dynamic leader, not Priyanka, who has no positions beyond her family and guarding their interests.

priyanka-690_071719104815.jpgNot many people down south believe that Priyanka would be an improvement on Rahul when it comes to taking charge of the Congress. (Photo: Reuters)

3) However, what has damaged Rahul Gandhi was his resignation as party president after the defeat. Repeatedly, I was told, he should not have resigned when he did. Leaders don't quit. The word used twice was "pathetic" and what has followed in the Congress is cited as evidence of the poor judgement call by Rahul Gandhi. Everyone said he should have known that if he quit after such a big defeat the party would implode without a central command.

I was, for a change, looking at the shift in politics through the perspective of south India and not the Hindi cow belt. In conclusion, the overall impression I got is that the Congress is not a cypher in south India. Even in Karnataka, with all the odds against them, people do not think that the Congress story is over. If Rahul Gandhi intends to be an MP with extraordinary powers, south India is the place for him to rebuild the party.

Rahul Gandhi should actually give up on the north, that just does not take him seriously, and put all his attention on south India, where he has acquired some credibility. But he did lose some of it with the resignation and what is following.

As I have said repeatedly from the day the resignation was offered, captains do not walk away when the ship has been wrecked. They wait for a decent interregnum, put a structure in place and then walk away.

There is therefore a time when the leader should head off — maybe to the deep south.

To return to the Paragon of food — the palates would be satisfied but so can the politics. (Overall, I've always found eating out a far more democratic process in south India, where commoners and kings can eat at the same sprawling place).

idli-690_071719105235.jpgMaybe Rahul Gandhi should focus on south India and southern cuisines for now. (Photo: Reuters)

At this eatery patronised by Rahul Gandhi (and even Nitin Gadkari who goes for the vegetarian fare) most dishes I tried were just delicious. The Malabar biryanis were light and not heavy like the north Indians one, the prawns were to die for, the appams crisp, and owner Sumesh, turned up at the table where we were eating and insisted I try mango fish curry. Even though I was groaning under all that food, I gave it a go, and it was definitely worth it.

I tried do some journalism while stuffing myself and asked what Rahul Gandhi liked to eat. I just got a big grin and was told that CPI(M) general secretary Sitaram Yechury also pops in for a bite when he is passing through. So no secret recipes or information acquired but lots of nourishment that set me on the course of trying the crack the Rahul Gandhi code in south India.

No, it's not over for him in the south. It can, in fact, be a launch pad for a new innings. But only if he plays his card right and makes no more dreadful mistakes.

Also read: What explains the importance of DK Shivakumar for the Congress

Writer

Saba Naqvi Saba Naqvi @_sabanaqvi

Eminent political journalist and writer. Author, most recently of Shades of Saffron: From Vajpayee To Modi

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