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What Rahul Gandhi needs to learn from Brazil’s Lula

Rahul Gandhi would have to realise that, in many ways, the reality in India is far more complicated than in Brazil. Since the Rafale scam, there has been no exposure of large-scale corruption in the BJP that minimises Congress’s corrupt past.

By Sanjay Kapoor
New Update

publive-image Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally during Bharat Jodo Yatra | Photo courtesy: @RahulGandhi | Twitter

After a pit stop in Delhi, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi embarked on the last leg of his 3700-kilometre Bharat Jodo Yatra, which will culminate in Srinagar. Gandhi attracted big crowds during his long journey and also got substantial coverage in the local and social media, but was largely neglected by commentators from mainstream media.

Now we find the narrative shifting rapidly. Suddenly, young Rahul is seen as a serious Prime Ministerial prospect that can take on Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This change in mood is having an impact on the ground. Take, for instance, the response of Akhilesh Yadav of the Samajwadi Party (SP) and Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP). 

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Initially, both of them had called Gandhi names and turned down his offer to join the yatra when it briefly traversed through Western Uttar Pradesh. In fact, Yadav reportedly called the Congress as being no different from BJP. The venom was quite uncharacteristic of an amiable Yadav, but he may have his own reasons.

A few days later, it seems wiser counsel prevailed on Yadav, and he was gentler in his response to Rahul’s invitation to join the yatra. He congratulated the Congress leader for the success of its yatra and hoped the march would achieve its stated objectives. Even BSP leader Mayawati followed the same path - refused to join the Yatra, but was conciliatory in her response to the invitation letter. It was clear that the two regional leaders were keeping their options open for the 2024 elections.

Similar warmth was on display from the Deputy Chief Minister of Haryana, Dushyant Chautala, who praised Rahul’s long and arduous journey and stated matter of factly that it was not easy what he was doing. This is a marked departure from the bare-knuckle hostility displayed by the BJP, which does not want to show any sympathy for his long walk to promote national unity. It fears that the support it has built around a constructed hatred for Gandhis and the Congress party would begin to diminish if BJP leadership shows humane values of appreciation for hard work and resilience. Expectedly they have latched on to a trivial detail of how Rahul is braving the extreme North Indian winter in just a T-shirt. 

Those who are pinning their hopes around Rahul standing up as a challenger to Modi must recognise that nationalist politicians are harder to topple than the normal democratic ones. Their support base is built on the majority community and its flawed reading of history, which feeds their grievances against the privileged few (Gandhis, for instance). Usually, they are pretty unshakable in their conviction. 

publive-image Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, President of Brazil, waving to a crowd | @LulaOficial | Twitter

Those who plan to oust the BJP would have to look at Brazil and the return of its President, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva for inspiration. Lula was jailed on charges of corruption and was facing a formidable nationalist challenger in President Jair Bolsonaro, who was largely illiterate and extremely aggressive in articulating his vision of the country. He stole many ideas from the left parties to endear himself to the poor. Lula realised that despite the vocal support of the articulate middle class, he would find it difficult to beat a person like Bolsonaro, who openly preached masculine majoritarianism and authoritarianism. To beat him, he built a 10-party Coalition of Hope and accommodated parties far distant from him ideologically. They all realised that they could engage in regular politics only if Bolsonaro was defeated. His supporters believed in fake news routinely furnished on WhatsApp and YouTube channels. In fact, only India has a higher percentage of people believing in the disinformation dished out on WhatsApp. Expectedly, the outcomes in both countries are largely similar.

Lula sought to show that the corruption in the Workers Party was no different from what existed in Bolsonaro’s flock. In fact, one of the scoops that hurt the prospects of his Liberal Party was the manner in which Bolsonaro’s family bought 51 properties in hard cash - a practice normally seen in money launderers. Despite the rainbow coalition, Lula won by a whisker. It seemed that Bolsonaro had mastered the art of garnering the support of the masses in a manner that many journalists and pollsters could not read. That was the reason the nationalist leader did not accept the verdict.

Rahul Gandhi would have to realise that, in many ways, the reality in India is far more complicated than in Brazil. Since the Rafale scam, there has been no exposure of large-scale corruption in the BJP that minimises Congress’s corrupt past. BJP has managed to keep tight control over what gets carried in the media. Till that stranglehold is loosened, the BJP will benefit from the lily-white image of BJP. The control of the media is another reason that issues of national security - encroachment of China - do not get enough traction.

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As BJP is seen to be the party of the majority community, every other party seeking the support of the minorities - like the Congress or SP - is seen as anti-Hindu. This is a difficult challenge to master, but state elections point to the fact that the BJP still does not get the votes of the entire Hindu community. Plenty of local factors determine voting behaviour, which is why Modi is trying to tell the voters that a candidate is not important and they should think that they are voting for him. While this pitch worked with Gujarat, in Himachal Pradesh, where he gave the first call that all votes were for him - the BJP lost badly. 

The Congress and Rahul would draw comfort from Himachal Pradesh and all the states where the BJP lost in the past few years as it readies for the nine-state elections in 2023. A win in the majority of the states would tell us who will rule Delhi in 2024.


Sanjay Kapoor is a Senior Journalist based out of Delhi. He is a foreign policy specialist focused on India, its neighbourhood and West Asia. He is the Founder and Editor of Hardnews Magazine and he is also the General Secretary of Editors Guild of India.