Cablegate: Rahul Gandhi Jumps Into the U.P. Electoral Fray
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C O N F I D E N T I A L SECTION 01 OF 04 NEW DELHI 001915
E.O. 12958: DECL: 04/23/2017
TAGS: PGOV PREL PTER PHUM PINR SCUL KDEM KISL IN PK
SUBJECT: RAHUL GANDHI JUMPS INTO THE U.P. ELECTORAL FRAY
REF: A. NEW DELHI 1699
B. NEW DELHI 1675 C. NEW DELHI 1508
Classified By: Political Counselor Ted Osius for reasons 1.4 (B,D)
1. (C) Summary: Rahul Gandhi, the heir apparent of the Gandhi family dynasty, has made a number of gaffes, suggesting an uneven start to his active political career. During a series of ""roadshows"" meant to jump-start the Congress campaign in ongoing Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections, Rahul made elliptical and controversial statements regarding Pakistan, the destruction of the Babri Mosque and UP politics that were greeted with disbelief and derision. Veteran politics watchers cannot explain Rahul's apparent missteps, while Congress insiders complain that he is a neophyte who does not have what it takes to become Prime Minister. Their hopes have now shifted to yet another member of the Nehru Dynasty, Rahul's sister Priyanka, as they await her entry into politics. With Congress unable to break out of fourth place in UP, its only hopes of returning to significance would be on BSP Chief Mayawati's coattails. Should Mayawati score big in the elections, the BSP would emerge as the state's largest party and she would come within striking distance of forming the government. In such a scenario, Congress insiders claim the party would join a BSP government. Congress is apparently willing to play second fiddle to the authoritarian, corrupt and unpredictable Mayawati, if it keeps the hated BJP and SP out of power. Thus are the voters of UP bereft of visionary leaders or hope for a better future. End Summary.
Rahul Puts His Foot in His Mouth
2. (U) As part of its Uttar Pradesh (UP) electoral campaign, Congress has been sending heir apparent Rahul Gandhi into the countryside to conduct ""roadshows,"" aimed at making contact with the average voter. Three times during the campaign Rahul has made elliptical statements which have puzzled and enraged political observers, other political parties, Congress cadre, and in one instance, Pakistan.
--On April 15, Rahul in a speech at a UP campaign rally stated that ""I belong to the family which has never moved backwards, which has never gone back on its words. You know that when any member of my family had decided to do anything, he does it. Be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan or taking India into the 21st Century.""
--Earlier, while on the campaign trail, Rahul had maintained that the Babri Mosque ""would have been protected had a member of the Gandhi family been in power.""
--At another rally, Rahul exclaimed that his party's slide into the political wilderness in UP started with its 1996 alliance with former Chief Minister Mayawati and her BSP.
Reactions Mostly Negative
3. (U) The Rahul gaffes were greeted with bewilderment and, in some cases, disdain. In an Islamabad press conference a GOP spokesman sniffed that ""it validates the point that we all know - that India has always been trying to interfere in Pakistan's internal affairs and to destabilize Pakistan. It is a clear admission by a prominent member of India's ruling family and of this party that is ruling now."" Leading Pakistani track two activist Lt. General Talat Masood remarked, ""it is in such bad taste and so unnecessary. It is a short-sighted approach to please certain domestic constituencies for the elections, but in the long run, so detrimental to relations between the two countries.""
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4. (U) The opposition BJP was equally unimpressed. Party spokesman Prakash Javadekar exclaimed that ""if he claims this for his family, then he should also own up to the failure that resulted in Partition and the capture and occupation of large parts of Kashmir by Pakistan soon after independence."" CPI National Secretary D. Raja suggested that Rahul ""had no grasp of historical issues,"" and should stick to current events. Samajwadi Party (SP) General Secretary Amar Singh exclaimed that Rahul was ""trying hard to find a niche for himself.""
Even Within Congress
5. (U) Press reports quoted Congress workers in UP as expressing ""bewilderment,"" as they were unable to determine the political purpose of his remarks. One Congress worker theorized that Rahul was trying to resurrect the ""soft Hindutva"" of his father Rajiv Gandhi and win over Hindu voters attracted to the BJP, stating ""a claim that Congress had actively worked for the division of Pakistan would certainly appeal more to a section of sectarian Hindus."" Other Congress workers suggested that Rahul had simply spoken ""without sufficient deliberation."" One Congressman tried to shift the blame to Rahul's entourage, stating ""their inexperience could be the cause for the mistiming of the statements."" Another opined that while Rahul's statements regarding the Babri Mosque were meant to ""win over a section of Muslims to the party, all that it evoked was ridicule in the minority community.""
6. (C) Former MP (Janata Party) D.N. Patodia told Polcouns April 23 that Congress Party members have no choice but to defend Rahul, even when he makes the worst gaffes. He said Indira Gandhi was groomed for 15 years before coming to power, and predicted that Rahul will need an equally lengthy training period.
The Prime Minister Attempts Damage Control
7. (U) On the UP campaign trail, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh declared Rahul as ""the leader of the future,"" stating ""your future is in your midst. Yes, I am talking of Rahul Gandhi. He is braving it out for you. He is with you. He is your future. Just one chance is required for him and the Congress Party to build a new Uttar Pradesh for you and your children."" The BJP was quick to pounce on the PM, stating that ""In a democratic society, political leaders rise from the grassroots; they are not born as a result of dynastic politics or a feudal mentality."" In truth, the PM's timing could not have been worse, as papers took delight in twinning his statement with banner headlines of Rahul's malapropisms.
Political Pundit Equally Bemused
8. (C) In an April 19 meeting with Poloff, veteran journalist and Hindustan Times Political Editor Pankaj Vohra noted that he was equally confused about Rahul and his statements. Vohra pointed out that the political watchers could not make sense of Rahul, stating that he seemed to be ""talking out of his head."" Vohra could not believe that Congress would allow Rahul to speak without preparation, exclaiming that ""there must be some design,"" but he could see no clear object in the remarks. In an attempt to give Rahul the benefit of the doubt, Vohra conceded that the Babri Mosque remarks must have been meant to win over the Muslim vote, the Pakistan remarks to win over the Hindu vote, and the remarks regarding Mayawati to win back some of the Dalit vote. Vohra opined that Rahul ""has been sacrificed to poor management and a poorly run UP political campaign."" Intoning that UP was a poor choice for a political debut, Vohra
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claimed that Rahul has ""done the best he could under the circumstances,"" and was the victim of an ""out of touch"" coterie of Congress insiders led by Minister of State for Commerce Jairam Ramesh.
9. (C) Exclaiming that Congress ""has its back to the wall,"" Vohra noted that the latest rumor is that if Congress does badly in UP, several parties within the UPA could cross over to the opposition NDA coalition and bring on a ""mid-term"" poll. Vohra argued that Manmohan Singh would be a ""poor choice"" to be the Congress standard-bearer if the party had to face the voters, but there is really no one else. Vohra dismissed speculation regarding an early move by Rahul into the Prime Minister slot saying that he is ""not acceptable"" as a PM candidate, is ""juvenile"" and surrounded by deluded sycophants
Congress Political Cadre is Demoralized
10. (C) On April 19 Congress leader and Gandhi family insider Nachileta Kapoor informed Poloff that the party in UP was demoralized and did not expect to win more than 35 seats in the current election. Kapoor blamed the party itself for the mess, stating that the campaign was very badly run. Kapoor dismissed Rahul as ineffective and irrelevant, claiming that his road show consisted of a series of poorly attended events in rural areas, where he made almost no impression on the voters. He predicted that Rahul's participation would have no effect on the electoral outcome, although his office continued to insist that Congress will win up to 80 seats. Kapoor had just returned from campaigning in Allahabad and maintained that Congress workers ""on the ground"" had concluded that the party was ""losing everywhere.""
The Dynasty Dying Nasty
11. (C) Kapoor was adamant that Rahul's elliptical statements were spontaneous and off the cuff. Rahul's speechwriter has reportedly confirmed that the remarks were unscripted and that Rahul refuses to use remarks drafted for him. Opining that Rahul is ""out of touch,"" Kapoor noted that he has ""no close friends or advisors,"" and that his own staff keeps him ""at arm's length"" as he is ""arrogant and rude and doesn't accept guidance from anyone."" Kapoor exclaimed that Rahul ""has no future, no talent for politics and will never be PM, as he has done nothing for the past three years."" Kapoor pointed out that even if Congress wanted to make Rahul PM, it would not be able to do so, as it does not have an absolute majority and must rely on its coalition partners to stay in power. Implying that Rahul's moment has already come and gone, Kapoor claimed that Congress insiders are predictably pinning their hopes on yet another of Nehru Dynasty member, Rahul's sister Priyanka, and are waiting for the day when she will enter politics.
Comment: Son Set
12. (C) Rahul's dismal performance on the campaign trail has narrowed the party's already limited options in UP. While some in Congress are pinning their hopes on a ""hung Parliament"" that will result in President's rule, that is looking increasingly unlikely. To form the UP government, a coalition has to come up with a majority of at least 202 seats in the 403 member Legislative Assembly. As predicted, Mayawati's BSP is surging. The best hope for Congress would be if she breaks all records and wins 170 seats or more. That would put her within striking distance of forming the
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government. As the largest party in UP, the governor would then give the BSP the first shot. In such an event, she would need Congress to make up some or all of the needed 30-35 seats. Congress sources claim that although the party would be a very junior partner in a government dominated by the authoritarian and unpredictable Mayawati, it would accept such a deal as it has ""nothing to lose."" Congress insiders argue that at least the hated BJP and SP would be kept out of power in Lucknow. In the event that the BSP does not cross 170, the BJP and SP would likely attempt to come together and form the government. While the ruling SP is getting plastered at the polls, it could manage to hold on to as many as 100 seats. Some of the lost SP seats are going to a resurgent BJP, which could win over 100 seats. Most dismiss the prospect of a BJP/BSP government, as prior experiments ended in dismal failure and lots of bad blood between the two parties.
13. (C) In any event, regardless of the outcome of the UP elections, Rahul has made an uneven entry into active politics. While crowds at his ""road show"" events are often large, Rahul has not yet demonstrated that he has the charisma required to make it in Indian politics. Notwithstanding his gaffes, however, political commentators such as M.J. Akbar predict that Rahul Gandhi could replace Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister before the 2009 elections. Others, such as former MP (Janata) D.N. Patodia, predict that Sonia Gandhi will acknowledge that Rahul isn't yet ready for prime time, and will put forward a malleable PM such as Home Affairs Minister Shiv Raj Patil. Grand old Congress leaders such as Pranab Mukherjee and Arjun Singh are seen as too independent for Sonia's liking.
14. (U) Visit New Delhi's Classified Website: (http://www.state.sgov.gov/p/sa/newdelhi/)