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Veteran journalist M.J Akbar is the founder of The Sunday Guardian.

The Curious Gamble of Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi garlands a portrait of Jawaharlal Nehru on his 122nd birth anniversary, at a rally in Uttar Pradesh on Monday. PTI

here is one question within the complicated Uttar Pradesh conundrum that has left me completely bewildered. Why on earth has Rahul Gandhi made the results of its Assembly polls next year such a prestige issue – his own prestige, not his party's? Why has he staked his personal reputation on UP, and then multiplied the stakes, when he has no real reason to gamble his own future on the vagaries of Awadh?

The Congress party makes no demands on him. It will anoint him Prime Minister the day he chooses to shift from waiting room into head office. The job comes to him by genetic entitlement, not electoral endorsement. Rahul Gandhi led his party's campaign in Bihar, only to be drowned by the Nitish Kumar-BJP deluge. Did this diminish his claim on the Prime Ministership? No. Supposing the results of UP are equally dispiriting. Will that end the constant chirrup by acolytes for his elevation? No. Competence is not the primary measure in current Congress mathematics. Family is. If Pranab Mukherjee had the right genes he would have been Prime Minister, and in the mould of the person he admires most in recent Indian history, Mrs Indira Gandhi. But he does not have the genes. And that is that.

When the electorate gets its chance to evaluate a Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi, it will not do so on the basis of how many votes he gets in Mayawati's UP. It will take a call on how he manages the crises that he will inherit, and there will be enough of them in 2012.

Jawaharlal Nehru is the only Congress PM who was battle-tested at the hustings before being sworn in – the general elections of 1937 and 1946; the first was an incomplete victory and the second a bitter triumph. Lal Bahadur Shastri had no track record when he became PM in June 1964. Neither did Indira Gandhi when she succeeded him in January 1966. Mrs Gandhi failed miserably in her first electoral test. The Congress lost every state between Amritsar and Calcutta in 1967. Rajiv Gandhi was totally untested when he became PM in October 1984. His landslide two months later owed more to his mother's martyrdom than to any promise he exuded. P.V. Narasimha Rao never won anything, either in 1991, an election he did not contest, or 1996, when he contested with awful consequences. Dr Manmohan Singh was not made PM because he could set fire to a crowd with his oratory.

When the electorate gets its chance to evaluate a Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi, it will not do so on the basis of how many votes he gets in Mayawati’s UP. It will take a call on how he manages the crises that he will inherit, and there will be enough of them in 2012.

What will a few seats more or less in UP prove? The dynamics of a general election are radically different from those of a provincial poll. Mayawati won a splendid victory in 2007, and slipped behind the Congress in 2009. The Congress got fewer Assembly seats in 2007 than it got Parliament seats in 2009. The battle of 2012 will be determined by factors completely different from 2007. The Congress lost the state of UP in 1989, and still has not discovered how it has slipped from its once-formidable grip. Delhi is closer to Congress than Lucknow.

ahul Gandhi has thrown expensive specialists into a war room to plan out minute strategy; demographic experts have become flush with funds. The investment is personal; he is the general of this campaign. In another context, the UP election of 2012 could have become a legitimate bid for Congress rule in Lucknow. But oddly, his advisers like the general secretary in charge of UP, Digvijay Singh, are letting it be known that they will view a mere 60 seats out of 403 as "victory". This is terrifyingly naïve.

There is only one reason for such discordant UP hype: to create a Rahul "bounce" that will serve as ballast for entry into the PM's office. But Rahul Gandhi does not need any artificial boost. Dr Manmohan Singh has said repeatedly that the door is open for him to enter on any day he wishes. Are the allies who keep Congress in power waiting anxiously for the UP results to find out whether they can entrust their fortunes to a youngish heir? No. Sharad Pawar and Karunanidhi are too vulnerable to risk a mid-term poll. They will swallow their reservations and join the chorus.

There is no objective reason; but there could be a subjective one. Is this anxiety for success a sign of Rahul Gandhi's own insecurity, a gnawing desire to prove to himself and the political class that he has come of age, and that he no longer needs his father's memory or his mother's shadow?

Doubt is a familiar component of his age group, particularly if there is no professional success on the CV. But he has advisers whose job is to chart the safest way forward rather than feed into their leader's doubts with meaningless risk. If things go right Rahul Gandhi will get what was already his designated due. If they go wrong he could be left holding, as that acerbic simile puts it, the dirty end of a burnt matchstick.

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