The crown may be uneasy, but it has to be worn if Rahul Gandhi has to make himself relevant and emerge with a stronger Congress to take on Narendra Modi’s BJP in 2019. He has to stand up not only to be counted as a challenger but to revitalise his demoralised party. Sounds ironical for a party that fought for India’s independence and then ruled supreme for decades!
The party badly needs a make-over. It has never been in such a bad shape. There is no debate about the fact that the party needs to quickly revitalise and get ready for battle. Rahul has a lot on his plate once he takes over and establishes a clear line of command which till now was just his mother and him.
Actually, Rahul is fortunate that he has a wide canvass to take on Modi. He is not short of issues. There is growing discontent against the BJP due to inflation, lack of jobs, effects of demonetisation, small businesses being affected due to lousy and confused implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, lopsided priorities that have nothing to do with burning issues like poverty and hunger. That is not all. There is a clear cut slowdown of the economy that is hurting those who voted the BJP to power the most as they thought that they were voting for a government that would bring in bold reforms, transform the sluggish economy and give a boost to their fortunes with new opportunities. Nothing of the kind happened. Instead, they found themselves entangled in cobwebs created by demonetisation and GST that was not well thought through. Modi had strongly opposed GST when he was the chief minister of Gujarat labelling it as a scam, but when he became the PM, he saw it as a revolutionary reform and had a special midnight session of parliament to pass it signifying that it something to be celebrated.
One of the challenges of Rahul is to spend a lot of time getting his team to research on various claims of the government and find if he can blow the myths with cold facts and figures. Can he drill a hole in Modi’s jumlas?
When Rahul steps in to face the realities of Indian politics as the leader of one of India’s oldest parties, he will have a lot of learning to do. He will have to learn to communicate better if he has to get talking to the opposition parties who may want to tie up a coalition to take on Modi. He is bound to falter, but he must have the courage to face the tough terrain he negotiates. As a hesitant politician who has been kicked to the top by dynasty politics, he has not shown that tenor. At least, not yet.
Soon, there will be elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Karnataka and four other states. Unless he gets the Congress to win some of the major state elections, he will not be able to rein in senior coalition partners for the 2019 battle. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Naveen Patnaik, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Mayawati, Sharad Pawar, Lalu Prasad Yadav are all watching him.
Rahul has to understand that merely attacking Modi will not help win elections. The electorate in another two years will be fed up with the politics of communal hatred and will be looking for change. Will Rahul be able to author a new narrative that will be able to clearly lay down a game plan to rescue India from the current murky politics that mixes religion and communalism to from a deadly mix? Will he be able to display a vision where there are achievable targets in terms of ensuring a better economy, more equitable development, better health services, protection of the environment, a more robust education system that will help the young clinch jobs or create opportunities for themselves and so on? The list is long. But that itself if an opportunity for the Congress to at least show that they now look at good governance and will not be as arrogant as they were in their last innings.
Just a manifesto listing all these will not work. As it is, voters are getting cynical with propaganda and the numerous seemingly hollow promises that are sculpted just before elections.
They voted Modi thinking that he is result-oriented. They liked his aggressive swagger and his eloquence. They liked his story-telling abilities. But now, they are looking for more than this kind of entertainment. They want a better quality of life. They want cheaper health care. They want social security. They do not want to pay bribes. They want their children to get quality education and not be fed propaganda material. They want icons to head institutions of excellence and not RSS activists. They want peace and not face rabble rousers every second day. They want the agriculture sector which is the backbone of the Indian economy to get more attention and grow. There are 179 million rural households in India and they are crying out for attention. Increasing suicides by farmers is not a sign of a changing India.
The window of opportunity for Rahul is huge. It remains to be seen how well or badly he uses it to project an alternative.
For a brief while soon as he took over as Prime Minister, his father, Rajiv Gandhi, had sent aspirations spiralling within his party and the country as a young leader who had a dream to see India march to a different tune and emerge as a country with a great future. He seemed sincere and spontaneous. He said that Congressmen should not be seen as self-centred purveyors but as those who wanted to do their bit for the nation. He was critical of the way the party functioned. He wanted young blood infused into the body politic. He wanted money meant for the poor to reach them.
But as things metamorphosed, the older gang in the party who were being sidelined, ganged up to neutralise him by deploying their wily ways to make him wallow in self-doubt and ultimately rely on them. It is important to look at Rahul Gandhi keeping this in perspective. It is not easy to reform the Congress that is set in its ways.
Sources within the Congress say that Rahul has been trying to do a lot of what his father attempted to do in terms of infusing new energy and blood in the party but has not been able to make the headway he wanted as the old guard is there again to ensure that he does not have his way as if he did, they would be redundant soon.
The period around Diwali saw some frantic party activities as state chiefs were being elected and members of some central bodies were being finalised. News about Rahul taking over as president has been in the air for quite some time. It is now expected to be finally done by early December. It is unlikely that there would be a contest given the party’s penchant for having someone from the Gandhi family to take on the mantle. As if there are no other leaders… In fact, loyalist Mani Shankar Aiyar indicated as much when he said that only two could ascend the President’s throne-mother or son!
Is Rahul the best choice? Many within the party feel that Priyanka Gandhi would have given more traction as she has the ability to pull crowds which can later translate into votes. They argue that she has better clarity on issues, is sincere, energetic and has the ability to take on aggressive postures when dealing with the overtly aggressive BJP. She also might have been better in getting the opposition see the logic of getting into a coalition to stop the BJP onslaught.
Others feel that individuals like Shashi Tharoor would have had greater appeal with young intelligent voters who have emerged as a large vote bank that Modi tapped in 2014 with promises of change, economic growth, new opportunities and a consequent exploding job market. But Tharoor’s name is not even mentioned as his outspoken ways have not sunk in well with the party High Command.
With elections to Gujarat and Himachal scheduled later this year, the party wants to send a clear message that it is attempting to reinvent itself and not wallow in the brow-beating it got at the hand of the BJP in 2014. In Gujarat, it did not win a single seat. In UP, it managed to win just two-Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi’s seats. It could not have got worse than this.
At 70, Sonia realises she has lost her touch. She keeps indifferent health and political realities have changed. Her decision to step down is logical. Rahul till recently seemed reticent, but he too now seems to have come around to the fact that the party looks up to him to change its fortunes.
Once he takes over, there will be a new team he would want to do what the party needs. He has already got some young leaders, like Jyotiraditya Scindia, to emerge as Pradesh Congress Presidents.
A new Congress Working Committee will take charge and some young faces are expected. Internal polls that have not been conducted for long, will be executed by the end of this year. Rahul knows he has been no shining star and the numerous losses in election after election has been attributed to his lack of leadership and aggressiveness to counter the intrepid BJP.
Many arrogant BJP leaders like Smriti Irani and Amit Shah predicted the doom of the Congress time and again in their election speeches after their heady ride to power. But politics in India does not work like that.
A party with over 13 decades of history and institutional memory of the intricacies of governance does not vanish so fast with one electoral defeat. The fact that the Congress in recent months have shown that it can win in panchayat elections and even in state polls shows that.
Rahul can see that the Congress won more seats in Goa and Manipur than the BJP and could have easily formed a government, but they were outsmarted by a quick footed BJP that quickly cobbled support and pulled the carpet from under their lazy feet. That is why he wants the young leaders to take over, says a source.
A large part of the 2014 election was fought on social media with hyperactive cyber cells hiring net savvy youngsters to keep the Modi idiom alive 24/7. It worked at that time as WhatsApp, facebook and mail forwards whipped up the feel that finally India had a leader who wanted to change the way the country was and light up a million dreams.
The Congress was nowhere in the reckoning and got blasted and criticised on the social media. It was not an area they were used to. However, Rahul is now ensuring activity by the party in the cyber world, takes on the government claims and debunks them for what it is worth.
The BJP war room ensured that Rahul was the butt of jokes, memes, cartoons and negative, sarcastic comments. Now, Rahul is getting his warriors to do the same to Modi. However, all this is not enough to win an election. What Rahul needs is training to communicate better, understand policy needs, develop a holistic vision for genuine change and emerge as an opposition leader who can challenge the government on its tall claims. He has to be seen as a leader who can lead even a fragmented opposition to take on Modi and the BJP.
Rahul does not have an enviable role. He has to walk a path that no one has trodden before. If he does, there will invariably be rewards at the end of the tunnel. If he does not, the slide that the Congress has witnessed since 2014 will intensify and Modi will be laughing all the way to 7, Race Course Road once again.
(Published on 27th November 2017, Volume XXIX, Issue 48)