Rahul Gandhi

Long road ahead

Print edition : January 05, 2018

Rahul Gandhi being greeted by supporters after taking charge as Congress president in New Delhi on December 16. Photo: PTI

Rahul Gandhi with his mother and former party president Sonia Gandhi on December 16. Photo: Oinam Anand/AP

With his formal elevation as Congress president, Rahul Gandhi now faces several challenges to lift his party from the doldrums.

FROM a bespectacled teenager who hugged his father and sobbed when his grandmother’s (Indira Gandhi) pyre was lit, to the shy young man who stood hesitantly in a line of Congress M.P.s in the Central Hall of Parliament in order to greet his mother Sonia Gandhi after she was elected leader of the Congress Parliamentary Party in 2004, clutching a single rose behind his back, Rahul Gandhi has traversed a long road but still remains an enigma. And this is what makes his elevation as Congress president interesting, notwithstanding the fact that his lacklustre leadership and failure to win any major election since he assumed an active role in the party have been dissected threadbare by his political opponents.

Rahul Gandhi took over as Congress president at the party headquarters in New Delhi on December 16 amid fanfare and celebrations by Congress workers, after Mullappally Ramachandran, president of the party’s central election authority, completed the formality of handing over the election certificate to him.

In speeches filled with nostalgia and emotion, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi spoke on how they had faced the “politics of hate” without getting bogged down by it and promised to continue to fight for the “secular and democratic fabric of India”.

“The Congress will defend the voice of every single Indian and fight politics that crushes people,” Rahul Gandhi said, and accused Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) of “setting the nation on fire”.

“The Congress took India to the 21st century, but the PM today is taking us back to the medieval times. We are now being compelled to imagine that businesses can be built without harmony; that only one man himself is the voice of reason; and that expertise, experience and knowledge can be cast aside for personal glory,” he said.

Cautioning the BJP against pursuing the politics of hatred, he said: “Once fire breaks out it is difficult to douse it. That is what we are telling the people of BJP, that if you set the nation on fire it will be difficult to control. Today, the BJP has spread the fire of violence across the country,” he said.

Promising to make the Congress a “grand old young party”, he said that the party had always believed in the policy of inclusion.

Sonia Gandhi, who has been the longest serving Congress president (19 years), recalled how she had taken over the party’s reins nervously at a time when the party was weakening. Referring to the BJP’s continued attacks on Rahul Gandhi, she said they had made him stronger. “Rahul is my son. So I do not think to praise him is appropriate for me. But I would say that since childhood he had to bear the brunt of violence. After joining politics he had to face blatant personal attacks that have made him a stronger person,” she said.

Having worked in the shadow of Sonia Gandhi since his entry into public life in 2004, Rahul Gandhi has so far given the impression of being an accidental politician, a reluctant one who sporadically bursts into activity, only to withdraw completely. One witnessed him energetically hoodwinking the Uttar Pradesh government in May 2011 at Bhatta Parsaul village as he visited agitating farmers who were demanding better compensation for their land, riding pillion on a motorcycle despite ban orders, but was nowhere to be seen in the Lok Sabha when the debate on the land Bill was held shortly afterwards. He would disappear from Parliament for weeks, without any explanation. He would suddenly burst into a press conference and blast his own government on a proposed ordinance intended to overrule a Supreme Court order on banning convicted individuals from contesting elections, tearing a copy of the ordinance to bits. He would suddenly land in the midst of Niyamgiri’s tribal people, promising them his support in the fight for their hills, only to remain completely silent on the matter afterwards.

His actions and reactions would often be jerky. He tried overhauling the Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), only to halt the exercise midway. He tried to create a think tank of young Congress members, only to lose interest in it later. Although he was appointed party general secretary in 2007 and vice president in 2013, nobody knows what his views on crucial issues like Ayodhya are or what his vision for India is. Nobody has an idea what he thinks of the country’s economy or how he plans to solve the problems facing farmers or the youth, or how he plans to tackle unemployment or corruption or even Delhi’s pollution problem, for that matter.

Track record

While he has campaigned extensively since 2007, his campaigns have mostly been road shows where he would only be required to smile and wave to people. Significantly, the party has lost elections in crucial States such as Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttarakhand, Maharashtra and Assam, since he started campaigning. The 2014 Lok Sabha election, where he was the campaign in-charge, proved disastrous for the Congress as its tally dipped to 44, its lowest ever in history. Barring the victories in Karnataka and Punjab, the Congress finds itself at sea in most of India.

But despite all these setbacks and debacles, Congress members are unanimous in admitting that they have no other option. “Tell me, who could have taken over the leadership after Sonia Gandhi? The Gandhis are the glue that holds the party together,” said Mohan Prakash, senior Congress leader in charge of Maharashtra. Several others who did not want to be named said that while it was true there was discontent, the bigger truth was that “there is no other option”.

“Sonia Gandhi’s health is deteriorating and a decision had to be taken. Rahul Gandhi’s election was a foregone conclusion. Why make an issue of whether it is good or bad for the party? It cannot get any worse than it already is at the moment any way. Maybe it will just be good for us because a change of leadership may infuse a certain amount of optimism in the cadre,” a senior leader said.

According to political observers, the fact that not much is known about the politics of Rahul Gandhi could actually go in his favour. “People are getting put off by the unfulfilled promises of Narendra Modi,” an analyst said. “High prices of essential commodities, lack of job opportunities and loss of employment continue to be major problems. Added to this was the jolt from demonetisation and GST. There is discontent everywhere. How much that will translate into goodwill for the Congress is still not clear, but the mood in the country today is veering away from the BJP and this could work for the Congress now.”

Political observers said the BJP’s vilification of Rahul Gandhi, making him the butt of jokes on social media and calling him names like “Pappu”, has actually helped him garner sympathy from a certain section of society that has started looking at him with a new understanding.

Senior Congress leader Rajiv Tyagi said, “Most of the slogans used by the Prime Minister during campaigning before 2014 election have remained just slogans. Their [BJP leaders’] barbs on Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi sound hollow now. People have now started paying attention to what they are saying. The vitiated communal atmosphere in the country is making people look up to the Congress party with a better understanding. This is just the right time for Rahul Gandhi to assume charge. He will give the party a new direction as the youth, disenchanted with the BJP, have started paying attention to what he is saying”.

But despite the optimism in Congress circles, Rahul Gandhi has a tough job ahead. His first challenge is to steer the party through many approaching Assembly elections and then lead it to victory in 2019. As things stand today, the party is not very optimistic about the outcome in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat. An adverse verdict in these two States immediately after he takes over will only put a question mark on his leadership. Holding on to Karnataka, which is next in line, is another challenge and dethroning the BJP in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan, where elections are scheduled for next year, will again require a lot of hard work and out-of-the-box thinking. It remains to be seen if he has the required acumen to steer his party to victory.

Another challenge he faces is maintaining a balance between the young and the old guard. A generational shift is imperative in the party but whether the veterans will make way smoothly is a question mark. It is assumed that young leaders such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Milind Deora and Sachin Pilot will be given new responsibilities and this could irk senior leaders such as Digvijaya Singh, Ahmed Patel, P. Chidambaram, Motilal Vora, and Janardan Dwivedi.

“The senior leaders, whose hegemony is about to end, will definitely feel restless. The outburst by Shehzad Poonawalla is a sign that some resentment is brewing within the party and this resentment is being stoked by some disgruntled elements,” said a senior Congress functionary, referring to the recent media outburst by Poonawalla in which he alleged that the entire election process for the post of president was rigged.

“This is not a free and fair election. This is a selection, a fixed election where the process has been rigged. Rahul Gandhi should have resigned from the post of vice president and then contested as a common member of the party,” Poonawalla, who, until recently, was a party secretary in Maharashtra, told Frontline.

Poonawalla justified his revolt saying that the Congress could only be revived if dynasty was brought to an end and positions were filled according to merit. “Rahul Gandhi has lost every election that he campaigned for. Is this why he is being promoted to the post of party president?” he asked.

Poonawalla could prove to be a pain in the neck for Rahul Gandhi because he is related to Priyanka Gandhi’s husband, Robert Vadra. Vadra’s sister is married to his brother Tehseen Poonawalla and his outburst could prove to be an embarrassment for the family.

But senior Congress leaders were dismissive. “He is not even an ordinary member of the party. He is nobody. We don’t even want to comment on what he is saying,” said Mohan Prakash, dismissing any suggestion that Poonawalla could do some harm to the party.

But the fact that Narendra Modi referred to Poonawalla’s outburst in his election speeches in Gujarat is proof that there is a certain degree of nervousness in BJP circles. This nervousness also arises from the realisation that Rahul Gandhi seems to have matured lately and this has been reflecting in his election speeches and tweets. He has never stooped to using abusive language against BJP leaders, even though they leave no chance to lampoon him. However, he has not shied away from asking the Prime Minister pointed questions about the state of affairs in Gujarat.

If history is any indication, then the BJP has reasons to be worried. Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was called a goongi gudiya (dumb doll) when she became a Minister in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Cabinet, but she evolved to become a tough Prime Minister, so tough that she was referred to as the “only man” in her Cabinet. Her iron-fisted handling of the Bangladesh situation even forced the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) to praise her. Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee once referred to her as Goddess Durga, after the 1971 war.

Rajiv Gandhi, who too had stumbled into Prime Ministership after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, endeared himself to the masses with his innocent bumbling ways. One of his Independence Day speeches, in which he kept referring to it as gantantra diwas (Republic Day), evoked great benign amusement. On another occasion, while giving an election speech, he repeatedly kept saying “ hum jeetenge ya loosenge” (whether we win or lose), and the people simply loved it. Despite his innocent follies, he ushered in the telecom revolution in the country, introduced computers in India and brought about fundamental changes by bringing in the Panchayati Raj Act, a truly empowering piece of legislation. Besides, he altered the electorate’s profile forever by lowering the voting age to 18.

Being seen as “naive” and “being ignorant” is no disqualification in this country, provided the people realise that the intentions are good. If Rahul Gandhi can convince the people of India that his intentions are good, then his ignorance or naivety will be forgiven. It remains to be seen if India will have yet another Gandhi ruling over the hearts and minds of people or whether Narendra Modi’s call for a Congress-mukt Bharat will come true.

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