Reluctant Rahul

Print edition : February 07, 2014

Rahul Gandhi with Congress president Sonia Gandhi at the AICC session where he was elevated to the post of vice-president after the two-day Chintan Shivir in Jaipur in January 2013. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

Even Congress workers have begun questioning Rahul Gandhi’s “resolve and determination” to take up the responsibility of leading the nation.

“BEYOND the rhetoric about taking up any responsibility if the party wants, the specific question that Rahul Gandhi should ask himself is whether he is ready for the responsibility of being the Prime Minister of this country. So far, as ordinary Congress workers, we cannot see that resolve and determination,” said a Congress worker who was waiting with a group of fellow party workers, all of whom held the same view, near Gauriganj in the Amethi Lok Sabha constituency. Just the previous day the Congress vice-president had given an exclusive interview to a Hindi publication, his first in 10 years in active politics. The group of around 10 workers was actually involved in countering the aggressive political foray made by Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) leader Kumar Vishwas into Amethi. All of them valued Rahul Gandhi’s relationship with the constituency, a traditional Nehru-Gandhi family bastion, as well as many of the social and development initiatives he had brought to the region.

However, in spite of all that they were not sure that the Congress vice-president had the courage and the conviction to lead the country. As the conversation progressed with assurances of confidentiality from this correspondent, the workers made bold to focus on what they felt was an element of diffidence in Rahul Gandhi’s political and organisational moves. The moves, the workers said, unfolded dramatically at times but were not taken forward systematically or consciously. In many ways, they added, he had imparted the same diffidence to the party organisation too. That had to change for the Congress to improve, they said, but they were not sure that would happen. “Even if the All India Congress Committee session meet on January 17 results in a proclamation anointing him as the prime ministerial candidate, it will make no difference unless Rahul Gandhi is able to show resoluteness in decisions and sternness and continuity in actions,” the Congress worker said.

When they were told that Rahul Gandhi had himself made an indirect reference to this perceived diffidence in his “power is poison” statement at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir in 2013 and also asserted that this should not be construed as his aversion to “take responsibility”, the workers responded that more proof than just an assertion was required to showcase the resolve and determination.

Signals emanating from Congress leaders in Delhi, too, indicated that they believed that indecision had come to characterise the party under its vice-president. “There will be some clamour and drama calling for Rahul’s anointment, but it is unlikely that there will be any significant announcement,” said a senior Congress leader from the south. There are several factors that work against an announcement, said the leader. “First, it is widely accepted that the 2014 general election will not be good for the Congress. There are several political signals of that in the air. Second, there is also no sign that the elevation of Rahul Gandhi will make a fundamental difference to this downward slide. So, in a nutshell, a formal elevation at this point will only lead to the continuation of the string of electoral defeats that the party has reaped under his leadership in almost all the State Assembly elections since 2009,” the leader said.

These reactions, in essence, negate the speculation that has dominated Congress and other political circles ever since party president Sonia Gandhi announced after the results of the November-December round of Assembly elections that the Congress would “announce a prime ministerial candidate at an appropriate time”.

‘Diffidence syndrome’

A number of Congress leaders at the Centre agreed with the sentiment of the workers in Amethi that the “diffidence syndrome” was responsible for the situation the party found itself in. “The announcement on Rahul Gandhi being the prime ministerial candidate should have been made in the days immediately following his Chintan Shivir performance, which had evoked strong reverberations that ran through the rank and file as well as sections of the general public,” said the senior leader from the south. His speech there had evoked a great response among party workers as it was woven around emotive themes connected to the sacrifice of the Nehru-Gandhi family, aggression against the perceived corruption in the Congress organisation, seemingly thoughtful and philosophical outpourings on the state of the nation, criticism of the system and an appeal for rectification in a united manner.

The performance raised hopes among Congress workers that Rahul Gandhi’s erratic engagement with the party and national politics was a thing of the past. The leadership and the rank and file found reason to believe that the leader had finally given up his reluctance and tongue-tiedness and was ready for a more active public life. But, as the party workers in Amethi said, this powerful performance was not followed up in a logical and systematic manner with any sense of resolve and determination.

The promise that Rahul Gandhi displayed at the Chintan Shivir turned out to be as ephemeral as the optimism he generated with his poverty outreach programmes in Uttar Pradesh or in Vidharbha, in Maharashtra, or the pro-farmer issues he had taken up, mainly against land acquisition, in regions such as Bhatta Parsaul in western Uttar Pradesh.

In the months following the Chintan Shivir, Rahul Gandhi had come up with spasmodic exercises on matters ranging from the Jan Lokpal Bill to the ordinance that sought to negate the Supreme Court judgment barring convicted politicians from contesting elections. In most of these performances, Rahul Gandhi stood up for the oppressed and the underprivileged even if that meant opposing the ruling dispensation led by his own party. His attempt was to project himself as a leader with a set of values different from, and nobler than, that of the others in the party.

But these forays made no impact in the absence of regular and concrete political and organisational follow-up. Time and again, the opposition role he played within the ruling dispensation failed to produce real political gains, often because of the conduct of the Congress governments at the Centre and in many States. A telling demonstration of the government leadership working against and even defeating the so-called people-oriented positions of Rahul Gandhi was on display at Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s farewell press conference. Asked about the best moment in the 10-year United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime, Manmohan Singh chose the nuclear deal with the United States over schemes and projects that benefited lakhs of people, such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (MGNREGS) or the passage of the Right to Information Act.

Rahul Gandhi also suffered because of his own lack of follow-up on his pronouncements and positions. This was perceived as a clear indication of his insincerity or absence of commitment to the causes he espoused. This “follow-up deficit” came up periodically over the last one year after the Chintan Shivir, and every revelation was a strike at the leader’s credibility. Even Kumar Vishwas’ second day of campaign in Amethi brought out one such instance: a Dalit woman whom Rahul Gandhi visited in 2011 as part of his poverty outreach programmes complained that the majority of the promises he made to her had not been fulfilled.

Elitist streak

According to the Lucknow-based political analyst Indra Bhushan Singh, these negative revelations underscored the elitist streak and political aristocracy ingrained in Rahul Gandhi’s personality. He said, “What was repeatedly exposed through these revelations was the ludicrousness of a person enjoying the inherited benefits of a political family machinery railing against the elite in the party and society. Here was a person whose political legacy has come through three Prime Ministers—Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi—and a non-office holding but powerful political personality as his mother Sonia Gandhi. Every single expose of his follow-up deficit reminded people of this elitist streak and made Rahul Gandhi’s so-called probity expeditions ring hollow. Obviously, these had electoral ramifications too.”

Indra Bhushan Singh was also of the view that there was very little time left before the elections for Rahul Gandhi to change this image. “It does not matter whether an announcement on the Prime Minister-designate is made or not. There is no way that the Congress can expect to project a winning image out of his current track record,” he asserted.

The goings-on at the level of the central leadership of the party and at the grass roots even in traditional Congress strongholds like Amethi underscore this sense of despondency. In this context, suggestions have emanated from sections of the Congress about building up an alternative leadership in Priyanka Gandhi. Some moves from the elder sibling suggest that she may take a more active role in the 2014 elections, but in the culture of diffidence that dominates the Congress currently, there is no clear-cut decision on this either.