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Rahul G In Da House
It was at short notice, but on February 17, journalists were called to attend a Rahul Gandhi press briefing at 10, Janpath, the official residence of his mother and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi. As journalists queued up for the usual security checks, the party old guard trooped in one by one—Mohsina Kidwai, A.K. Antony, Janardhan Dwivedi, M.L. Fotedar, Ambika Soni.... They were there for the party’s election committee meeting later and hung back at the briefing. Though Rahul once again disappointed (before most reporters were seated, he was in and out after pressing the point that it was he who had got the government to accept the one post, one pension demand, a long-standing grievance with the armed forces), the signals were clear—the young Gandhi would be the face, the voice and the mind of the Congress in this elections.
Be it the party website, TV promos or print ads, Rahul and his ideas are the party campaign. He’s the man calling the meetings for a more “inclusive party manifesto”, he’s the one meeting various sections of society in different cities and areas to shape it. Indeed, there seems to be no other recognisable faces visibly involved in these processes. At the same time, Rahul is also making changes at the organisational level, youths selected by him are the faces of the future, from district-level bodies to the national level. So there’s a Sachin Pilot in Rajasthan, powering ahead of C.P. Joshi and Ashok Gehlot; there’s Arun Yadav and Jyotiraditya Scindia in MP rustling the likes of Digvijay Singh. (In fact, press releases notifying changes in the order—at all levels—have been frequent of late.)
“The best part is we have always had a nice rapport between new knowledge and experience. This coexistence is very important.”
As is to be expected, the emergence of a new generation has created some worry among the party old guard. The stories of pain and disappointments are “off-the-record” and “only for favoured ones”, but the sense of unrest is palpable. Senior leaders like Janardhan Dwivedi, who have served the party obediently for decades, have been so moved as to make remarks about the ‘reservation policy’ (the party leadership issued a quick clarification, and leaders quickly dissociated themselves saying it was his personal views). One senior Congress leader suggested that “his point might be valid, but his timing is wrong”. On the new generation in the party, ex-CM of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit, who had led the Congress to three consecutive poll victories but was trounced by AAP man Arvind Kejriwal in the last elections, told Outlook, “The Congress is the oldest party of Indian politics. The best part about us is that we have always had a nice rapport between new knowledge and experience. This coexistence is very important, it must remain a quality of the party.”
Interestingly, the Congress is undergoing this overhaul just before a general election when the UPA-2 is battling weakening alliances and anti-incumbency. Is it then the right time for such experiments? “Of course, the party is undergoing a change; changes in the system, structure...we’re moving towards being a more open party. I am witnessing what we saw during Rajivji’s time. We were picked by him when we, the younger generation, were least known faces,” says party general secretary Digvijay Singh. He refuses to accept that there is any unease within the party. But then he adds a caveat, “It’s not good for anyone to be in the chair and then be disappointed or frustrated when it comes to handing over charge.” Another party voice close to Rahul says, “This is the right time to choose a new team. Newcomers should start taking up tasks when things are to be done from scratch.”
“We’re moving towards being a more open party. But it’s not good for anyone in the chair to be frustrated at stepping down.”
The party, in real time, faces two crucial challenges today. Firstly, there’s the missing organisation at the ground level. “Those days are gone when rallies and public meetings were sufficient to keep the voter interested. The new world of information is interactive, it’s important to touch the voters by all means; from door-to-door to the virtual world. We somehow didn’t take our promotion seriously. The party today lacks the cadre to counter the new and old opposition fronts,” says one senior leader. Secondly, there hangs the question: where’s this new experiment leading to? Will Rahul become an acceptable name for everyone, and why is he fighting this battle when public perception says that chances he can sustain it are slim?
Congress insiders have another take on this. “This election isn’t going to be the defeat of Rahulji. Rather, if it happens the way the media is predicting, it would be the defeat of the UPA-2 coalition. Rahul will emerge as a more powerful leader in the party post-elections,” this leader says. So, with defeat an admitted possibility, there’s also some reluctance among senior leaders about facing elections this time. They are more keen on “helping the organisation”. But it can’t be helped, the party might ask some of them to contest anyway. Observers see this as an easier situation for Rahul to handle, as any ‘election losses’ would also stymie unrest.
“This is a transition without vision. They are still going on with the same feudal, oligarchic style. It’s a bad way to do politics.”
But there’s still the question of whether his policies will click, and it worries many within the party and outside. While some leaders do accept that “Rahul is not that good in communicating, his basics are clear; he is clear about the party’s ideology, programmes and policy. And he has clarity about moves and actions”, there are voices from the alliance who are not as kind. ncp general secretary D.P. Tripathi says, “The politics of the country is changing but the basic contradictions in the Congress’s style of functioning haven’t. They are still going on with the same feudal, oligarchic style. Moreover, this is a transition without vision. Rahul’s politics and understanding has no space for non-Congress parties and the opposition. In a democracy, this is a bad way to do politics.”
Well, transitions are never smooth. The more important question is of the outcome and the timing of the change. Is this going to help the party in the upcoming elections or is this the start of preparations for the one after this? The party, and in some ways the country, is looking for answers to Rahul Gandhi. He has loads of work ahead.