On the Sunday when the Congress rout in the assembly elections was all over the airwaves, a businessman from Bangalore, a party sympathiser, rang up to share his son’s reaction to Rahul Gandhi’s brief speech to the assembled media corps promising—almost threatening—changes in the Congress that “you can’t even imagine”. The businessman’s son apparently said, “It looks like this guy is used to speaking only to sycophants or servants. There is no hint of humility.” Obviously, the younger generation finds itself unable to be terribly excited by the young Congress leader’s political persona. The next day, a senior public figure who’d been associated with the Congress for over five decades rang up to share a disquieting thought. He said, “For the first time, in this election, I heard the strain: this country cannot be one family’s jagir.”
The two observations aptly sum up the Congress conundrum as the country’s oldest political party finds itself humiliated in the recently concluded elections to the Delhi, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan assembly elections. The larger question is whether the party can regroup its forces, ideas and energies in time for the big slugfest in April 2014. In particular, can a family-controlled Congress reposition itself in a milieu and mood that is increasingly tending towards the truly democratic? The answer is: possibly yes.
Perhaps it would be helpful to recall that, only a year ago, at the Jaipur AICC session, the Congress had, with considerable fanfare, made Rahul its vice-president; and for all practical purposes, the party had signalled an internal regime change. For better or for worse, Rahul was seen, within and without the party, to have been anointed as the next prime minister. (It was this Jaipur decision, it might be recalled, that set in motion the moves and manoeuvres within the BJP and the Sangh parivar that tilted the scales in favour of its Gujarat strongman Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions.) Now, the same Congress leaders who in Jaipur serenaded Rahul’s elevation as a natural and logical denouement are oddly gleeful that the young “leader” has so gloriously fallen flat on his face.
Rahul was riding high after the success of his ‘model’ in Karnataka. That ‘model’ hinged on the painful realisation that the Congress’s old ways of doing things were not yielding results and that established leaders in the state were limited men with limited political spark. The solution? Sideline these “leaders” and instead give district- and block-level activists a greater voice. Because the circumstances were propitious, and because the Congress could therefore dislodge a BJP state government, the Rahul model was deemed a success. Consequently, it was only natural that Rahul sought to replicate this model in the Hindi belt—vigorously, even heavy-handedly. But it was equally natural that established Congress leaders would ensure that the young man failed—and failed spectacularly. They sabotaged Rahul rather than let him have his way. No one in the Congress has forgotten Rajiv Gandhi’s 400-plus Lok Sabha tally and all its unintended consequences.
It’s clear that absolute power will not be ceded to Rahul just because he is his mother’s son; after all, absolute power was not even ceded to his mother. Power has to be earned. And power in public space has necessarily to be a noble quest. Rahul is yet to say or do anything that would hint at some notion of nobility of purpose.
So this is now the Congress’s central dilemma on the eve of the 2014 battle: for better or for worse, it is stuck with Rahul, but the country is in so beguilingly subversive a mood that it couldn’t care less for the leadership claims of this or that scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Leadership, like power, has to be earned. Or at least should be seen to have been earned. And now that Rahul has ‘lost’ the Hindi belt, having earlier ‘lost’ Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, he will perforce have to renegotiate his leadership in the Congress. True, there is no challenge to his leadership. Nor will there be any.
But all is not lost. Nor is there is any need for panic in the Congress ranks. What the Congress leadership has to do is to try to understand honestly the nature of its current afflictions. Only a genuine dissection of how things have gone wrong can enable the party to reconnect with the people’s democratic sentiments and anxieties. Unless the Congress realises that the UPA is perceived to have almost institutionalised inefficiency and indifference as its governing culture, the Congress will find it difficult to undertake a course correction that would carry conviction with voters.
To begin with, the Congress should declare, sooner rather than later, that Rahul will be its prime ministerial face. And it would need to be presumed that, sooner or later, he will also be party president. The country desperately wants to be reassured that the Congress won’t again opt for the 2004 model of divided authority and responsibility—under whatever pious organisational theory. That model suited that moment. And that moment has passed.
The next task should be to create an easy air of approachability, a zone of dialogue, more open than it is at present, rather than a feudal distance. There is now a miasma of unappetising secrecy about Rahul’s team. No one knows for sure who advises the man who wants to be king. For a start, there can be a council of elders, comprising seasoned administrators from the public and private sectors. In these last ten years, Rahul has wilfully chosen not to acquire any kind of governmental experience, so the people, who are becoming increasingly informed citizens and voters, will need to be assured that he is not just a presumptuous prince. That he is indeed amenable to the guidance of a group of wise men who have some idea of the complexities of governing India.
On the organisation front, Rahul should find ways of dispelling the impression that he is waging a war on his own party. Neither petulance nor tantrums will induce cheerful cooperation from the vast army of Congress activists who have acquired a vested interest in the status quo. He has to kindle pride and excitement in the cadres before he will be allowed the elbow room to experiment with new faces and new ideas.
Prospective allies and partners will not take easily to a haughty Rahul. He lacks the political weight to be respected by the Sharad Pawars, the Nitish Kumars, the Karunanidhis. As in the policy arena, so in matters political, the need is for an advisory group of senior and sober Congress leaders around Rahul. To begin with, A.K. Antony, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Jairam Ramesh could be asked to leave their ministerial posts and take up organisational assignments in Rahul’s team. Governing India is a sober business. Anyone who aspires to lead this divided and distracted land would need to assure the nation of being able to provide a seriousness of purpose and a sincerity of vision.
It is imperative that, in the next few months, Rahul spells out what he stands for. Though he cannot provide a new vision totally at variance with the Congress’s recent past and policies, he should be able to indicate a willingness to revise, even reject, prescriptions and platitudes. He will have to communicate credibly that he has not been pushed into the public arena simply because his mother and sister want him to be prime minister of India. Leadership in India is not a family entitlement. Granted, he cannot help being Indira Gandhi’s grandson and Rajiv’s son, but he can certainly help himself by invoking his great-grandfather’s flair and penchant for engaging our imagination and fascination for collective ambitions and common causes.
(The writer, a former media advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, is a Jawaharlal Nehru Scholar.)