Persistence of the Rahul question

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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As rebellion erupts and resentment grows in Congress, the leader is out of sight as usual. A party sliding deeper into irrelevance
If there is still optimism about Congress Vice- president Rahul Gandhi’s political future, it has to be because pundits have the habit of missing the wood for the trees. Predictably, the commentariat portrays the simmering discontent in the Congress as an ephemera. One close look at the Grand Old Party and you will see the cause of everything wrong with it: Rahul Gandhi.

There is a procession out of the Congress that is turning into a stampede. Senior party leaders who led it in past elections are now leading a rebellion. The attack on chief ministers chosen by the High Command in Maharashtra, Haryana and Assam has only advertised the diminishing clout of the leadership. And this could be debilitating for the party as assembly polls are round the corner in these states.

The Congress leadership’s favourite alibi for the party’s defeat in the last Lok Sabha election—that Manmohan Singh ran a weak government—may not be enough to shield the man who took all the key decisions. For, after Sonia Gandhi stepped back before the General Election of 2014, Rahul Gandhi has been at the helm. He enjoyed a free hand in the selection of candidates, state leaders and even the party’s political strategy.

Former Congress general secretary and Rajya Sabha Member of Parliament from Haryana, Chaudhary Birender Singh, has already moved into the waiting tent of the BJP. Singh, who is in touch with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, has been setting the atmospherics for the switchover by targeting Chief Minister Bhupinder Singh Hooda for converting the state Congress into his private holding company where politics and development are all about what’s beneficial to the first family in the state. “I have taken up the issue of the crisis in the state unit with the high command several times. But there has been no attempt to put things in order,” Birender Singh said.

The crisis in the Maharashtra unit seems to be worsening by the day. Although efforts are on to mollycoddle rebel leader Narayan Rane, who quit the state government, party leaders in the state admit that a truce is unlikely. Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan, who was despatched by 10 Janpath to improve the Congress’ prospects in the western state, by all accounts, seems to be overseeing the liquidation of the party there. Chavan had announced his ineptitude when the party won just two of Maharashtra’s 48 seats in the recently held Lok Sabha election.

The Congress has been hobbled by a worse crisis in Assam. Here, Rahul Gandhi himself has gone against his claim of democratising the decision- making process within the party. The rebels in the state, led by Himanta Biswa Sarma, had impressed upon the high command’s observer Mallikarjun Kharge that Chief Minister Tarun Gogoi has lost majority support in the legislative unit of the Congress. But Rahul Gandhi made it clear that the party’s old ways were alive and kicking when he ordered that Gogoi stay in office as Assam’s Chief Minister.

The party leadership’s loosening grip and inability to broker peace between warring local leaders has been turning the party’s allies more assertive in the run-up to state elections. Nationalist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar and his lieutenants have bluntly told the Congress that the previous terms of endearment will have to be reworked. “We won more seats than the Congress in the Lok Sabha election,” as NCP leader Tariq Anwar has put it, “That was the last time that all parties tested their support in the state. The old arrangement needs a fresh look.” Put simply, the NCP is not willing to play the role of a junior ally in Maharashtra.

There are signs that Congressmen no longer believe in a magical ability of the Family—especially that of Rahul Gandhi— to revive the organization. In West Bengal, this was clear when three of its MLAs crossed over to the ruling Trinamool Congress. It is only a matter of time that even the emaciated legislative wing of the Congress in Delhi disappears from the national capital’s Assembly.

There cannot be any quarrel with those who maintain that an incorrect reading of the 2004 and 2009 General Election verdicts is to blame for the crisis engulfing the Congress. The election that returned it to power in 2004 was not a knockout victory for the party. It won on points and captured power at the Centre only on the strength of powerful regional players. It was also facilitated by the BJP’s failure to hold on to its traditional constituency. By no stretch of imagination had the party become an umbrella organisation with wide appeal across the country, as powerful caste and community groupings had voted for regional and smaller parties.

In 2009, the party won a convincing mandate by winning the bulk of urban seats. But deriving all the wrong conclusions from its increase in seats past the 200 mark in the Lok Sabha, it began tilting heavily towards loosely defined empowerment and entitlement slogans. And the years that followed saw the party’s inability to appeal to diverse sections of India come to the fore. Still stuck with old themes of poverty alleviation and handouts, its refusal to understand the power of the aspiration bug left it grievously wounded. For a fast- growing bulge of the country’s population reaching for middle-class status, mere promises of entitlement have no meaning. What they are looking for, instead, is an environment of opportunities, hassle free development and transparent governance.

Against this backdrop, the party’s 2014 rout offers an appropriate setting for a recalibration of its agenda and a relook at its political priorities. But does the leadership have the wherewithal to do it?

Not many in the Congress are willing to vouch for Rahul Gandhi’s capability and imagination to steer the party. The 44-year-old, many in the Congress say, remains indifferent to suggestions while seeming excessively cocksure about his own ideas. “He is happy with his own pet certitudes. He merely goes through the motions of listening to party leaders, [but] he never hears them out. And that is the problem,” says a Congress leader who does not wish to be identified.

This assessment is not off the mark. That Gandhi’s ‘big ideas’ did not have any traction was clear from the drubbing the party got in the Lok Sabha polls. The ‘primaries’ he had held to select electoral candidates proved to be a disaster, as just one such candidate picked through this process won a seat; elections to the Youth Congress wings have not rejuvenated the party in Tamil Nadu or Gujarat (two states in which the organisation is politically irrelevant); and its entitlement agenda only evokes yawns among the electorate.

Senior Congress leaders like Kamal Nath and Digvijaya Singh have been uncharacteristically candid while diagnosing the problems of India’s oldest party. While Kamal Nath wants the young Gandhi to play a more proactive role in the party and Parliament, Digvijaya Singh has said a new message and approach were needed to counter a BJP that has broken down social and geographical barriers.

There is merit in this analysis, as the Congress now has to face a recharged BJP with a decisive leadership. The BJP has expanded its geographical reach, and any meaningful challenge to the ruling party would require vying for a slice of its new-found support base. “Narendra Modi is seen as someone who can deliver. BJP President Amit Shah has perfect chemistry with the Prime Minister. The NDA Government may not have done wonders till now, but its efforts to change the situation should work in their favour,” says the Congress leader quoted earlier.

The coming round of Assembly polls will be a major test for Rahul Gandhi’s leadership. “By the time elections are held, there could be some softening of prices. There is also the likelihood of the RBI going in for [an interest] rate cut in August,” says a Congress general secretary, “The situation could prove tough for the Congress.”

But if Congress reflexes are anything to go by, the party is just not interested in serious introspection on its 2014 debacle. Even the composition of the post-mortem panel led by AK Antony— it has no member from the Hindi heartland where it suffered its worst setback— suggests that the effort is mainly aimed at whitewashing its leadership deficiencies.

These efforts may shield Rahul Gandhi in the immediate future, but a defeat in the coming assembly polls in seven states could change things drastically. He will have to take the blame squarely if the party fares badly at the hustings. The terms of relationship between him and his partymen could be transformed beyond his retrieval. Even those in the Congress who claim that the Gandhi-Nehru Dynasty is the ‘glue’ that holds the party together might recall how Congress leaders, after its 1999 defeat, had begun preparing the ground to challenge Sonia Gandhi’s leadership. It was the collapse of the NDA that stalled that challenge.

Still, Rahul is not in the vanguard; as usual, the leader is elsewhere.