Rahul Gandhi is all set to be officially declared the President of the Indian National Congress. On Tuesday, Congress’ central election authority, Mullappally Ramachandran, confirmed that Rahul Gandhi (unsurprisingly) was the only candidate left in the fray after scrutinising all the 89 nomination papers he received on Monday.
This should count among the smoothest passing the batons and comes at a time when the Congress is at its lowest ebb. While some people might frown at the ugly spectacle of dynastic succession in the grand old party of India, almost everyone would agree in equal measure that it is this family that glues this party together today.
It is not as if Rahul wasn’t calling the shots for a while now as Vice-President and de facto leader. After procrastinating for as long as he could, he has finally decided to take responsibility for his actions. The timing is important as the campaigning for the Gujarat assembly elections are underway. A come-from-behind win for the Congress in Gujarat, as the latest opinion polls suggest, would propel him to emerge as the rightful challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019.
Most analysts opine that they see a visible change in Rahul Gandhi’s attitude of late: he is more assured, confident and at ease with himself. It has also coincided with some sign of fatigue, if not disenchantment, with Narendra Modi’s belligerent style and Hindu nationalist rhetoric.
Regardless of Congress winning or losing Gujarat, many challenges await Rahul in the short term.
The Congress vote share has been diminishing steadily since 1984 and plummeted to less than 20% in 2014. The party seems to be losing its appeal steadily across classes, castes and age groups. While caste and identity politics has been chipping away at one end, Hindutva nationalism has found more resonance among broader sections of the society of late.
Apart from reinventing himself, which seems to be a work in progress at the moment, Rahul needs to reinvent the party as well if it has to stand any chance to make a comeback in 2024, if not 2019.
Congress has no organisation to speak of or any political program today. It is still living off the goodwill earned through its stellar role in the freedom struggle and steering the country in its nascent stages. Building up an organisation involves good leadership, grooming leaders at different levels, granting autonomy at the lower levels and developing a political program that can inspire people to participate.
While a negative campaign might work for a limited period, it cannot endure without presenting an alternative in the longer term. So, it will become imperative for Rahul Gandhi to address these issues if he has to revive the party fortunes.
If Congress has to emerge as a viable alternative to the BJP, it would also have to address the issue of ideology and what it stands for. More importantly, it will have to bring Gandhi back into the national discourse (The Mahatma, of course).
The Hindutva nationalism of the RSS/BJP is an exclusive ideology while Gandhian nationalism is more akin to pluralism. In a country where 98% of the people are religious or “spiritual” (there are surveys that corroborate this figure), secularism will have to be redefined as an all-inclusive pluralism. It needn’t degrade to the level of “janeu-dhari Hindu” rhetoric but being branded anti-religion/Hindu, real or imagined, cannot help any party in a country like India.
Rahul will also need to address the weaknesses in the party organisational structure. It was his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, who systematically demolished the party structure and near autonomous regional units by placing her loyalists in key positions. It transformed the strong Congress organisation into a near feudal one based on patronage. Rajiv Gandhi identified this but couldn’t do much about it while Sonia Gandhi’s 19-year-old term as party president was mostly an exercise in preservation. If Congress is to recover from the current slump, it will need much more than alliance-making à la 2004.
It has to be recalled that Rahul Gandhi did indeed try to effect some organisational changes in the Youth Congress after being elevated as the Congress general secretary in charge of the unit in 2007. However, it did not yield any results on the ground as the elections of UP in 2007 and 2012 and in Bihar in 2010 demonstrated. A good leader is someone who marshals his troops effectively. It will depend on how Rahul utilises the impressive human resources at the command of the party that determines the extent of its revival.
At a time when large swathes of North India is witnessing extreme communal polarisation and hate crimes in the name of the Holy Cow as well as acute farm distress and suicides, it would be a good idea for the physically fit Rahul Gandhi to undertake a padayatra across the length and breadth of the country. It will consolidate his leadership and help him connect with the farmers and other communities, and might change the national discourse from Hindutva nationalism to ‘Roti, Kapda and Makaan’. National integration can be the theme around which such a yatra can be planned. The last heavyweight leader to undertake such a march was Chandrasekhar in the mid-eighties, but Rahul can once again draw inspiration from the Mahatma, who undertook three major padayatras in his lifetime, including the famous Dandi march.
Speaking of ‘Roti, Kapda, Makaan’ and by extension, ‘Bijli, Sadak, Paani’, it would be imperative for Rahul Gandhi and his party to come up with a credible economic model against the ‘Gujarat model’ of economic development which is devoid of social change. It cannot be dependent on deficit financing as it happened during the fag end of UPA 1 and much of UPA 2. A clear roadmap has to be drawn up regarding the economy and the interventions needed in every sector. It is alright to feel for the poor and shore up social spending but finding ways to raise capital is equally important. As former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh once quipped, money doesn’t grow on trees. Despite the corruption allegations during UPA 2, this writer is of the firm belief that double-digit inflation and economic mismanagement was a bigger reason for Congress’ decimation in 2014.
Along with all that, Rahul Gandhi will have to become more accessible to people. His mother used to spend time at the AICC headquarters every day after she took over the party in 1998. Even Rajiv Gandhi used to mingle freely with people and remained accessible. Rahul and his team of slackers, mostly a bunch of people from similar backgrounds (“people like us”), will also need to figure out how they can get the youth to vote for their party. Standing for a liberal way of life, gender equality (including clarity on issues like instant talaq) and campaigns for personal freedoms are important.
But most important of all is reviving the spirit of Mahatma Gandhi and relegating the names of Rahul’s family members to the background. The Nehru-Gandhis have all got their due and their legacy lives on but that cannot be the calling card to reach out to people in this day and age. Meanwhile, the Father of the Nation has become a punching bag for all and sundry today.
It remains to be seen if Rahul Gandhi can bring the Mahatma back into the national discourse to counter Hindutva nationalism and set the narrative in the coming days. An unlikely win in Gujarat might just be a good beginning but far greater challenges lie ahead.
Views expressed are personal opinions of the author.