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The Rahul factor

Congress spokesmen like reminding us that their party has a history that goes all the way back to a pre-Mahatma Gandhi era.

This is true but not always helpful. How, for instance, can we see the current internal struggles within the party through the prism of history?


Well, there are two possible perspectives. We can see it, as many of Rahul Gandhi’s supporters do, as a 1969 moment. That was the year when Indira Gandhi and a band of loyalists blamed the rest of the Congress for the failures of the past and said that they wanted to create a new Congress, committed to fighting the corrupt legacies of recent history and offering a new deal to the Indian people.


   Or you can see it (as the rest of the party does) as a Sanjay Gandhi moment. That was when a dynast surrounded himself with storm-troopers (or street fighters if you prefer), took on his mother’s old associates, blamed them for the state of the party and abandoned many of the Congress’s policies. Sanjay did all this with the blessings of his mother who was happy enough to see old friends and associates thrown under the bus.


   At stake is the Second Coming (or is it the third or fourth, nobody is counting any longer) of Rahul Gandhi. Ever since Rahul dramatically resigned in the aftermath of the Congress’s humiliating defeat last year, he has functioned, like his uncle Sanjay, as an extra-constitutional authority. He holds no position. But everyone listens to him anyway. Rahul’s ambiguous position needs to be resolved. So the party is preparing for an internal election which will see Rahul return as President, his supreme status in the party now carrying the weight of electoral endorsement.


   The problem is that since the electoral debacle last year, the party has done no real introspection. Why was Narendra Modi able to swat it away like a fly? Why did Rahul’s increasingly hostile (“chowkidar chor hai”) rhetoric fail to win any votes? And why did the country fail to take Rahul seriously as an alternative to Modi?


   The Congress has never really tried to answer those questions. The closest it has come to an answer is Rahul’s claim that the party’s election campaign floundered because other Congressmen did not call Modi a chor.


   This may or may not be true but it is hardly an adequate explanation for a defeat of this magnitude. And yet, as far as introspection goes, that’s about it. Nobody in a position of authority in the Congress has offered a more comprehensive explanation. The suggestion that Rahul’s leadership style may have been out of tune with the public mood can never be discussed at any party forum.


   In 1975, when Indira Gandhi was forced to declare the Emergency in the face of the JP movement and her own failures of governance (plus of course, the Allahabad judgment), Sanjay Gandhi blamed his mother’s advisors. From Rajni Patel to Siddhartha Shankar Roy to Inder Gujral to PN Haksar, they were turfed out or humiliated.


"A sense of hopelessness has swept over many Congressmen who say that it is now clear that the party has no future."

   The advantage with that approach back then was that the Congress did not need to do any introspection about why things had come to this pass. It was easier to find so-called villains within its own ranks and blame the mess on them.


   Something similar is happening now. It is hard to look candidly at the failures of the last six years because Rahul was in charge and two of his top lieutenants  have defected (or are in the process of defecting) to the BJP. If nothing else, this suggests that Rahul’s chosen leaders had no commitment to the secular values the Congress says it represents. And perhaps that Rahul is not a very good judge of people.


   So, to step over the puddle that is the last six years, Rahul’s new aides have gone all the way back to UPA II. That government was a failure, they say, and the Congress is still paying the price.  They are right about the almighty mess of UPA II but it is a bit late, six years later, to keep blaming everything on Manmohan Singh. (And what about Rahul’s mother? Are we now supposed to believe that - as Sanjay said of Indira Gandhi - she was helpless because of bad advisers?)


   None of this seems to unduly worry Rahul or his circle. Stung (five years too late) by the criticism of repeated failures, Rahul has now surrounded himself with a new group of Congressmen. None of them, we are told, are dynasts, they are all meritocratic street fighters, and they will take the battle to the BJP’s door.


   At the moment, however, all they are doing is taking the battle to the Congress’s door. Rarely, since the last defeat, has the Congress been so demoralized and divided. A sense of hopelessness has swept over many Congressmen who say that it is now clear that the party has no future.


   None of this worries Rahul’s new associates. In 1969, when Indira Gandhi staged her revolt against senior Congress leaders, many of the same things were said. And yet, in the end, Indira triumphed and the senior leaders (the ‘Syndicate’) were ousted.


   Rahul and his supporters believe that if they can cleanse the party of the leaders who they think are holding it back, give its policies a radical overhaul, throw out the dynasts (except for one) and re-invent the Congress as a young, lean aggressive opposition to Narendra Modi, then the party has a fighting chance at the next general election when the BJP will be battling anti-incumbency.


   On paper, at least, it is not necessarily a crackpot scheme. But it hinges on several imponderables. Indira Gandhi never faced a charismatic leader like Narendra Modi, nor has there ever been a richer and better organized political party than the BJP.


   And finally, there is the Rahul factor. Can he turn his image around so completely that he is seen as a credible alternative to Narendra Modi? And can he, like his grandmother in 1971, fight an election, single-handedly winning votes on the basis of his personal charisma and an electoral message that resonates with the public?


   Nobody knows, yet. But in the days to come we shall discover what kind of Gandhi Rahul will become: Indira or Sanjay.





  • Dhruv Rajashekaran 24 Aug 2020

    Sir, I can tell you he likes Espresso Solo, but Cappuccino more often nowadays, Indira Gandhi is old 'news' and they are like distant family relatives. Have you ever been to Pearl Boutique Bakery in Def Col? I tried spreading the word to you, of the best place for Spaghetti Carbonara in Delhi-NCR 'Monde'.

Posted On: 04 Aug 2020 11:38 AM
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