THE RAHUL RAJ

HE SHOWS HE IS THE BOSS OFTHE CONGRESS PARTY. BUT CAN HE WIN IN­DIA IN THE 2014 GEN­ERAL ELEC­TIONS?

India Today - - COVER STORY - By Ku­mar Anshuman and Ku­nal Prad­han

at noon on Septem­ber 27, a bearded Rahul Gandhi got off at 10, Jan­path, where his mother So­nia Gandhi lives, and walked unan­nounced through an in­side gate to the Congress head­quar­ters at 24, Ak­bar Road. He checked room af­ter room to see if any of the All In­dia Congress Com­mit­tee ( AICC) of­fice- bear­ers were in the build­ing. Am­bika Soni, C. P. Joshi, Shakeel Ahmed and Gu­ru­das Kamat were all out, as was Ajay Maken, whose staff told Rahul that he would soon be head­ing to the Press Club of In­dia to ad­dress the me­dia. “It was clear there was some­thing on his mind. He’s never come in like this be­fore,” says staffer in one of the of­fices.

An hour later, at 1.40 p. m., Rahul was sit­ting next to Maken at the Press Club on Raisina Road. He had de­cided it was time he put to bed an or­di­nance that would pro­tect con­victed law­mak­ers. But it wasn’t just that. He was an­nounc­ing that the tran­si­tion of power within the Congress party was fi­nally com­plete. Ham­let was say­ing

that he was go­ing to be.

Rahul Gandhi has long seen him­self as the con­science- keeper of the party, the Gov­ern­ment, and by lofty ex­ten­sion, the en­tire na­tion. A khadi- clad so­cial worker who knows what ‘ real In­dia’ wants, what it eats, and where it sleeps. It’s as if he is an NGO— morally su­pe­rior to peo­ple do­ing nor­mal jobs and im­mune to the stains of ad­min­is­tra­tive ap­a­thy and bu­reau­cratic red tape. The party had hoped he would end this lonely cru­sade. That he would ac­cept the plat­ter he was be­ing of­fered and do with it what other mem­bers of his fam­ily had done be­fore. To­day’s new, re­born Rahul is a man with a plan: Not for the dis­tant fu­ture, or even five years later, but for 2014.

While the Naren­dra Modi jug­ger­naut is sweep­ing across ur­ban In­dia, re­vi­tal­is­ing BJP cadres, Rahul, 43, has been lead­ing his own silent rev­o­lu­tion within the Congress by putting his peo­ple in key roles across the length and breadth of the party. Even as So­nia and her Po­lit­i­cal Sec­re­tary Ahmed Pa­tel are work­ing on al­lies, Rahul, armed with an in- depth 543- seat anal­y­sis car­ried out by party Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Mad­husu­dan Mistry, is plan­ning cam­paign strate­gies and ticket dis­tri­bu­tion. In­sid­ers say his “is­sue- based in­ter­ven­tions”, such as the Press Club hit- an­drun, which not only tie in with pub­lic opin­ion but also per­cep­ti­bly dis­tance him from a highly un­pop­u­lar Gov­ern­ment, will only in­crease from here on.

“Af­ter Rahul’s lat­est in­ter­ven­tion, the mes­sage is clear. We must look at him— not Man­mo­han Singh, not So­nia— be­fore any ma­jor de­ci­sion,” says a Cab­i­net min­is­ter. “The bal­ance of power has shifted from 10, Jan­path to 12, Tugh­lak Lane.”

Rahul’s Writ Runs

THE SCENT OF RAHUL’S tacit takeover had been blow­ing in the wind since Septem­ber 24, when he got a text mes­sage from South Mum­bai MP Milind De­ora while sit­ting in a meet­ing with party work­ers at the Chokar Dhani Re­sort in Nag­pur. Congress Gen­eral Sec­re­tary Digvi­jaya Singh, smarter than most when it comes to catch­ing the drift, tweeted on Sep-

AF­TER RAHUL’S LAT­EST IN­TER­VEN­TION,

THE MES­SAGE IS CLEAR: THE PARTY MUST LOOK AT HIM, NOT MAN­MO­HAN SINGH, NOT SO­NIA GANDHI,

BE­FORE ANY MA­JOR DE­CI­SION.

tem­ber 25: “It would’ve been bet­ter if a con­sen­sus was ar­rived at ( on the or­di­nance). Maybe the gov­ern­ment had its com­pul­sions.” The next morn­ing, De­ora set the cat among the pi­geons with his tweet: “Le­gal­i­ties aside, al­low­ing con­victed MPs/ MLAs to re­tain seats in the midst of an ap­peal can en­dan­ger al­ready erod­ing pub­lic faith in democ­racy.” “The mo­ment De­ora spoke out against the or­di­nance,” says a wily se­nior leader, “I knew what Rahul Gandhi was think­ing.”

Re­ports have sug­gested that pass­ing the or­di­nance had be­come an is­sue be­cause Pres­i­dent Pranab Mukher­jee had raised ob­jec­tions, ask­ing why the Gov­ern­ment wasn’t will­ing to wait for a bill that was al­ready with the par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee. But top party sources have told IN­DIA TO­DAY that the force ma­jeure was Rahul all along. On Septem­ber 25, Par­lia­men­tary Af­fairs Min­is­ter Ka­mal Nath, Law Min­is­ter Kapil Sibal and Home Min­is­ter Sushilku­mar Shinde met the Pres­i­dent at Rash­tra­p­ati Bha­van. Though he was con­cerned ini­tially, sources say the min­is­ters con­vinced him to give the goa­head. It was when Shinde called Rahul to brief him about the meet­ing that the tide sud­denly turned. “Those who think the Pres­i­dent was go­ing to re­turn the or­di­nance are wrong,” says a Congress leader. “He may have taken some more time but there was no ques­tion of send­ing it back. It was Rahul who had some­thing dif­fer­ent in mind.”

A day af­ter Man­mo­han had tried to put on a brave face while re­turn­ing from a trip to the United States, on Oc­to­ber 2, he and Rahul met in soli­tude at 7, Race Course Road. Half an hour later, Rahul was fol­low­ing the events from 10, Jan­path when a core com­mit­tee meet­ing at­tended by So­nia, Man­mo­han, Shinde and Pa­tel un­cer­e­mo­ni­ously dis­owned the or­di­nance. He was still at his mother’s house at 6 p. m. when Sibal pro­posed to the Cab­i­net, which had al­ready de­lib­er­ated on the is­sue twice be­fore, that both the

or­di­nance and the bill be junked. The mo­tion was car­ried unan­i­mously with Na­tion­al­ist Congress Party chief Sharad Pawar the to­ken voice of dis­sent.

Sec­tion 8 ( 4) of the Rep­re­sen­ta­tion of the Peo­ple Act ( 1951), which al­lows con­victed MPs or MLAs to hold of­fice, was termed un­con­sti­tu­tional by the Supreme Court on July 10. The Gov­ern­ment had wanted to amend the sub- sec­tion 4 of Sec­tion 8 of the Act, ef­fec­tively set­ting aside the court’s rul­ing. Once the bill was junked, In­for­ma­tion and Broad­cast­ing Min­is­ter Man­ish Tewari said that Rahul’s view was “based on the widest pos­si­ble feed­back”. Iron­i­cally, Tewari had been talk­ing to the press about the mer­its of the or­di­nance when Rahul had called it “non­sense”.

The New Or­der

UN­DER RAHUL, THE re­struc­tured Congress party’s power will be stag­gered across lev­els— through var­i­ous spe­cialised cor­po­rate- style cells— rather than in an all- pow­er­ful work­ing com­mit­tee made up of tow­er­ing chief­tains who sub­mit only to the high com­mand. His strate­gic en­gines are the three ‘ war rooms’— at 15, Gu­rud­wara Rakab Ganj Road, at 99, South Av­enue, where Jairam Ramesh and Sal­man Khur­shid pur­port­edly scripted the 2004 Lok Sabha vic­tory, and a smaller com­mu­ni­ca­tions cell at Maken’s res­i­dence at 10, Pandit Pant Marg, which is sup­ported by the re­search team headed by San­deep Dik­shit and the so­cial me­dia team headed by Deep­en­der Hooda.

At 15, Gu­rud­wara Rakab Ganj Road, where more of­fices have been added over the last few months, a meet­ing is con­vened ev­ery Fri­day or Satur­day. The reg­u­lar in­vi­tees are Pa­tel, Suresh Pachauri, Maken, Digvi­jaya and one leader from Rahul’s team, usu­ally Ji­ten­dra Singh or Sachin Rao. Rahul, who drops in once in a while, was part of two sit­tings in Septem­ber. His aide Mo­han Gopal, work­ing on the 2014 party man­i­festo, also has an of­fice there; he’s held two draft­ing meet­ings there, one in Septem­ber and one in early Au­gust. “Once elec­tion dates are an­nounced, the meet­ings will be more fre­quent with many more lead­ers at­tend­ing,” says an of­fi­cer who man­ages the ad­min­is­tra­tion of the war room.

The go­ings- on at 99, South Av­enue, now run by Mad­husu­dan Mistry, are

UN­DER RAHUL, THE RE­STRUC­TURED PARTY’S POWER WILL BE STAG­GERED ACROSS LEV­ELS RATHER THAN IN AN ALL- POW­ER­FUL WORK­ING COM­MIT­TEE MADE UP OF TOW­ER­ING CHIEF­TAINS.

more closely guarded. Mistry of­ten slips into the of­fice at 7.30 a. m. He keeps the main gate locked, giv­ing an im­pres­sion that there is no one in­side. This is the of­fice where Mistry pre­pares and cat­a­logues dossiers on pos­si­ble can­di­dates from ev­ery Lok Sabha con­stituency, and stores pe­ri­odic sur­vey re­ports that track pub­lic opin­ion. Though he has sent let­ters to all state unit pres­i­dents ask­ing for a list of can­di­dates by Oc­to­ber 15, his own team is pre­par­ing ground re­ports from some key con­stituen­cies. Th­ese re­ports will fi­nally be sent to the crew at ‘ 15 GRG’ to for­mu­late a poll strat­egy.

Th­ese cells fol­low Rahul’s vi­sion to the T, be­liev­ing that he has the right in­stinct for what In­dia wants to hear— whether it was his speech in April at the Con­fed­er­a­tion of In­dian In­dus­try

( CII) where he spoke of ru­ral em­pow­er­ment, or his Septem­ber 3 in­struc­tions to Min­is­ter of State for Per­son­nel and Pub­lic Griev­ances V. Narayanasamy that the RTI ( Amend­ment) Act, which keeps po­lit­i­cal par­ties out of the Act’s purview, be sent to the Stand­ing Com­mit­tee be­fore be­ing de­bated in Par­lia­ment. His cameos could be faulted for tim­ing and man­ner, but not for con­tent.

What RG Wants

THOUGH RAHUL’S POWER stems from his fam­ily name, it is har­nessed by how dif­fi­cult he is to read— even for those who think they’re close to him. With no clar­ity on whether he will take an ex­ec­u­tive role post- 2014, se­nior lead­ers are on ten­ter­hooks won­der­ing which one of them could be Rahul’s PM if the Congress wins the elec­tions, just as Man­mo­han was So­nia’s in 2004. Par­ty­men con­sider P. Chi­dambaram and Shinde among the front- run­ners, though many sug­gest that A. K. Antony may have the in­side track.

The mid­dle rung of Congress, which in­cludes sev­eral mem­bers of Rahul’s core team who be­lieve they can in­flu­ence him, are of­ten sim­i­larly anx­ious about their own larger roles. Rahul’s close po­lit­i­cal aide Digvi­jaya, for ex­am­ple, wanted to re­main as the leader in­charge of Uttar Pradesh but that role was given to Mistry. Long- time fam­ily loy­al­ist Ja­nar­dan Dwivedi, who was head­ing the me­dia cell, was re­placed by the more ag­gres­sive Maken. And Rahul’s brain trust and speech­writer Jairam Ramesh, the ru­ral de­vel­op­ment min­is­ter, has been con­sis­tently kept out of a party post he is crav­ing for.

The ba­ba­log MPs, once con­sid­ered Rahul’s boys, are qui­etly tak­ing more proac­tive roles as well. Power Min­is­ter Jy­oti­ra­ditya Scin­dia has been vir­tu­ally handed Mad­hya Pradesh, Cor­po­rate Af­fairs Min­is­ter Sachin Pi­lot has emerged as one of the key cam­paign­ers in Ra­jasthan, and Min­is­ter of State for Tele­com De­ora’s tweet started the whole or­di­nance fire.

“It’s im­pos­si­ble to sec­ond- guess RG,” says a Congress leader, re­fer­ring to him by his work­ing ti­tle. “He is seen by some as a bud­ding po­lit­i­cal mas­ter­mind and by some as a whim­si­cal idealist. No one knows what he will say next or where he will be the next day. His move­ments are as hard to pre­dict as his words.”

With great un­cer­tainty comes great con­fu­sion. The me­dia team of­ten does not know where Rahul will speak next,

the com­mu­ni­ca­tions team is of­ten un­aware of his meet­ings with pri­vate firms, and of­fi­cial spokesper­sons of­ten have no clue what line he wants them to take. “It still works on the whole be­cause we may not know where RG is, he al­ways knows where we are,” says a Congress MP.

Meet­ings with Rahul can some­times be snappy slap- on- the- back ses­sions where quick de­ci­sions are taken. Dur­ing longer pre­sen­ta­tions, he’s al­ways in­tent, never fid­gety. There is no doo­dling or watch- gaz­ing. If he has another meet­ing lined up, there are oth­ers to keep time for him. But there are also oc­ca­sions when his im­pa­tience man­i­fests it­self in un­com­fort­able ques­tions and quick dismissals. “He doesn’t need to say it. You just know when RG is not happy,” says a Congress plan­ner.

Modi vs Gov­ern­ment vs Rahul

THOUGH RAHUL’S GRAND vi­sion for the Congress is still a work in progress, the party lead­er­ship is clear on two ba­sic house rules ahead of next year’s Lok Sabha elec­tions. First, while the so­cial me­dia team and mid­dle- rung lead­ers such as Maken and Digvi­jaya will take Modi on, the top lead­ers of the party will not en­gage with BJP’s prime min­is­te­rial can­di­date. In­stead, they will speak of de­vel­op­ment, with Rahul po­si­tion­ing him­self as an out­sider who is de­tached from the Modi vs Gov­ern­ment rhetoric. He didn’t plan pub­lic ral­lies in Ahmed­abad and Ra­jkot dur­ing his trip to Modi- land on Oc­to­ber 3 and 4.

Sec­ond, the party will con­cen­trate on Mus­lims, Dal­its, back­wards, and mi­nori­ties who may feel alien­ated by Modi’s di­vi­sive im­age af­ter the 2002 Gu­jarat ri­ots. In Uttar Pradesh, for ex­am­ple, where the Congress senses that Mus­lims are un­happy with the Sa­ma­jwadi Party in the af­ter­math of the Muzaf­far­na­gar ri­ots, Rahul will ad­dress four ral­lies in the com­ing weeks at Ram­pur, Ali­garh, Hamirpur and Salem­pur— all ar­eas with a 30 per cent Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion. This will be his first proper foray in Uttar Pradesh out­side of Rae Bareli or his con­stituency Ame­thi since the 2012 As­sem­bly elec­tions, where the Congress had been beaten into fourth place. Rahul, who mi­cro- man­aged the cam­paign, had de­scribed it as “an ed­u­ca­tion”.

Though they are pit­ted as po­lar op­po­sites, Rahul and Modi are more alike than most peo­ple un­der­stand— in terms of their uni­lat­er­al­ism and their fond­ness for in­ter­nal re­bel­lion. Con­sider how the like­ness weighs against the con­trast. They’re bearded. They dress in neta- sta­ple kurta py­ja­mas. They say what the coun­try wants to hear, even if it does not fit with their party lines. They agree that some­thing is not right with In­dia to­day. But if one is a sil­ver­tongued for­mer tea- seller who now meets with CEOs, the other is a sil­ver­spooned prince who sleeps in straw-and- poly­thene shanties. If one tweets about farm­ers who cul­ti­vate Dutch roses, the other speaks about Kalawati, a de­prived farm widow. If one claims to have all the an­swers, the other wears his con­fu­sion on his rolled- up sleeves. All in all, a restive, re­fo­cused Rahul is fi­nally try­ing to be the Modi ad­ver­sary that the 2014 Lok Sabha elec­tion was seek­ing.

Rahul is a prince des­per­ately try­ing to be a com­moner. But the irony is that it would make him ir­rel­e­vant. The ex­is­tence of Rahul Gandhi is at odds with the mes­sage of Rahul Gandhi. “The im­por­tant thing is that Rahul, too, knows this now,” says a Congress leader.

So can he still win In­dia de­spite a stum­bling econ­omy, ris­ing cor­rup­tion, gov­ern­ment paral­y­sis, and 10 years of anti- in­cum­bency? That is the ques­tion.

PTI

PRIME MIN­IS­TER MAN­MO­HAN SINGH

SPEAKS ON BOARD AIR IN­DIA ONE WHILE RE­TURN­ING FROM HIS US TRIP

PANKAJ NAN­GIA/

www. in­di­a­to­day­im­ages. com

RAHUL, MAN­MO­HAN AND SONIAATA CONGRESS WORK­ING COM­MIT­TEE MEET­ING

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