THE RAHUL RAJ
HE SHOWS HE IS THE BOSS OFTHE CONGRESS PARTY. BUT CAN HE WIN INDIA IN THE 2014 GENERAL ELECTIONS?
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.
PRIME MINISTER MANMOHAN SINGH
SPEAKS ON BOARD AIR INDIA ONE WHILE RETURNING FROM HIS US TRIP
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RAHUL, MANMOHAN AND SONIAATA CONGRESS WORKING COMMITTEE MEETING