The heir, finally apparent
What is the Rahul Model? Will his economic policies be socialist like his grandmother? Will he adopt a more liberal outlook like his father? Will he work on a sops and NGO oriented roadmap, like his mother?
Rahul Gandhi has finally decided to bite the bullet and take over as Congress president. Despite the party’s attempts at what is clearly a well choreographed pretence at democracy, it is clear that this is not an election, but a coronation. But then, the Congress has, for long, admitted that dynasty is one glue that holds the party together, for look what happened when Narasimha Rao and Sitaram Kesri were in charge! More recently, when asked about dynasty, Rahul Gandhi himself chose to confront the issue head on with a non-apologetic shrug. “This is the way India runs,” he said and pointed to other political, business and Bollywood dynasties.
But dynastic entitlement aside, is Rahul Gandhi ready to take charge? “Certainly he is,” Ambika Soni told the media after the Congress Working Committee meeting on 20 November, pointing out that this was the reason they elected him party vice president in 2013. It’s no secret that Sonia Gandhi wanted him to take over much earlier, but it has taken Rahul nearly five years to overcome his “power is poison” phobia and step into his legacy.
The timing works for him. Three and a half years into governance, the Narendra Modi government is losing some of its sheen. Demonetisation and a badly implemented GST are two of the main reasons for the disenchantment. For the first time since 2014, Rahul Gandhi’s speeches are getting traction and striking a chord. His lecture tour to the United States end September was an eye- opener, not for the applause he got there, but the appreciative editorials and response back home. When asked what Rahul Gandhi was doing differently, Congress leader Milind Deora, who had planned Rahul’s US trip, pointed out that it was not Rahul who was saying anything new, it was the media that was treating him differently. Perhaps he is right. With the government faltering on the economy, people have begun to scout around for an alternative. But is Rahul Gandhi that face? Can he lead a united Opposition against PM Modi?
To answer the second question first, Rahul has realised that the rest of the allies do not have the same equation with him that they have with his mother. Take the 2014 Opposition march to Parliament against the amendments to the Land Acquisition Act. Sonia Gandhi was leading the march and the entire Opposition walked with her—from Mamata Bannerjee to Sitaram Yechury to Sharad Pawar’s NCP. However, when Rahul Gandhi wanted to lead an Opposition march against demonetisation in 2016, the Congress walked alone, for Mamata Bannerjee held her own protest and the CPM held its own. Therein lies the problem.
To Rahul’s credit, he has been making an effort to reach out to the Opposition Gen Next. He may have antagonised Lalu Yadav when he tore up the UPA government’s ordinance that allowed tainted MPs to contest elections, but he was seen lunching with Lalu’s favourite son, Tejashwi in Khan Market recently. Akhilesh Yadav is his new “bestie”, overruling Mulayam Singh Yadav’s distaste for Congress, and Omar remains his preferred choice of Abdullah. Rahul is also moving out of his comfort zone to reach out to the older guard, calling on the ailing M. Karunanidhi (though the entire tenure of UPA went by without Rahul making a courtesy call on his ally whenever he visited Chennai). The NCP is still to decide whether it will ally with the Congress in Gujarat, but Sharad Pawar praised Rahul’s Gujarat campaign recently. As the CPM’s Sita- ram Yechury remarked, with a wry smile, during a TV interview when asked to comment on Rahul’s reluctance for the top job, “All of them begin reluctantly, but then with responsibility, they all grow up.”
At age 47 it is indeed time that Rahul grew into his responsibility. His social media profile has certainly gone in for an image makeover, but unless he delivers electorally, he will remain a paper tiger. Unfortunately for him, Gujarat is Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah’s karmabhoomi and it will be even more difficult for Rahul to defeat them here than it was in Uttar Pradesh. The Congress has begun to manage expectations, and privately talk about making a dent in the BJPs margin, not of wresting the entire state. As for Himachal Pradesh, again Rahul played his cards well by letting the sitting Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh manage the campaign, thereby distancing himself from a possible loss and also sending a signal that he is not averse to giving responsibility to the old guard. It is the slew of elections due in 2018 where the Congress is hoping to make a mark—Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Manipur.
Rahul’s immediate challenge would be to ensure that the Congress has a credible leadership in these states— will he promote Gen Next leaders like Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia? Or will he support the Old Guard— Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath? These are not mere intra party decisions, but also leadership statements.
The criticism against Rahul is that he lacks a credible narrative of his own. Unlike Modi, there is no Gujarat model to judge him by. He refused to take up a ministership in the UPA, his experiments with the Youth Congress flopped and his leadership of various Uttar Pradesh election campaigns have had mixed results. Certainly, UP remains out of Congress grasp for the foreseeable future.
What then is the Rahul Model? Will his economic policies be socialist like his grandmother? Will he adopt a more liberal outlook like his father? Or will he depend on NGOs for guidance and work on a sops oriented roadmap, like his mother? Initially, his “Discovery of In- dia” tours that saw him dining with Dalits and having sleepovers in tribal homes, his proclivity for the jholawala advisor (read: NGOs) and making himself the face of sops and doles such as NREGA and the Rs 70,000 crore farm loan waiver announced by UPA gave the impression of someone who is pro-poor to the point of being anti-middle class and anti-corporates. That Rahul was the face of the campaign against POSCO in Orissa added to the corporates’ distrust. This is a fear that Modi played on rather successfully during his 2014 Lok Sabha campaign. When this was pointed out to Rahul, he would retort, “We don’t live in an economy, we live in a society.”
Of late, however, Rahul has done a course correction (as has Modi, but that’s another story) and is reaching out to professionals, business houses and the middle class. This is essential because simply attacking the government’s flawed economic policies is not enough, as it doesn’t tell us what Rahul stands for. And as Milind Deora once said in an interview to NewsX on the eve of the UP poll debacle, “Simply fact checking the Modi government is not enough. We need to tell the people what we stand for.”
Rahul began his political stint wanting to be a poster boy for democracy—“I want to change the system that I am a part of,” he used to say. Recently, he was busy defending dynasty. Triumph of realism over idealism? Has Rahul Gandhi finally got over the enigma of his own arrival and is he here to stay? His body language says yes. For now.
At age 47 it is indeed time that Rahul grew into his responsibility. His social media profile has certainly gone in for an image makeover, but unless he delivers electorally, he will remain a paper tiger.
Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi waves to his supporters during a rally ahead of Gujarat Assembly elections, at a village on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, on 11 November.