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?

The Sunday Guardian - - Covert -

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.

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