What’s in a Name?
The recently appointed Vice President of the India National Congress, Rahul Gandhi, is ready to enter Indian politics full-time. But will he need something more than just the name of the Gandhi dynasty to ensure smooth-sailing?
Entering politics full-time, does Rahul Gandhi have what it takes to make an impression?
Rahul Gandhi’s appointment as Vice President of the Indian National Congress is likely to have a perceptible impact on national politics and the next Lok Sabha elections. In the largest democracy of the world, it stands proven that there is no escape from ‘dynastic politics’ and hereditary successions in ruling parties are inevitable. According to the Congress, this elevation is part of a move to bring younger politicians into the party ahead of the general elections in 2014. In October 2012, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh inducted 22 new ministers into the government but Rahul refused to join the Cabinet.
Commenting on the move, Soutik Biswas, BBC correspondent in New Delhi, observed, “India’s governments have been traditionally dominated by elderly politicians, prompting critics to jest that the country, where half the population is under 25 years of age, is really a gerontocracy.” Justifying the move, Manmohan Singh said he had
tried to put together a combination of “youth and experience” in the new Cabinet to take on the formidable challenges in the run-up to the general elections due in 2014.
According to critics, the Cabinet is only slightly younger than the previous one. Its oldest member is Mr. Singh himself, at 80, while the youngest member is junior minister, Sachin Pilot, 35. The average age of a full cabinet minister remains a little over 64 years, though the average age of a minister is now 58. In the wake of Rahul’s political elevation, questions pertaining to his perceived role in politics arise: will he be a gamechanger, what long-term effects will his entry have on the Indian political landscape and can he dilute the rising popularity of Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi after the latter’s thumping victory? Difficult challenges lie ahead for Rahul Gandhi and the INC as nine states will hold assembly polls this year with the big battle of the next Lok Sabha elections taking place in 2014. These earlier polls will test Gandhi’s leadership skills as he heads the coordination panel for the 2014 polls.
In a statement issued on 4 February 2013, following a three-day “feedback-cum-interaction” session in New Delhi, Rahul stated, “The party should address basic problems first to face future political challenges and it would be stronger only if its constitution is implemented in letter and spirit.” This particular statement, issued after his first formal interaction with the All India Congress Committee (AICC) confirms that he is poised to play a lead role in all future matters after his mother, Sonia Gandhi withdraws from active party deliberations. Rahul also met with party general secretaries in charge of states who cited problems faced by the party, such as faulty ticket distribution, lack of unity and discipline and membership issues.
Rahul is all set to address the prevailing state of party affairs that would help him finalize the much-awaited Congress reshuffle to prepare his team for the 2014 general elections. Dur- ing the interactions, some secretaries criticized the functioning of general secretaries and state unit chiefs while complaining that the ministers never meet them. Many of them demanded “responsibility with accountability”, claiming that the party needed an immediate overhaul. Rahul’s response has been cautious, “There is no need to rush with the change, we need to correct basic problems and follow the rules.” He specifically urged party leaders to refrain from bringing up personal grievances and concentrate on the party’s constitution. This document, he said, “is a model one, crafted after much deliberation and reflection and it is an image of the Congress which has been representing the people for the past 127 years. We should be proud to be Congress workers.”
There is a strong hope in the Congress that Rahul would bring necessary organizational changes. He is capable of capturing the aspirations of the Indian youth, especially those belonging to the urban middle class. Rahul enjoys an image of a compassionate and gentle leader but the question is whether his appointment on 19 January 2013 as Vice President will herald victory for the party in the 2014 elections, especially at a time when the Congress Government faces strong criticism from opposition parties and civil society, on various issues of corruption, investment and socio-economic concerns.
Rahul has assumed his new position at a tough time when the party, after nearly four decades of virtually uninterrupted rule, tries to find its way back from its political wilderness. Many believe the scion of the Gandhi family possesses the qualities, instincts and experience to take up the mantle of the post of Prime Minister. The young Gandhi certainly has potential but it remains uncertain whether he will become the Prime Minister of India in 2014? The recent changes in Congress in no way represent anything radical as leading columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “Instead, it is an odd combination of caution, brazenness and political trifling.” Most of the so-called young ministers are privileged dynasts who never displayed much political imagination or administrative acumen in the past. Is Rahul Gandhi different? He is certainly not like his late father, Rajiv Gandhi who assumed party leadership due to the force of circumstances. Rahul instead has earned his position, both in politics and party after several years of work, though he has yet to prove himself a vote-magnet for the party.
At present, Congress’ main rival, the Bhartiya Janata party (BJP), is in the doldrums but many claim that Rahul’s elevation may serve as an impetus for Gujarat Chief Minister, Narendra Modi to assume a more emphatic role before the next general elections. With a hattrick of wins in the State, Modi, 62, is seen as more of a youth icon than Rahul Gandhi. Elections in India are complex puzzles: factors like caste, allies, secularism, communalism etc play a dominant role. Indians are asking each other who they think would be triumphant if it is Modi vs. Gandhi in 2014? Rahul, notwithstanding the great Gandhi surname, will have to prove that he enjoys pan-national appeal surpassing the urban middle-classes. In a coalition era, it will then depend on which alliance will triumph—United Progressive Alliance or National Democratic Alliance.
Rahul has shown political maturity by not joining the government—he understands that revitalizing the party is more important at this moment. He understands the growing aspirations of the Indian people, especially the youth. Undoubtedly, Rahul Gandhi is an emerging young leader after the old and queried politicians have failed to deliver. His success depends how the party, he now steers, wins back the confidence of the voters.