Cameo days are over, is Rahul ready for the grind?

After a long stint with polltime cameos, Rahul Gandhi finally gets the role that will test his mettle as a leader. These are difficult times for the Congress and the general election of 2014 is certainly going to be the hardest one for the party with all those big ticket scandals involving the government it leads and the sense of drift in the organisation itself. Rahul’s main role as the chief of the election coordination panel will be to win the election for the party, but his biggest challenge will be to revive the decaying Congress and make it battle ready.

The Bihar and Uttar Pradesh assembly election experiences would have made it amply clear to the Congress general secretary that the Gandhi surname does not sell anymore, particularly if it’s not backed by robust grassroots organisational support. The Congress organisation across the country is in a state of collapse with no competent local leadership at the level of the blocks, districts and even the states. This was amply evident in UP earlier this year. His primary focus would be to get the party workers motivated. Well, that’s easier said than done.

The channels of communication of the higher leadership with the lower rungs virtually stand broken. Ever since the party decided to launch the economic reforms two decades ago, the gap has gone wider. The leaders at the lower levels - traditionally aligned to the Socialist-Leftist line of thought - have been at great discomfort explaining the idea of reforms to people at large and it has not helped that the party has failed to break down its new economic ideas into easy, small and deliverable packages. FDI in retail is a case in point. Rahul’s skills will be tested the way he sells it to ordinary farmers.

Where does Rahul stand on issues of national and global import? PTI

In the confusion over the economic ideology, the party has vacated miles of space for the more aggressive, Left-leaning parties with limited populist agenda. The regional parties have happily moved into the space and have been growing stronger all over the country. The Congress’s task at this point is to wrest the control back and it’s not an easy one. It will also need to face civil society activism too which has a distinct Leftist accent. If Rahul starts the process now, it will take at least five years to undo the damage.

But the disconnect within the party is not the Congress’s only problem. Machinations at the top leadership has effectively halted the growth of powerful leaders with mass base in the states. It has not helped the party’s cause that leaders in New Delhi have encouraged factionalism in the state units and left these divided. The consequences show in the absence of easily identifiable Congress faces in the states. If Rahul is serious about changing the Congress and get it ready for the elections, he will need to look hard at the entire chain of command in the party and bring order to it.

Of course, any change will require dumping a lot of deadwood and infusing new blood into the organisation. The old guard has kept the party going but it has lost the energy. The Congress desperately needs a younger and a vibrant look at all levels of the organisation. Here cosmetic changes won’t do; he has to go for drastic surgery. There will be a price to pay but he has to take the risk.

Now, the real question. Where does Rahul stand on issues of national and global import? Does he have a view on the economy and foreign relations? He has been around for eight years but the country has not heard from him on issues such as Maoism, minorities and reservations. The Gandhi scion has to be the change himself he proposes in the party. As the man in charge of the party’s election campaign he will need to articulate his position on a variety of issues. There’s no escaping that from now on.

The easy life is over; the hard work has begun for Rahul.