Congress vice-president and Amethi MP Rahul Gandhi has been flitting from issue to issue to discover the elusive mantra that will allow him to be seen in the eyes of his beholders, both within and outside the party, as a full-fledged leader. His latest experiment is pegged at Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes and the travails of the common man in trying to exchange/deposit old notes and withdraw new ones.
The party president-to-be has been hopping from bank to bank and ATM to ATM in an effort to re-connect with the people the party which once dominated the country’s political landscape but was thrashed in a series of assembly elections and reduced to just 44 seats in the 2014 Lok Sabha polls — barely ahead of AIADMK’s 37 and Trinamool’s 34 that J Jayalalithaa and Mamata Banerjee got in Tamil Nadu and West Bengal respectively.
Look at the number of issues the 46-year-old leader has been trying to associate himself with ever since he returned from his nearly two-month sabbatical in April 2015 to think things out for the party and for himself, after his own workers openly attacked his inept and ineffectual leadership and controversial style of functioning and blamed him for the mess the party found itself in.
Rahul: 2 on overdrive
Although Rahul was in his sabbatical when his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi led a 14-party march to Rastrapathi Bhavan on 17 March, 2015, he jumped right into the middle of the agitation when he came back. He interacted with delegations of farmers at his residence, addressed a huge rally of farmers in Delhi, took the train to Punjab to express solidarity and sympathy for the agriculturalists, went on a padyatra in Maharashtra to meet with the distressed farmers and lashed out at Modi for his insensitivity towards them. He trekked to Kedarnath when the shrine was opened to underline the safety of undertaking a pilgrimage and to signal the party’s soft line on Hindutva. He raised the issue of net neutrality in Parliament and was recently detained twice by cops when he tried to visit the family of an ex-serviceman who had committed suicide.
Over the subsequent months, he and the party flagged issues that included growing intolerance reflected through abusive, communal and highly-divisive remarks and actions of BJP supporters, leaders and even ministers, ranging from Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti to General VK Singh, atrocities against Dalits, toppling of the Arunachal government, the National Herald case in which he and his mother were dragged to court, CBI raids on Delhi chief minister’s office, price rise and One Rank One Pension. It demanded Finance Minister Arun Jaitley’s ouster over his allegations of corruption in the Delhi cricket body he had headed till 2013 in addition to its earlier call for External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj’s scalp for helping Lalit Modi leave the country despite allegations of money laundering against him.
Hitting out at Modi
All these issues provided Rahul enough opportunities to hit out at Modi and go for the BJP’s jugular. There were sharp jibes of "suit boot ki sarkar" and "udyogpatiyon ki sarkar" as well as a sarcastic take on Modi’s election slogan of "ghar ghar Modi" with an "arhar Modi" in an allusion to the high price of pulses like arhar. He joined his mother in the march to Rashtrapati Bhavan to protest against rising intolerance.
The latest opportunity came with the government’s act of demonetising Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes to squeeze out black money, choke terrorist funding, curb corruption and check counterfeit and fake currency.
While claiming that they support the basic objective of demonetisation, the Congress and other opposition parties have put the government on the mat during the ongoing winter session of Parliament over the inept implementation of the radical step that has forced people to queue up for days together to resolve their liquidity crisis.
The Congress has been talking to other opposition parties for a joint strategy in pressuring the Prime Minister to make a statement on demonetisation in Parliament, allow a discussion with voting in the Lok Sabha and institute a Joint Parliamentary Committee probe into the alleged selective leakage of the move.
The Trinamool Congress, on its part, is trying to project itself as more oppositionist than the other parties. It has demanded a rollback of the decision, marched to Rashtrapati Bhavan, with the BJP ally Shiv Sena in tow, held a rally with Arvind Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party, demonstrated near Jantar Mantar, and on Wednesday joined other parties in forming a human chain of about 200 MPs to protest in front of Mahatma Gandhi’s statue in the Parliament House complex. The protesters included rivals like the SP and the BSP and the CPM.
Sonia cedes space to Rahul
As Sonia kept away from this dharna, the spotlight was on Rahul who described Modi’s demonetisation drive as the world’s "biggest impromptu financial experiment" that hadn’t been thought through properly and it was imperative for the PM to explain to the Parliament why he took the decision and why it was leaked to his industrialist friends and BJP leaders.
"Prime Minister can give lectures to pop concert where 'naach gaana' is going on. Two hundred MPs are saying they want to tell the nation why he took the decision. PM does not want to come to Parliament. Why is PM afraid of going inside. He is obviously anxious about something," Rahul said.
While he did most of the talking, he refused to get into the complexities of who was leading the dharna, claiming that the protest is being steered by the voice of the poor people in the country.
In a way, this comment by Rahul can be interpreted in two ways.
Although Rahul was in his sabbatical when his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi led a 14-party march to Rastrapathi Bhavan on 17 March, 2015, he jumped right into the middle of the agitation when he came back
One, is that he is still being groomed for his future role as a leader who will be accepted by the opposition to lead a joint agitation against the government. There would be no problem in his elevation as party president for which Sonia has been preparing ever since he entered active politics in 2004, became a general secretary in 2007 and party vice-president in 2013. In fact, on 7 November in what appears to be an orchestrated move, the Congress’s highest decision making body, the Working Committee unanimously proposed Rahul’s elevation and forwarded their recommendation to Sonia who had stayed away from this CWC. Procedurally, Sonia will have to convene, when she deems fit, another CWC to formalise the recommendation.
The second interpretation is that he still has a long way to go before other opposition leaders would cede space to him. Until recently, Rahul was seen as a shirker of responsibility — a reputation that got strengthened when he declined to join the Manmohan Singh Cabinet when the Congress-led UPA was in power or post-2014 his refusal lead the party from the front in the Lok Sabha, a task that was finally entrusted to Mallikarjun Kharge.
But after returning from his sabbatical Rahul seemed to be quicker with his retorts and repartees as, for instance, when he lashed out at those branding the farmers walking away with string cots during his khaat sabhas as "thieves", while industrialists who fled the country without repaying their bank loans were merely dubbed "defaulters". At the same time, however, he has also had what are increasingly being dubbed as "Rahul moments"’: He was caught napping during a debate on Dalit atrocities, he talked about "aalu ki factory" and accused Modi of "khoon ki dalali" and playing politics over the surgical strikes on terror launch pads across the LoC.
Becoming president is not enough
It remains to be seen whether his stock in the opposition ranks will increase once he is anointed Congress president. But then Rahul has just to look back at his mother’s track record to realise that merely slamming Modi — or whoever the prime minister is — does not make a full leader.
It took Sonia years of hard work to reach the position where the other leaders agreed to accept her leadership. She had, after all, earned the respect of her party and rivals in the manner in which she took it upon herself to pull the Congress out from the morass it was in when she entered politics in 1998, gave it a pro-poor image, jettisoned its "ekla chalo" (go it alone) policy, brought a Congress-led coalition to power twice at the Centre and even renounced the prime ministership the first time around. She chaired the UPA and despite the drubbing of 2014 continued to be seen as an opposition leader of status who led the march of opposition stalwarts on the land acquisition bill.
Rahul will first need to prove himself to his workers, who had lost their confidence in him, to his organisation, which has been debilitated by serial defeats, and to his party which lacks a reliable social coalition that will help it capture the public mind. It is a daunting challenge. Is he capable of it? The jury is out on that one.