By Kalyani Shankar
The Congress party is getting ready for a generational change, just as it did in the sixties and eighties. There was heartburn in the older generation when change took place as they felt out of step with the younger leaders. It is unlikely to be different under Rahul Gandhi, newly appointed Vice-President of the party at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir.
From preliminary indications, it is possible to speculate on key future members of Rahul team. Among the older generation, he has a good rapport with Commerce Minister Anand Sharma and Maharashtra Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan. These were the two chosen to accompany Sonia Gandhi and Rahul to Beijing during the Olympics.
In the run-up to Rahul’s coronation at Jaipur, Sonia Gandhi nominated to the election coordination committee headed by Rahul her most trusted aides Ahmed Patel, AK Antony and Janardhan Dwivedi, along with three other important leaders — Digvijaya Singh, Madhusudan Mistry and Jairam Ramesh. All of them are considered close to Rahul Gandhi. Rahul also has projected some who had come from outside the Congress, like Mohan Prakash, Rashid Alvi and Renuka Choudhury.
Rahul Gandhi already has a group of young leaders with whom he is quite comfortable. This group includes ministers like Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada, Jitender Singh, Pallam Raju, Purandareshwari and Milind Deora. Party men like Sandeep Dikshit, Meenakshi Natarajan, Priya Dutt, Sanjay Nirupam, Charan Das and Jyoti Mirdha have also been given prominence so far.
Rahul has the experiences of his father, mother and grandmother to learn from while building his own team.
While Indira Gandhi replaced the syndicate with her own kitchen cabinet, Rajiv Gandhi used his own computer wizards to sideline experienced Congress leaders. When Sonia Gandhi came to power, loyalists like Ahmed Patel, Janardhan Dwivedi, Motilal Vora, Arjun Singh, Ambika Soni, ML Fotedar, Natwar Singh, Sheila Dikshit and a handful of others monopolised her. Unlike her predecessors, a hurt Sonia Gandhi also made it clear at the 1999 AICC session, when two senior Congress leaders Sharad Pawar and PA Sangma raised her foreign origin issue, that there was no place in the party for those who were not walking in step with her.
Rahul's selections will be crucial since a captain without a team cannot deliver. India has more than 50 percent of its population below the age of 25 and more than 65 percent below the age of 35. The youth constituency is thus very important for the Congress and this will have to be reflected in Rahul’s new team.
After the Jaipur Chintan Shivir last week, Rahul's emotional speech struck a chord with his party but the acid test will come when he tries to connect with the people.
Rahul Gandhi is not new to politics as he has been through a learning experience over the past nine years. He has made it known that he will take his time to form his new team. He plans to first meet the present office-bearers, including the secretaries, for a one-on-one interaction, which will be followed by group interaction with them to assess each one of them personally. Based on this he would select his new team.
However, this has not stopped speculation about who will be in his team. The fact that he was escorted by Sonia’s political secretary Ahmed Patel and senior AICC general secretary Janardhan Dwivedi to the party office when he took over this week is seen as a signal that he wants to give respect to old-timers. He has also assured the old guard that he would make use of their experience.
It would be an intelligent guess that he would prefer some English-speaking, foreign-educated, like-minded youngsters like his father Rajiv Gandhi did earlier. Rajiv Gandhi was disappointed within two or three years when this team fell apart. All those in whom he had reposed confidence failed him. Rahul Gandhi too has stuck to these computer wizards in these past nine years and used them to implement his strategy. But so far it has not worked, going by the Youth Congress and NSUI experiments and also the election strategies adopted in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat and other states. His idea of the Congress going it alone in the polls also did not work.
Rahul Gandhi's problem is he has not come out with any new ideas. Even his emotional speech at the Jaipur AICC was a repetition of his earlier speeches. The AICC delegates certainly enjoyed his bashing of the establishment, but they also noted that he had done nothing to change the system. In short, the Congressmen expect him to change his style of functioning and be more accessible to them.
Rahul Gandhi also has to realise that the new job is a 24/7 one and he can't be doing his disappearing tricks. People have already started asking questions about his absence at the Republic Day parade and the President’s reception. He has to be more articulate in expressing his views on various issues, including foreign policy, economic policy and social issues. He has to familiarise himself with the names of workers from each state and even districts, just his grandmother Indira Gandhi used to do to succeed.
His new team will have to help him fill the communication gap between him and the party and also the public. As of now the indications are that he might choose a blend of young and old in his new team and not experiment with a major surgery.
With not much time before the 2014 polls, there is need to put the new team in place without much delay. Since there are elections to nine state assemblies this year, the task before Rahul is formidable. Sonia has handed over the baton to her son. He has to prove not only his leadership qualities but also whether the dynasty would continue.