Congress president election: Rahul Gandhi's confused signalling, lack of game plan is gift to his rivals

It was instructive to watch Rahul Gandhi file his nomination papers at the party headquarters on Monday with a large tilak on his forehead and the frame of Mahatma Gandhi hanging from a wall behind him.

The Gandhi dynast, who could take over as Congress president the by the end of day if no one else steps up to challenge his nomination, recently responded to controversy around his religion by declaring: "Our faith is our personal matter. We are not required to show a certificate to anybody in this regard. We do not want to trade on this issue. 'Hum is cheez ki dalali nahi karna chahte' (we are not brokers of religion). We do not want to use it politically."

So Rahul tells voters that he is disinterested in doing "dalali" over religion.  Rahul takes the moral high ground in claiming that he doesn't want to make a public spectacle of his faith or indulge in politics over it. And then Rahul steps into the AICC headquarters at 24 Akbar Road sporting a huge tilak on his forehead, knowing well that the cameras would be panned on him as Gujarat election dates draw near. 

Rahul Gandhi during the filing of his nomination papers for post of Congress party president. PTI

Rahul Gandhi during the filing of his nomination papers for post of Congress party president. PTI

Also, let us not forget that Rahul's solemn declarations on keeping politics and religion "separate" emerged after he embarked on an extended temple run, visiting well over 20 shrines as part of his poll campaign. This dichotomy isn't just opportunism ahead of an Assembly election. These mixed messages reflect a cognitive dissonance that defines the very nature of Rahul's Congress. They speak of an ideological and structural failure that the grand old party has steadfastly refused to address.

Let us first take a look at Congress's ideological confusion. The Congress accuses the BJP of indulging in strident 'Hindutva' politics. It doesn't matter whether the charge carries any truth, or not. The point is that critics and political rivals identify BJP with a certain kind of ideology. The BJP, for better or for worse, has consciously occupied an ideological space. BJP leaders, workers, supporters, the larger electorate, media, critics and political rivals are aware of that positioning, and accordingly modify their behaviour.

Cartoon by Manjul

Cartoon by Manjul

As Rahul takes the reins, is he clear about the direction in which he wants to steer the party? What does the Congress stand for? Do the Congress cadres have a clear idea about the party ideology? Can its leaders deliver a consistent, coherent message? Do the voters have a clear understanding of Congress' political positioning? There are no clear answers to each of these questions.

As a fourth-generation dynast, Rahul has had some unparalleled advantages. He grew up in a family that defined the nation's power structure for the better part of India's journey post-Independence. He was assured of party presidentship virtually at birth, and has had the space and time (perhaps too much time) to get groomed for the role. One would imagine that by now he has a very clear idea about the role that is demanded of him.

If he does, the dynast has been very careful not to let it show. Given his family lineage, the Gandhi scion had a marvelous chance to position himself as the face of a syncretic India but he incredibly stumbled on a sacred thread to expose himself as a casteist and Brahmin supremacist, all the while trying to stitch up a rainbow coalition in Gujarat with leaders of a Dalit movement and upper-caste agitators.

This ideological confusion within Congress ranks rises ultimately from a paucity of leadership and bankruptcy of ideas. Directionless Rahul doesn't know whether he should align with the subaltern movement, back a constitutionally untenable upper-caste quota demand, canvass for minority votes or visit temples to show that he is a greater Hindu than Narendra Modi. In his dearth of ideas, the Congress boss has decided to run with the hare and hunt with the hounds.

He is a Dalit leader one day, Patidar leader the next; critic of BJP's 'Hindutva' politics one day, ardent temple visitor the next. It is evident that Rahul lacks the spunk, skill and vision to lead India's oldest political party in the world's largest democracy but he must manfully accept the job because he was to the manor born, and Congress won't allow a more meritorious leader to replace a Gandhi at the helm. It wasn't by accident that Mahatma Gandhi was adorning the wall behind the dynasts' back when he was filing his papers. It was specifically designed to portray Rahul as a torchbearer of the Mahatma legacy, not as a fourth-generation dynast. The placement of the picture was an admission that the party remains deeply troubled by charges that Congress has been reduced to a family vessel: An issue that Shezad Poonawalla, the high-profile rebel, has been quite vocal about of late.

It was also instructive to witness senior Congress leaders, one after the other, swear by Rahul and insist that winning elections isn’t the true measure of leadership. The Congress might dress up its compulsion as a choice, but it would do well to remember that voters are under no such obligation.

Read complete coverage of Gujarat Elections 2017 here

Read complete coverage of our Congress president election here

Updated Date: Dec 04, 2017 20:36 PM

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