Rahul Gandhi has a good chance to revive Congress' fortunes but he must not squander it

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi will soon head to Madhya Pradesh, to lead a Kisan Mahapanchayat in the wake of the six farmer deaths in police firing in Mandsaur district.

Despite questioning the government on its failures fairly consistently, why is Rahul failing to get himself — and hence the Congress party — be taken seriously during polls?

 Rahul Gandhi has a good chance to revive Congress fortunes but he must not squander it

File image of Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi. Reuters

Rahul has only himself to blame for this situation, political analyst and author of 24, Akbar Road Rasheed Kidwai said in a January 2017 interview with The Diplomat. "He had a perfect mentor in Dr Manmohan Singh [the former prime minister] but he ignored the good doctor’s advice to join the government. If he had served as a minister of state in the Prime Minister’s Office and later moved to foreign affairs, or the infrastructure ministry, today he would have had a different standing in public life."

A reputation to deliver would have stood Rahul in good stead when he sought votes for the Congress from an electorate that has moved on from judging leaders through the ideological lens.

"We have firmly moved into the governance era, where leaders are born on account of their decisive actions in getting things done," Rajat Sethi, the mastermind credited with the BJP’s recent Assam win, told Firstpost, commenting in his personal capacity.

Today, constituents evaluate the image of the leader ahead of the party’s image and ideology, said Vivek Singh Bagri, CEO of Leadtech, a political consultancy.

"The image of a leader who has a firm track record of service delivery strengthens the image of the political party," said Sethi. Yes, and it wins votes.

By this yardstick, Rahul — who has no delivery track record — falls very, very short. What accentuates his weakness, and hence lowers the Congress party’s value proposition, is his lack of passion to revamp the Congress organisation, whatever that may mean for him, and to capitalise every win, however small (think Goa state election).

Now when some voters can start to see the cracks in the incumbent government and are clamouring for the opposition to get its act together, when the Congress’ reorganisation should shift into top gear, a roadmap to improve the party’s prospects is still conspicuously absent.

Instead all we see is Rahul take up the incumbent government’s failures.

This lack of action shows up painfully against the BJP, which is consistently playing to its strength, sweeping election after election on the plank of a winning manifesto promising governance, development and Hindutva.

In fact, today, a BJP brimming with confidence is also making the call for a strong opposition — hear Union minister Venkaiah Naidu talk on the subject here and BJP national general secretary Ram Madhav here. It is ironical that their motivation—strengthening India’s democracy—holds a strong message in democratisation for the Congress, the largest single party in opposition.

Rewind to 1964. With the passing away of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, political author VM Sirsikar expected the Congress central leadership to be "more responsive to popular pressure as people who tolerated the lapses of Pandit Nehru would be now more exacting in their demands."

“Within the party itself, the rank and file would become more critical and articulate. Indirectly, this might be a gain as it would democratise the party-machine,” he said in a 1965 paper, Political Leadership in India, in The Economic Weekly.

In a twist of fate, prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri passed away the following year, and the “gungi gudiya” Indira Gandhi metamorphosed into a mass leader par excellence, a woman of substance who was famously dubbed “the only man in her cabinet”, who even the RSS chief KS Sudarshan had praised for being "a lady of determination".

Her rise put the democratisation of the Congress on the back-burner. Where it remained through the transition from Indira Gandhi to Rajiv Gandhi in 1984 — when a nation in shock decisively voted in the politically inexperienced son of their slain leader — until 1991, when for the second time in the history of India (excluding Gulzarilal Nanda’s brief stints as acting prime minister), a person outside the Nehru-Gandhi family occupied the prime minister’s chair during a Congress government.

"PV Narasimha Rao was brought in to fill a vacuum," Kidwai pointed out to Firstpost. "So yes, the Congress party has shown itself willing and capable of filling a vacuum when it is needed."

Has the Congress party also shown itself capable of passing over a Gandhi for the sake of its prospects — and India?

Not quite.

In "humbly declining" the prime ministerial position and nominating Manmohan Singh for the top job in 2004, Sonia Gandhi showed an astute understanding of the Indian voter.

But the call to nominate Singh came from Sonia, not the party. Will Rahul follow suit?

Unlike his father in 1984, Rahul faces an experienced opponent who enjoys a larger-than-life image. Senior party leader AK Antony may believe now is "the right time for him [Rahul] to take charge" but so far the voter has disagreed.

As someone who has pushed for organisational elections and internal democracy, Rahul faces a great opportunity to make good.

"Moving beyond the Gandhis would certainly be untested waters for the Congress but their body politic would be healthier," Sethi said. "There is no alternative to internal party democracy."

Sonia’s ascension of Singh is proof enough that if the nominator is firm, the party will rally round the nominee, and avert unrest and infighting—a concern of some of those who, to quote Kidwai, "push the durbari [royal court-style] argument that Rahul bought during Dr Singh’s tenure—that as a Gandhi family member, he should always be on top."

With the odds of winning every upcoming election stacked against it, the Congress does not have the luxury ofdeferring reorganisation at the top level.

Updated Date: Jun 28, 2017 21:55:22 IST