Last Chance for Rahul Gandhi to Reinvent the Congress

With his elevation to the Congress top post imminent, many feel Rahul Gandhi will fail as successive debacles have shown he is not fit for the job.

Can Rahul Gandhi revive the Congress? Credit: Reuters

Can Rahul Gandhi deliver? Credit: Reuters

Signals from the Congress headquarters that Rahul Gandhi will soon be elevated to the top post, notwithstanding the party’s shocking debacle in the recent polls in Uttar Pradesh, is being seen in various lights in the grand old party. Detractors of the party vice president say that it is nothing but hara-kiri while the faithful feel that the attacks on Rahul will sooner or later make him a formidable leader. 

“Did Narendra Modi not come under attack for a dozen years before he became the prime minister,” a party general secretary remarked.

Senior party leader Shakeel Ahmed said that “there is unanimity in the party that Rahul should take over as president of the party at the earliest but it depends upon him and our supreme leader and party chief Sonia Gandhi”.

“It will be decided between them about the timing. Everybody in the party is of one opinion that Rahul should be our next party president,” he said.

Indications are that Rahul will take over from Sonia as the party chief much before the assembly polls in Gujarat, often described as BJP’s Hindutva laboratory and Modi land.

This means that the Congress has now decided to have ‘all hands on deck’ under Rahul’s leadership, with his sister Priyanka Gandhi in a supportive role, to take on the challenge posed by Modi.

“Congress workers all over the country want Priyanka to take a more proactive role in the party activities,” Ahmed said, adding that it was for Priyanka to decide whether she wanted to expand her field of political activity beyond Amethi and Raebareli.

Indications of Rahul’s elevation are also being seen as the last chance for the Congress vice president to reinvent the party in the backdrop of a series of debacles, from the 2014 Lok Sabha polls to the most recent state elections, making him the favourite punching bag among Modi supporters.

“It all depends on what Rahul Gandhi does in the next few months,” remarked former union minister V. Kishore Chandra Deo when asked how the Congress leader would measure up to the challenge posed by Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.

A section in the party, however, strongly feels that the move to elevate Rahul would come a cropper as the successive debacles have shown that he is not fit for the top job.

The complaint often being heard in party circles is that Rahul is not approachable. “Rahul can connect with the masses only if he first connects with his partymen,” a leader said tauntingly. Partymen say that Sonia is far more approachable.

Another observation made by party leaders is that Priyanka is fast on the uptake and several senior leaders are more comfortable with her.

Rahul’s elevation to the party top post is being considered at a time when the Congress is at crossroads and the opposition space is contracting day by day with the BJP’s surge in various states and methodical attempts to penetrate new areas by methods fair or foul. 

The challenges are daunting for Rahul on issues of policies and programmes with the ruling dispensation working hard to project “secularism” as “minority appeasement” and resorting to majoritarian politics, subtly and not so subtly.

The controversial decision to demonetise Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes has shown that Modi has been able to secure the pro-poor image for the BJP, an image that was mostly associated with the Congress in the post-independence era marked by slogans like ‘Garibi Hatao’. 

Organsationally, the party is in disarray in almost all states with rampant factionalism. Several Pradesh Congress Committee chiefs handpicked by Rahul have failed and the manner of their appointments has resulted into a tussle between the old and the young in some states.

The fact is that neither Sonia nor Rahul had paid much attention to the organisation when the Congress was ruling the Centre as the head of the UPA.

Another challenge for Rahul is the way the BJP is becoming aggressive in ‘messaging’ as part of its plans to reach the maximum number of people. The prime minister himself is a master communicator and a hard taskmaster to ensure that the BJP message reached the masses.

In comparison, it is common knowledge that one of the reasons for the collapse of UPA was that its three top leaders – Sonia, Rahul and then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh – failed to communicate, as they hardly spoke. 

Rahul was made the Congress vice president in January 2013, over a year before the the 2014 polls, and was the ‘face’ of the party in the elections. The Congress posted its worst performance ever, winning just 44 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha.

But that is only half the story. The Congress had secured 19.3% of the vote while BJP got 31% in the last Lok Sabha polls, signifying that the opposition party could still make a fight out of the challenge ahead which was not surmountable. Nothing is permanent in politics. 

Even as Ahmed remarked that there was unanimity in the party that Rahul should take over as president, he hastened to add that it depended upon the Congress vice president and “supreme leader” Sonia.

Italian-born Sonia has been at the helm of the organisation since March 1998, creating a record of sorts in the 131-year-old organisation.

When the Congress was in opposition for eight long years from 1996 to 2004, the then senior party leader late V. N. Gadgil had wanted Sonia to emulate Tony Blair, who had brought the Labour Party to power in Britain after a series of defeats. “Blair converted Labour into New Labour and the rest was history,” Gadgil used to say and the same applies for Rahul at this critical time when nothing is going right for the party.

Former union minister Jairam Ramesh, known to be close to Rahul, had cautioned just before the last Lok Sabha polls that Modi posed an ideological and a managerial challenge for the Congress. 

The Congress is facing this reality daily, given the dual challenge posed by Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah, who has emerged as a master strategist.

Kishore Chandra Deo is blunt. He wants Rahul to start ‘operation zadu’ in the organisation to clear it of leaders who have developed vested interests and were “playing musical chairs” for years occupying one post or another.

“What the party needs is chemotherapy as the rot has set in deep within and just a major surgery would not do,” Deo insisted.

The problem is that Rahul’s political career is full of missed opportunities and chances as the UPA years would have been the best training ground for him. Singh had time and again beseeched the young leader to join the government. 

Rahul’s experiment of ‘democratisation’ of the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India was hailed by many in the party. But critics said that it had only brought the rich and the powerful to the helm of the youth bodies. There was merit in the argument as substantial resources were used to capture the bodies.

The task is tough for Rahul who has hardly shown much leadership qualities despite entering politics 13 years ago and being projected by the party as an icon for the youth.

The tragedy is that the youth is not coming to the party to the desired extent in the past few years. The Congress has failed to be an organisation that attracts young blood and is seen as meeting the hopes and aspirations of various classes, young and old.

A party leader who did not want to be named  suggested that Rahul’s elevation is a gamble given that things for the Congress can’t get any worse. Therefore, if anything were to happen it can only be good.

“The consensus in the party is that it is time to start afresh. We have had enough debacles. This far and no further. We have now nothing much to lose,”  the leader said.

After the Lok Sabha elections, the refrain in the party was that things would not have come to such a pass if Rahul had implemented at least half of what he had promised to do to revitalise the Congress after becoming the party vice president.

A few years ago when the UPA-II was in office, Rahul had an informal chat with reporters in parliament and had suggested that if he failed to set things right in the organisation, he would leave it all and write books.

It is now time for Rahul to act with determination. A man with courage is a majority, he should realise.

Sunil Gatade is a senior journalist.

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