Rahul Gandhi Is Congress President. Now What?

From his recent speeches, it seems as though the Gandhi scion is planning to move the so-called centrist party towards the Left.

Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally. Credit: Facebook/Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi addressing a rally. Credit: Facebook/Rahul Gandhi

New Delhi: Now that Rahul Gandhi has formally taken over the reins from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, as the Congress party president, what is in store? That is a question many have been asking at a time when the party has been at an all-time low.

In his first speech as the party president, Rahul advanced a political narrative that presented the Congress as an inclusive, forward-looking party. Two of his statements stood out.

“I want the Congress to become an instrument for dialogue among the Indian people – all of us, from all corners of our great country, all religions, all ethnicities, all ages, genders and people – and for our dialogue to always be led by love and affection,” he said.

And two, “Those in power in India today are shaped by the very structures (of power) that keep India poor. The Congress took India into the 21st century while the prime minister today is taking us backwards, to a medieval past where people are butchered because of who they are, beaten for what they believe and killed for what they eat,” he added.

He went on to assert what he has been saying for a while now. “This ugly violence shames us in the world. Our country, whose philosophy and history is born out of love and compassion, is tarnished by such horror and no amount of hugs can repair the damage done to this great country of ours. This vision belongs to a time where people did not have the rights and freedoms that have made our country the profound entity it is – a time when people did not have voice, did not have the right to dissent, to disagree, to differ, to be.”

At a time when the Sangh parivar has launched a multi-pronged attack against anything that resembles the Congress’s ideology – more specifically the Nehruvian political vision – Rahul’s open-hearted espousal of those ideas clearly indicates that he may move the so-called centrist party towards the Left.

This would mean that the newly-anointed president wants to situate his party at a pole that is completely opposite to that of the BJP’s. One may remember that the BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s leadership, did exactly the same when the scam-tainted Congress was struggling to defend itself a few years ago. The Congress now hopes to cash into a growing disenchantment against the BJP for failing to restore peace, generate enough jobs and revive the declining economy.

Although the Congress has always been the main opposition party to the BJP, both parties have more or less agreed on the need for reform as the primary driver of the economy, the fault line between them being only two different social visions.

However, under Rahul’s stewardship, that may change. If recent Congress campaigns are any indication, Rahul has been trying to offer a new co-operative model to drive the economy, as opposed to the centralised, corporate-led growth model espoused by Modi.

Also read: As Rahul Era Begins, a Look Back at the Question of Dynastic Succession in Political Parties

Until now, a much-weakened Left has been the only force that has broken the political consensus around economic reforms. But if the Congress succeeds in making its new vision popular, the BJP will face more questions about its economic model than ever before.

Sources in the grand old party told The Wire that the first task that Rahul has set for himself is to make the political choice for people clear. “Right now, our understanding is that people who do not prefer the BJP feel that they do not have an alternative. Rahul’s idea is to make that alternative clear on both economic and social fronts. While people can choose between the BJP, representing politics of hate and authoritarianism, and the Congress, as the caravan of love and compassion, we want to make sure that our message to democratise economic growth and empower people in the process reaches the last person on the ground,” a senior Congress functionary told The Wire.

He added that Rahul’s vision will present an alternative to the BJP not only on social and economic fronts, but also on diplomatic strategy.

“The Congress’s diplomatic policy has always been more comprehensive. Our non-alignment policy was a resounding success. Even after that, we tried to engage with most global players and have refused to be seen in one camp. However, under Modi, India is increasingly being viewed as moving towards the US, which may put us in a tight spot. Modi’s domestic politics have portrayed China as an enemy state. We do not want that. We want to maintain cordial relations with both the US and China, and benefit from them.”

In fact, in many off-the-record conversations, Congress leaders have talked about Rahul’s deep interest in the China model and the way it has transformed its villages to small-scale manufacturing hubs. In his election speeches in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat too, his vision of co-operative economic growth resembled a model similar to China’s, which has been largely successful in generating jobs locally.

Challenges ahead

However, how the scattered Congress machinery will be able to advance this vision before the 2019 general elections is a significant question. After all, it is facing its worst-ever crisis even as the BJP has been at its responsive best and has successfully captured the imagination of people in large parts of India.

“No other party is placed well enough to challenge the BJP like the Congress. The party even today has a good ground-level presence in most states. A mix of strategies, which includes tactical issue-based alliances with the opposition and furthering Rahul’s vision, is what the Congress is thinking of doing at the moment,” the Congress functionary said.

But before the party can do that, Rahul will have to take bold steps to energise the party machinery on the ground. A series of defeats has demotivated much of its party cadre. If he is serious about his motto of decentralised governance systems, he will have to implement those in his party first. And that includes building strong regional leaderships in states, curating teams which are a good combination of energy and experience, and preparing his party for crucial assembly elections in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh next year, well ahead of time.