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Rahul Gandhi elected Congress president: Can he challenge PM Modi?

If he succeeds, he will fashion the Congress party into a viable challenger for Narendra Modi's BJP; if he fails, India will be staring at a virtual one party democracy for the foreseeable future

Rohit Pradhan 

Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi while addressing a rally in Goa.

Rahul Gandhi has been elected the Congress president today. 89 nominations were received by the party and all were found to be valid. All 89 nominations named Rahul Gandhi as candidate, according to the party. He succeeds his mother, who led the Congress party to power against expectations in the year 2004. As continues to hold sway over India and as politics has moved right of centre in its nature, can Rahul Gandhi succeed in reviving the Congress and mounting a challenge to Modi's BJP? The writer looks at the challenge that he faces in this Business Standard special.

The oldest running joke in India finally has a denouement: will Rahul Gandhi ever accept the mantle of the Congress presidentship? For his dwindling crowd of supporters, Gandhi’s reluctance was an expression of a dynast uncomfortable with his privilege; for his detractors, it merely embodied his princely refusal to accept responsibility. But now the dust finally settles and Rahul Gandhi is the new official leader of India’s oldest political party and its significant heritage.

But even a cursory perusal of the political landscape would give Rahul Gandhi pause. remains popular despite policy missteps like demonetsation and the rocky roll-out of goods and services tax (GST). Though Congress appears to have recovered from its post 2014 stupor, it is currently in power in only two major states. Recent polls in Gujarat may give the Congress party some hope but the state will probably be a bridge too far. Karnataka follows in 2018 which the Congress simply cannot afford to lose. The Congress is still playing electoral defense as India approaches the end of Modi’s first term. And that has to change quickly if it is to harbor any hopes of surviving the Modi era. There are three principal challenges facing the new Congress president as he prepares for the crucial 2019 elections.

First—-and this may appear flippant—-to be taken seriously. In the last few years, Rahul Gandhi has been reduced to an epithet; the most charitable reading suggests that he is a reluctant politician forced to carry forward the family legacy. Congress sympathizers would no doubt point out that Gandhi has lately discovered his voice---he has coined some catchy slogans, and most importantly, is consistently engaged in politics.

Nevertheless, if Gandhi appears ascendant, it is only because he has failed even the most sympathetic expectations. In Narendra Modi, he faces a politician who is switched on 24/7 and is a preternaturally talented communicator. Can the Gandhi scion accept the new reality that old arrogance of central leadership micro-managing state units is simply unsustainable in Modi’s India? And if Modi wins 2019—-as it still appears likely—-can he hold onto the various Congress factions increasingly restive outside the familiar comports of power? This is not a political party and a dynasty which is used to being bested and Rahul Gandhi would need to summon all his powers of perseverance and resolve to ensure that Congress remains a united political front. There simply cannot be any more unexplained disappearances or foreign vacations; politics must be Rahul Gandhi’s only obsession. Is that fair? No. But it is a minor sacrifice for the opportunity to shape the destination of the world’s youngest major nation. And Gandhi must remember: dynastic credentials are the only reason why he has the opportunity in the first place. Now he must earn the privilege he so unfairly enjoys. Finally, the quixotic Gandhi endeavor to shape the Congress party into some sort of perpetually agitated NGO must end forthwith. The only way political parties earn the right to influence society is by capturing power. There can simply be no bigger consideration.

Second, craft an agenda which marries Congress’ left-of-center narrative with an appeal to the more aspirational India. Nothing Gandhi has articulated in the last three years is markedly different from what the UPA practiced during its two terms. If anything, he has moved further towards the Left with his tired clichés about Modi government being a government of the rich. It is no one’s argument that Gandhi needs to become a free market warrior; Indian politics is essentially a contestation of the various shades of economic red. But even here a more sustained acknowledgment of middle class interests beyond extending meaningless and counterproductive doles is essential. Consider Modi government’s absolutely shabby record on job creation. How will Rahul Gandhi address that? What about the agrarian crisis where Gandhi has made a lot of noise but has said very little of substance. Stoking class resentment maybe less useful than Gandhi and his advisors think.

Modi may be a cultural ideologue but he is an economic pragmatist. As demonetization showed, Modi can play the class resentment game as well as anyone else and he is acutely aware of the need to protect his populist flank. 2019 is not an election which the Congress can win on default mode merely hoping that the belied promise of *acche din*’will deliver Delhi on a platter. It would require at least some degree of policy innovation and risk taking. Rahul Gandhi must demonstrate that.

Third, and from the perspective of the Indian Republic, the biggest challenge: how to develop an agenda of secularism in a polity which has decidedly moved towards the Right? Indian secularism may have been mostly an exercise in cynical real politik but at least it provided a participatory window for minorities and offered a chimera of equal citizenship. In merely three years, Modi has destroyed the consensus of the Nehruvian republic and replaced it with a muscular nationalism which is decidedly Hindu in its substance and increasingly in appearance. The India of 2017 is Modi’s India. Where the argument is no longer about fixing the infirmities of Indian secularism but to celebrate the demise of the ideal of secular republic. Where the most popular English news channels—-long the stranglehold of deracinated liberals—-are indistinguishable from Sudarshan TV.

Politically, it places the Congress party in a precarious position. If it bats for minority interests, it would be accused of letting down nationalism; if it doesn’t, then it would only further disenfranchise Indian minorities leaving them vulnerable to the appeal of denominational parties. In Gujarat, it has taken the easy route by emphasizing Rahul Gandhi’s supposed Hindu-ness while carefully avoiding mentioning any issue which may be construed as even remotely Muslim-centric. But as Arun Jaitley acidly observed: why would voters choose a clone when they have the option of a real Hindutva-party?

There are no easy answers here but perhaps Amarinder Singh in Punjab has shown the way. He has adroitly threaded the needle between Sikh and Indian nationalisms while loudly proclaiming against the vestigial Khalistani elements. And while Captain’s approach may disappoint the academic liberals, politically it is the only sensible approach the Congress can adopt. Whether Rahul Gandhi can navigate this exceedingly tough challenge which may have defeated even politicians far more talented than him remains to be seen.

It might sound absurd but Rahul Gandhi deserves credit for finally accepting the formal responsibility of being the Congress leader. That is how low the bar has been set. Now he has to perform. If he succeeds, he will fashion the Congress party into a viable challenger for Narendra Modi’s BJP; if he fails, India will be staring at a virtual one party democracy for the foreseeable future.

Rohit Pradhan writes about politics and policy. He tweets as @retributions

Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal. They do not reflect the view/s of Business Standard.

First Published: Tue, December 12 2017. 08:11 IST