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Shantanu Bhattacharji: The 10 labours of Rahul Gandhi

The Gandhi scion must focus on asserting his role as a leader of his party - and of the masses

Shantanu Bhattacharji 

Has he given any fresh food for thought to the party leadership at the “Chintan Shivir” in Jaipur? Or, was it just old wine in a new (read emotive) bottle? Has Rahul Gandhi done anything tangible to alter the grand old party’s style of functioning? Stupid, it was a speech!

The newly elected vice-president of the Congress delivered his speech against a backdrop of persistent complaints that few knew what he stood for. For years, he displayed an aloofness and disinterest that drove Congressmen to the edge of despair. Rahul concluded his speech by saying, “For me, the Congress Party is now my life.” It obliquely admits the worries expressed earlier about Rahul having made up his mind to be in public life.

The biggest problem of the Congress is: it is once reformist, but twice shy. A handful of senior leaders in the Congress is convinced that reforms can bring forth electoral gains. There is no effort made to persuade the people of India, especially those in rural areas, that economic reforms will also bring to them welfare — that wealth-making can be every Indian’s dream. The cold rationality of economic reforms can be connected to the emotions of the people. This requires a change of mindset, not the system.

At present, India’s oldest political party has nothing credible and convincing to offer the people of the country. It has no message to take to the people. The Congress is still directionless in policy matters. Here is a classic example: Congress boss Sonia Gandhi’s call to end nepotism from the same stage on which her son was crowned a day earlier. With general elections about a year — or maybe a little more — away, will India take the mother-son duo’s rhetoric seriously? His powerful surname and relative youth make him the Congress’ main hope for elections in 2014.

Business Standard takes off the blinkers and shows Rahul Gandhi the bumpy road ahead...

  1. The 42-year-old leader has to establish a disconnect between the party’s old-school outlook and the larger aspirations of today’s assertive youth force. Congress workers want political heavyweights to lead the party in Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and many other states. 
  2. The corruption that has reached the highest levels in the Congress surely belongs to a bigger league. The refusal of the party and the government to acknowledge this fact has been made worse by their arrogance towards the common citizenry. Rahul must showcase some big-bang punitive actions against the corrupt. 
  3. Rahul faces a potential adversary in Narendra Modi — should the saffron party project him as its prime ministerial candidate. He still seems somehow stuck in the image of a youth leader discovering India rather than one ready to lead it. Modi has proved to be an able administrator. Rahul has a number of failures in his political career and has been at the receiving end, not only from the Opposition but even United Progressive Alliance (UPA’s) allies. He has failed as a strategist, which was visible during 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly polls where he campaigned aggressively. In Bihar, too, Rahul proved to be a dampener. However, the Hindutva poster boy has superbly projected himself as the “messiah” of “development”. 
  4. The party cannot regain its lost glory without winning back the backward classes, Dalits and tribals, especially in the Hindi heartland. Any drastic policy change will further antagonise the party’s traditional vote bank. 
  5. Rahul needs an immediate image makeover. He must be seen as a no-nonsense politician. The days of identity politics are not over, and he can even learn the art of social engineering from United States President Barack Obama. Opportunities have presented themselves to Rahul in the past couple of years but he failed to grab them. When Sonia Gandhi went overseas for the treatment of a serious ailment, he could have taken charge and confronted the anti-graft campaigners, such as Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. 
  6. The leader of the young brigade in the Congress needs a scalpel, and not a cleaver, to cut the credibility crisis facing the party thanks to corruption scandals and perceptions of inefficient governance. A central theme as well as a slogan are needed before the 2014 general election that would encapsulate the party’s emphasis on welfare and employment generation, on the lines of Indira Gandhi’s famed “garibi hatao”. He has to explain to the aam aadmi the reasons for the ceaseless rise in the prices of essentials, unpopular decisions such as the liquefied petroleum gas (LPG) subsidy cap, and the eruption of so many corruption scandals. 
  7. To galvanise the rank and file, the party must stop giving prominence to turncoats. Loyalists feel that leaders defecting from other parties are too readily given official posts or election tickets. Those who came from outside and occupied key positions in the Congress include P Chidambaram, Jaipal Reddy, Sanjay Nirupam, Mohan Prakash and Raj Babbar. 
  8. In his speech, Rahul reminded the party – and the country – of the personal losses suffered by the Nehru-Gandhi family. It may prove counterproductive as focusing too much on tragedies can invite charges of exploiting such issues. “… power is poison… ” — it will keep the urban voters wondering to what length he will go to personally lead a government if and when the opportunity presents itself before the party again. 
  9. Experts say he has an urge to improve the lives of poor Indians, but no real idea of doing so. He must show some hard-core skills as a leader before campaigning starts in 2014. He must set short- and long-terms goals for the party and for himself, as well. It should select 250-300 winnable constituencies and devote disproportionate resources for them. 
  10. Rahul has many challenges and the clock is ticking fast towards the May, 2014 general polls. He has to act as an interface between party workers across the country, strike a bond with present and future UPA allies and justify every action the Manmohan Singh government takes under a grim economic situation and coalition compulsions.

It’s a cliché: nothing succeeds like success and Rahul’s future depends on the party’s success in winning the coming Assembly polls in nine states, keeping workers’ motivation high and bringing an element of moral value in every UPA-Congress action. To just think in Jaipur is not enough.

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First Published: Wed, January 23 2013. 00:40 IST