Missing leader. Muddled message. And a Congress that has conceded defeat without even the semblance of a fight
Missing leader. Muddled message. And a Congress that has conceded defeat without even the semblance of a fight
Minutes after Rahul Gandhi began his speech at the Congress Party’s Jaipur conclave early last year, it struck a senior Union minister that the Gandhi scion was as eloquent as his father Rajiv Gandhi was at the all- India Congress centenary session of 1985. The late PM had delivered his stunning ‘this-is-a-moment- consecrated-by-history’ speech to an audience that included, among others, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who died shortly after. “The excitement, the expectations, the dream… all looked similar,” said the minister.
No doubt, Rahul Gandhi, just elected Congress vice-president, spoke with gusto. And his mother, party president Sonia Gandhi, wiped her tears when the son invoked the sacrifices of the family. After a long apprenticeship in politics, he had arrived, thought the minister. So did many others, including a large section of the media. Congressmen looked up to the man who would keep alive the Nehru-Gandhi legacy—that showpiece of the party’s electoral prowess.
“I got carried away,” the minister now says, his gawky facial expression betraying his frustration at the prospect of losing the ongoing General Election. Then what was that about Rahul being the Congress’ future, the leader who could tide over anti-incumbency against a scam-scarred government led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh? What went wrong?
RAHUL VS PARTY
At a time when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was gaining in strength in Delhi, Rahul’s efforts to establish himself as a leader with a clean image ran deep. Through his ‘I am different from my party’ posturing, he also wanted to woo the ‘young and impatient’ India that he knew wanted change. But his endeavours and statements also rendered a devastating blow to the image of the UPA Government and the party’s senior leadership. In his bid to reform the Congress, he tried to surround himself with new faces, distancing himself from the party.
Several Congress leaders across states that Open spoke to say that the “whole machinery” of the party—which could have otherwise put up a good fight against the Narendra Modi-led BJP—was hobbled by Rahul Gandhi’s public censure of the Government last September over an ordinance meant to overrule the Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs. He called the ordinance “nonsense”, detaching himself from the wrongs of the UPA Government controlled by his own mother. The irony was evident, rendering his youth-aimed moral stance somewhat comic. It didn’t help at all that Rahul was aloof, inviting criticism that he is too introverted for politics and that he doesn’t have the patience required of politicians to hear arguments out. For instance, he walked out of last year’s Budget speech midway. A common refrain in Congress circles is that he doesn’t listen enough and comes up with unrelated subjects in the middle of a discussion. His approach to power, too, has been a subject of much curiosity. The man who could’ve become Prime Minister if he chose to in 2009 appeared reluctant to be a candidate for the post this time as well. “He is more comfortable sdoing things for people through his special status as a powerful person. He doesn’t want to be PM. Maybe because he was able to wield tremendous power without being in that position,” says a friend of Rahul.
Noted leadership coach Santosh Babu doesn’t see this as a strange behaviour. “His personality type is different from leaders who want to act collectively,” he notes, “His actions prove that he is entirely individualistic and therefore prefers to work independently of anyone.”
Whatever that is, Rahul’s drastic measures may not yield immediate results because the message looks muddled in the face of political expediency. A few Congress leaders close to Rahul justify this, saying that their leader is ready for the long-haul and is not looking for instant gains. Strangely, though, his party joined hands with tainted Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) leader Lalu Prasad, who would have been a beneficiary of the ordinance Rahul fought tooth and nail.
Rahul’s long-term plans may have resulted in collateral damage to the Congress for the time being, concedes a person who has closely worked with him.
Take, for example, the case of the Congress ‘war room’ in the time of polls. Set up two years ago by a former journalist and sponsored by Congress leader Bhupinder Hooda, it has a team of smart young men working hard to get the party’s message across and combat an onslaught on social-networking websites. “The ordinance incident changed everything. No one wanted to take a decision on their own for fear of incurring Rahul’s displeasure,” says a Congress activist.
The party’s new website, Inc.in, was created as early as May last year, but it became active only this February. The reason: a point-person hired by Rahul to vet the website wanted printouts of every page of the content, making the whole exercise cumbersome. It didn’t help that the man who was responsible for ‘scanning’ the website’s content was also busy distributing Lok Sabha tickets in a southern state. This disjointed leadership has also hurt the war room’s ability to function.
NEW POWER CENTRES
Another senior Congress leader based in Delhi says that, in the name of decentralisation, Rahul created his own ‘core team’ that ended up centralising power instead. The team includes the likes of Dr Mohan Gopal, director of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies; Sachin Rao, a Michigan Business school graduate who handles internal research; Deepender Singh Hooda, Bhupinder Hooda’s son; KB Byju, a former SPG officer; Kanishka Singh, his Wharton- educated close aide; Jitendra Singh and Meenakshi Natarajan, both MPs; Haryana Congress chief Ashok Thanwar; and such usual suspects as Jairam Ramesh and Digvijaya Singh.
Rahul Gandhi’s oft-stated aim has been to rebuild the Congress organisation from scratch—and he has indeed put in place ambitious schemes to enlist youngsters and hire grassroots-level workers. However, the kith and kin of the powerful old guard continue to be his closest leaders. “His plans have clearly boomeranged in the short term. Dynasts continue to surround him. I hope he gets to make a change in the long run,” says another party functionary close to Rahul.
Professor John Echeverri-Gent of Virginia University, who has closely studied how India’s first family has maintained its hold over the 129-year-old party, feels that, as of now, “however well meaning, Rahul has failed to show the mettle of great political leadership”. He is of the view that at a time when Sonia Gandhi has lost energy due to ill-health and age and Rahul’s political leadership has not managed to meet the challenge posed by Modi, the Congress appears to be headed for a decisive defeat and severe crisis.
Political pundits forecast that banking merely on pro-poor schemes would cost Rahul dearly in this Lok Sabha election. After all, the ‘young and impatient’ whom he has vowed to woo aren’t pleased with government handouts and sundry doles. They are keen on policies that generate jobs and promote entrepreneurship. MGNREGA, the flagship programme of the UPA which has for sure saved lives in many villages, has come under attack from various quarters for destroying India’s rural work culture by encouraging ‘lazy labour behaviour’. Analysts also point out that not having pitched himself as a prime ministerial candidate against Modi was seen as Rahul’s sign of unpreparedness and lack of initiative.
RESISTANCE TO CHANGE
It comes as no surprise to students of Congress history that Rahul’s organisational reform steps are being frowned upon. In fact, the Congress has never been a monolithic organisation, having transformed itself to wring out the old and ring in the new over the decades. When an inexperienced Rajiv Gandhi took over the party and Union Government in 1984, the old guard raised eyebrows—and even protested—at the cultural shift within the party and Government. Rajiv promoted his school buddies, hired experts and ushered in a culture that went against the DNA of the Congress at the time, packed as it was with senior leaders who balked at non-politicians taking charge of governance and calling the shots. Several leaders who had close ties with corporate groups were aghast that the new dispensation didn’t consider such ‘old ties’ sacred. It’s an altogether different matter that middlemen and corporate lobbyists eventually had their way. But there was a paradigm shift in the way India’s Government went about its work. Even Rajiv’s emphasis on computer education was resisted by senior leaders within the party who poked fun at the late PM, calling him a ‘computer boy’.
Similarly, when PV Narasimha Rao kickstarted India’s economic reforms in 1991, he did it rather forcibly, employing stealth as a strategy. Widespread condemnation of liberalisation within the party was led by the likes of veteran minister Arjun Singh, who portrayed it as an abandonment of the Congress’ so-called socialist values. Rao, a shrewd politician, undertook the task of radically altering the system by maintaining secrecy and by letting a small group of people handle decisions. It was as Prime Minister, armed with the Commerce portfolio, that he started dismantling the Licence Raj and adopting free market principles. Despite a serious economic crisis at the time, there was much resistance within the party—given Nehru’s ‘mixed economy’ legacy—and many insiders say it was Rao who persuaded the then Finance Minister Manmohan Singh to push ahead. According to former Congress leader Natwar Singh, the “greatness” of liberalising India was thrust upon Singh by the media while it was Rao who deserves the credit.
ADVANTAGES OF DYNASTY
Over the past six decades, the Nehru-Gandhi family has offered the Congress the symbolic—often, just recall—value it has needed to appeal to a country characterised by diversity. It has also offered the party a measure of unity, and with it, freedom from the sometimes tortuous process of electing a leader. “Thanks to the family, the leadership issue is always settled,” notes Jawaharlal Nehru University Professor Gupreet Mahajan. While other parties spend a lot of time and energy in choosing their chiefs, the Congress can do without—and this provides the party with “some kind of certainty” vis-a-vis the political process, though it goes against the grain of politics in a democracy, Mahajan adds.
Interestingly, one of Rahul’s major concerns has been lack of “strong, well-connected” leaders for the party. Which is why people close to the 43-year-old say that he is looking at refurbishing the organisation to groom “some 40-50 leaders” who can lead the country—even though the outcome of his efforts so far, others argue, has been starkly the opposite.
In the assessment of Natwar Singh, who has worked closely with Indira Gandhi, Rajiv and Sonia before he fell out with the party’s high command, power is much “more centralised” in the Congress than ever. Unlike in the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and even Rajiv, he rues, far fewer Congressmen have access to top leaders now. “If a senior minister has to meet Sonia, more often than not, he is directed to meet Rahul. In the days of Indira, any MP or politician from any party could easily meet the top leader to either air grievances or make suggestions,” he states, adding, “This has hurt the party very badly within.” Singh recalls that even leaders considered close to Nehru could demand the ouster of his Man Friday VK Krishna Menon. “Even in Ms Gandhi’s time, suggestions could be made by anyone. This is no longer the case,” he says. “There is no access [available] at all, except to loyalists.”
True, times have changed and there is tremendous competition among parties in India, agrees Mahajan. Unlike in the time of Nehru, Indira or Rajiv, the Congress is no longer the rainbow coalition it used to be with loyal vote-bases of Muslims, Dalits and Brahmins, she says. The party’s weakening, without doubt, is the cumulative impact of the emergence of strong regional parties and others such as AAP.
In betting circuits, the odds are stacked against his victory. Congress leaders, however, close to Rahul are dismissive of such trends. They reiterate that he is not ‘actually’ concerned about this election. “He is here to set things right in the Congress rivetted by corruption and weak organisation. He knows very well that it takes time. Whoever is underestimating him is doing it at a disadvantage. He will do very well in the opposition,” says a person close to the family.
Nevertheless, the air of resignation within the party finds reflection in the satta bazaars of Delhi, Ahmedabad and Mumbai. Various reports suggest that several bookies have stopped taking bets on Rahul. Until a month ago, some of them were offering about Rs 6-7 for every rupee bet on Rahul Gandhi as India’s next PM. The odds seem to have steepened since. Modi, meanwhile, has established an unassailable lead in these satta alleys. The odds for Modi’s becoming PM have shortened: just 20 paise. This means if he becomes PM this May, anyone who bets Rs 1 lakh on this outcome will get Rs 1.20 lakh back. Rahul has some cause for cheer, though: he has better odds than AAP leader Arvind Kejriwal, for whom the going rate is Rs 500-525.
“This says nothing about the likely outcome. We have been around for the past 10 years, but we could not combat the Modi-led campaign, which was based on polarising the electorate along communal lines. This will give them an advantage this time round. But the Congress under Rahul will come back with renewed vigour,” hopes a senior Cabinet minister. He insists that the problem at hand for the party— more than a weak organisation—is its failure to showcase its achievements. “Let’s not forget that since time immemorial, top politicians have had good teams to spread their message. If you read history, even the most humble of leaders—for instance, Abraham Lincoln—had a strong PR network. We did do well on that front, while our rivals spent huge sums of money on advertising to stay ahead in the race,” he offers. This Congress leader also seeks to blame Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for not being assertive enough. “Our government didn’t act tough on corruption,” he adds, “Our government was soft towards erring allies.”
Perhaps the party’s blame game has already begun in anticipation of a rout at the hustings. The second Congress functionary close to Rahul says that Priyanka Gandhi will step in “as an interface” between the Congress leadership and Rahul Gandhi “to act as a buffer” if the party has internal revolts after the polls. “You see, Priyanka’s importance within the party is growing,” he says without elaboration.
Princeton University Professor Atul Kohli hopes that the setback for the Congress in this election, as poll surveys indicate, might well push the ‘dynasty’ aside and open the party to new and better leadership.
Counters the Congress minister, “On the other hand, any poll defeat will only strengthen Rahul’s position—because at no other time will the Congress more need the strong leadership he can offer.” Then, after a long meditative pause, he adds, “You can’t judge a leader based on one election alone. Rahul has fire in the belly.” He also says he doesn’t subscribe to the theory, well known in corporate circles, that family enterprises weaken after the third generation. “Congress is not a corporate entity,” he explains.
This leader may be right, but for the time being, there isn’t much for his party to cheer about.