Irrespective of election results, power is changing hands from the old guard in both the Congress and the BJP
Whatever the outcome of the general election, one thing is certain: power is slowly and surely shifting from the old guard in both principal parties. If in the Congress, often accused of dynastic politics, the generational change is a conscious process set in motion by the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as vice-president on January 19, 2013, in the Bharatiya Janata Party camp, the shift was signalled by Narendra Modi’s nomination as the prime ministerial candidate. In the Congress, Mr. Gandhi is considered the natural legatee of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage but in the BJP, there is a quiet struggle between the old guard that feel sidelined and the emerging new order.
The celebrations on the streets of Jaipur — and outside 10 Janpath in Delhi — by Congress workers minutes after Mr. Gandhi was named vice-president signalled the party’s entry into a new era. His address the next day at the AICC session at Jaipur’s Birla Auditorium was perhaps his first act of leadership, amidst doubts about his capacity to boost the party’s sagging fortunes.
But 16 months on, as Mr. Gandhi faces his first major test since then — the ongoing general election — there is disappointment: he has failed to change the narrative of corruption, policy paralysis and high prices associated with a decade of UPA rule. .
The question now being asked is: if the Congress faces its worst-ever defeat — as opinion polls suggest — will it hamper the process of generational change? No, say senior party sources, stressing that the transition set in motion has its own logic, and regardless of the poll outcome, the coming months will see the Congress getting younger.
“When Rahulji became vice president, his responsibilities increased but decision-making remained a collective process even though his word carried more weight than before — and Sonia Gandhi continued to have the final say,” a senior functionary told The Hindu, adding, “But after the elections, Rahulji will have not just the responsibilities but also full authority.”
Mr. Gandhi had the stated aim of keeping a balance between experience and youth in the party. To him, democratisation of the youth and student wings, the primaries for some Lok Sabha seats, and the selection of women and young candidates were all instances of the party’s effort in that direction: A third of the LS candidates were “young talented, young faces with a good record… Many like IYC national president Rajeev Satav, and Karnataka PYC president Rizwan Arshad have come up through our youth organisations.”
Earlier this year, three Gen Next leaders were appointed chiefs of States, where the party faced a rout in last year’s Assembly elections, as part Mr. Gandhi’s long-term plan to rebuild the Congress — MLA Arvinder Singh Lovely (45) in Delhi, MoS for Corporate Affairs Sachin Pilot (36) in Rajasthan and MP and former Union MoS for Heavy Industries and then for Agriculture Arun Yadav (40) in Madhya Pradesh. In Haryana, which will face State elections later this year, MP and former IYC chief Ashok Tanwar (37) is the new boss.
Another major indicator that power is shifting from Congress president Sonia Gandhi to Rahul Gandhi is the enlarged role in the party of his younger, more charismatic sibling over the last six months.
Priyanka Gandhi Vadra is playing a critical, behind-the-scenes role for the party in the ongoing general election, even as her brother and mother are fronting the Congress campaign. Indeed, she has had a substantive say in everything, from strategy, speeches and selection of candidates to alliances and fine-tuning the party line for the media to building Brand Rahul, one that goes well beyond her role in 2009 of managing only Rae Bareli and Amethi.
Over to the rival camp.Over to the rival camp. “Parivartan aparivartanye niyam hai [change is the only constant],” saying this at a function in New Delhi recently, Mohan Bhagwat, head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the BJP’s ideological bedrock, delivered a twin message — it was time for a generational shift in the party, and there was no place for opposition to this change.
The Gujarat Chief Minister’s elevation as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013 was seen as the first sign that a newer crop of leaders would lead the saffron brigade into the 2014 general election. It was however; the subsequent treatment of veterans L.K. Advani, Murli Manohar Joshi, Yashwant Singh, Lalji Tandon and Jaswant Singh (now expelled) that confirmed the “generational shift.”
When party president Rajnath Singh announced Mr. Modi’s name, Mr. Advani stayed away and expressed his views in a blog. Leaders who led the charge in 2009 were kept guessing about the roles they would essay in 2014, some even had to struggle to retain their ticket and positions in the party’s pecking order.
The party itself downplays the shift but it became fodder for the Opposition, particularly the Congress, which itself has been reaching out to the younger generation by projecting a “youthful leader”. The Congress attacked the BJP for sidelining and mistreating its elders, for making room at the top by pushing out the old guard who built the BJP from the old Jan Sangh.
The BJP had to deny the allegations. Mr. Modi, accused of turning the BJP into a “one-man party”, spoke about how it had reached its present state by riding on the shoulders of hard work by four generations of leaders.
His words may cut no ice with senior members who feel they were neither consulted on nor considered for ticket distribution. From oblique comments through social media to stark consternation, these leaders brought contentious issues out in the open.
The generational shift acquires more meaning and is seen as more critical for the BJP as it comes at a time when first-time voters and youth are predicted to sway the election outcome. And Mr. Modi with his ideas of a developed India, a robust economy, jobs, employment avenues and a promise of achche din (good days) has caught the attention of the youth, for whom experience, seniority or orthodox views are not prerequisites for a leader.