In a thoughtful and combative speech delivered at Saturday’s session of the All-India Congress Committee, Rahul Gandhi combined vision with heart, seeking to enthuse the cadre at a time of debilitating crisis in his party. Mr. Gandhi’s address was remarkable for seamlessly connecting many strands of thought, but above all, for trying to establish the Congress as an idea indistinguishable from the idea of India. The Congress leader, so far viewed as an unwilling recruit to power politics, showcased his feisty and combative side, thereby not merely surprising pundits and political opponents, but enthusing a cadre disillusioned by the party’s recent record of inaction. The AICC session was scheduled in the backdrop of growing internal disquiet over the party’s seeming surrender before far more aggressive and focussed rivals. It was not so much the party’s dipping electoral fortunes that bothered the workers as much as perceived abdication by the leadership. In the event, and perhaps for the first time, the Congress vice-president placed himself in command, telling party foot-soldiers that he was ready to lead.
Mr. Gandhi gently but surely signalled to the old guard that the baton must pass on to the next generation; that a demographically young India deserved an aspirationally driven leadership. At the same time, he placed the Congress in a historical continuum, sketching its journey from pre-Independence struggles through milestones achieved in social reform while in governance, to its embrace of technology in the modern era. In doing so, he drew a distinction between the Congress and its rivals whom he lampooned for being all about form and no substance. The Congress had a constitutional vision, it straddled history and modernity with equal ease, and importantly, it was a party of ideas, Mr. Gandhi said. The Congress vice-president did not name the Aam Aadmi Party or the Bharatiya Janata Party but insinuated that while one practised ad hoc street politics disconnected from due process, the other was driven by the personality cult. The constitutional context came up yet again in Mr. Gandhi’s explanation for why he could not run for prime ministership: the Parliamentary Party leader had necessarily to be elected by the MPs. That the prognosis for the Congress is none too good in the upcoming general election is not hidden from anyone. The message Mr. Gandhi conveyed was that he will be there for his party through thick and thin, through any adversity. Not just this. He turned the corruption argument on its head by positioning the Congress as the party that enabled corruption to be exposed through empowering tools such as the Right to Information Act and the Lokpal Act. Mr. Gandhi has given the average Congress worker reason for hope at a time when there is very little going for her.