Rahul Gandhi’s gaze appears to be on a distant future rather than the general election less than two months away
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi — at the time party general secretary — smiled down at voters from billboards ahead of the general election in 2009, theirs was the picture of a Happy Family. Dr. Singh’s decisiveness in pushing through the Indo-U.S. civil nuclear deal and his deft stewardship of the economy made him the first choice of the middle class, established and aspirational, ensuring he was the party’s prime ministerial candidate again.
The competition, in sharp contrast, looked tired and grim: former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, long out of the public eye, prime ministerial nominee L.K. Advani, recalling the past rather than beckoning to the future, and party president Rajnath Singh, little known outside party circles, shared space on the Bharatiya Janata Party hoardings, the trio holding little hope and less promise.The tables turned
Today, five years on, inflation and corruption have taken the sheen off the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, the Aam Aadmi Party has created a strong anti-politician sentiment, and the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, has replaced the current Prime Minister in the affections of the middle class and, more significantly, of corporate India. In the wings is a scrappy challenger, the AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal.
It is Dr. Singh who looks weary now, and Ms Gandhi, though still the final arbiter (she remains the prime moving force in key decisions — the food security legislation and the division of Andhra Pradesh to name two), has clearly left the stage to Mr. Gandhi, the Congress’s de facto, but not de jure, prime ministerial candidate.
It is Mr. Gandhi who now holds meetings of party Chief Ministers, general secretaries and recently, even an informal one of the Congress Working Committee. There have also been well-publicised meetings with different interest groups — minorities, women, dalits, tribals, fishermen, even rickshawallas — seeking suggestions on the manifesto. Credit has been assigned to him for the government’s decision on the one rank, one pension demand of ex-servicemen. During the last few days, the national capital even witnessed much behind-the-scenes drama as Mr. Gandhi tried — or so the party indicated — to convince the government to clear a bunch of ordinances on anti-graft measures in the face of resistance from the Union Cabinet and the disapproval of President Pranab Mukherjee.
But Mr. Gandhi is still not playing an active role, say in attracting coalition partners, critical for the beleaguered Congress. His gaze appears to be on a distant future rather than the general election less than two months away. Indeed, he appears to be currently engaged more in “democratising” the Congress and less in working on a plan to retain power, much to the dismay of a majority of his colleagues. For a party that increasingly “works in silos,” as a Congress functionary described it graphically, it means that barring a closed group of associates, even top leaders confess that they don’t know if there is a strategy as yet.
If the older generation of leaders, who still hold key positions in the party, are the most dispirited as retirement looms large, even young leaders, especially those who will be seeking re-election as MPs, are on the edge. Indeed, I was stunned when a youthful tech-savvy MP told me that he didn’t wish to see another spread sheet in his life, a reference to Mr. Gandhi’s fondness for statistics, questionnaires, paperwork, and the fact that he often appears to be one step removed from politics as it is practised. A senior leader who has been in the party for over four decades told The Hindu that the last time the Congress witnessed such a dramatic transition was when Sanjay Gandhi joined the party; the difference is that there is far greater confusion on what direction the party is going to take and the organisation is in far poorer shape now. For those changes to be taking place in the midst of an election, perhaps the toughest the Congress has faced in its 128-year-old history, has made it that much more bewildering for its members. The refrain among party MPs is: “We have put down our weapons before the battle.”Building Brand Rahul
If there has been any response from the Congress so far, it has been the recent advertising blitz, with the achievements of the decade-old UPA government separated from the building of Brand Rahul Gandhi. The Bharat Nirman ads that feature the Prime Minister and the Congress president, who is also the UPA chairperson, celebrate the government’s accomplishments on the social and economic fronts, largely through the creation of a rights-based framework. A second set revolve around Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, young people, and the future.
In past elections, the Congress had held out its “hand” to the poor (Congress ka haath, garib ke saath) and then to the common man (Congress ka haath, aam aadmi ke saath). The Rahul Gandhi ads, however, announce an end to the era of patronage with the recurring catch line, “Har haath shakti, har haath tarakki” (empowerment and progress for every person). The themes vary. If “Tore nahin, jore” (unite, don’t divide), “Kattar soch nahin, yuva josh” (youthful enthusiasm, not hardline thinking) and “Main nahin, hum” (we, not I) are aimed at the BJP and Mr. Modi, “Rajneeti nahin, kaajneeti” (work culture, not politics), “Arajkta nahin, prashasan sudhar” (governance reforms, not anarchy) and “Nasihaten nahin, nateeje” (results, not sermons) are warnings to AAP supporters.
Can the building of Brand Rahul Gandhi alone constitute a strategy? In 2004, the Congress punctured the BJP-led NDA government’s India Shining project and Sonia Gandhi led her troops from the front. In 2009, the BJP was still in disarray and the UPA government had a solid record of governmental achievements to bank on. In 2014, the Congress has yet to produce a plan that will turn the attention away from the bad news to a convincing promise of a better future.