While he may have won the confidence of his party, he now has to work on winning the trust of the nation
The celebrations on the streets of Jaipur — and outside 10 Janpath in Delhi — on January 19 by Congress workers minutes after Rahul Gandhi was named vice president of the party may be dismissed as the usual orchestrated display of adulation. But there was nothing planned in the standing ovation Mr. Gandhi received the next day, when he moved the 1,600-odd members of the All-India Congress Committee (AICC) gathered at Jaipur’s Birla Auditorium to tears — and laughter — with his personalised exposition of the nature of power and hope.
In his eight-year-long political career, it was perhaps his first act of leadership, as he connected with a party whose members had been increasingly expressing their doubts about his capacity to reverse the Congress’s failing fortunes. On January 20, he didn’t just touch a chord in the young and restless, as he identified himself with their dreams and aspirations; he clearly surprised his hard-bitten seniors, too, who also struggled to their feet to cheer — and embrace — him.
Impact of speech
In revealing chilling details of a childhood, punctuated by tragedy, his mother’s fears for him and her warning that power is a poisoned chalice unless it is used to empower the powerless, he laid himself bare. For the intensely private Mr. Gandhi, a man who party colleagues say lacks the warmth and personal touch that father Rajiv Gandhi had, it must have been a difficult decision to get personal. But the impact of the revelations demonstrated that it was an inspired decision, one, Congress sources say, was taken in conjunction with sister Priyanka Gandhi.
His speech certainly pumped new energy into a party battered by charges of corruption, bewildered by a wave of social unrest, and demoralised by electoral failures. But after the charred debris of the crackers that were burst in celebration is swept away, the question that begs to be addressed is: can the tajposhi, coronation of Mr. Gandhi be a game changer for the Congress in the general election of 2014? Especially, as his track record in the last three years has been dismal? Two, can he change the system he criticised for being unresponsive to the aspirations of the people, and a Congress that privileges outsiders over party workers? His father Rajiv Gandhi made his electrifying “power brokers” speech at the Congress’s centenary session in Mumbai way back in 1985, but his son’s address to the AICC made clear that nothing had changed in 27 years.
Rise and fall in U.P.
Mr. Gandhi’s first five years in active politics after he was elected as a Member of Parliament in 2004 were relatively smooth: the spotlight was on mother Sonia Gandhi who had led the party to victory after eight years in the political wilderness, and then gained sainthood by refusing the prime ministership. When Mr. Gandhi began his political forays, contesting his first election from Amethi, and campaigning for fellow Congress candidates in Uttar Pradesh, those who filled village roads and balconies of mofussil towns didn’t want to know what he stood for, or whether he had a vision for U.P. A young good-looking Gandhi again symbolised hope, and the promise of the return of a family that had served the people well.
The first shock came in 2007, when the Congress won just 22 Assembly seats in U.P., three less than the 25 it got in 2002. But just two years later in 2009, it scooped up 22 Parliament seats in U.P., shocking its competitors. Mr. Gandhi was credited at the time for galvanising the youth vote, perfectly complementing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s image as the man who had steered India through a global economic downturn. It was the perfect launch pad for the young leader to build on the U.P. electorate’s verdict. But three years later, in the run-up to the U.P. Assembly elections, even though he was placed at the centre of the party’s campaign, the Congress won just 28 seats.
Ever since then, Mr. Gandhi became the butt of criticism — even though privately articulated — within the Congress. Party men mocked his efforts to democratise the youth wings of the party, criticised the fact that very few could get past a tight circle of advisers, and debunked his “scientific” method of choosing potential youth leaders through examinations. Unlike his mother, he does not understand Indian politics: that was the verdict of many party men, who pointed out how he often fell prey to advice from those who had a way with words rather than an understanding of politics. The contacts Rahul made with “real people” were carefully choreographed by his minders for maximum impact, making it almost impossible for him to get any unfiltered feedback.
Last year, in the midst of the U.P. elections, he revealed during an off-the-record conversation with a group of journalists that his desire to change things, to take decisions, was severely circumscribed by senior party leaders. Now, he can no longer duck behind that excuse. As party vice president, he will have a much larger role in decision-making, with the general secretaries now likely to report to him. As head of the five-man Election Coordination Committee which will oversee all party activities related to the next elections, his time begins now.
Using his new powers, can he sustain the uplifting mood he created in Jaipur, and create a winning strategy for 2014? He has won his first battle by rewinning the confidence of his party: he now has to win the trust of the nation.