Three days after the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) anointed Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for 2014, the Congress’s top three leaders, party president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party vice-president Rahul Gandhi, visited Uttar Pradesh’s strife-torn Muzaffarnagar district, to comfort and promise justice to those in the refugee camps.
It was a noteworthy appearance. While the Prime Minister and Ms Gandhi have often travelled together to meet survivors of disasters, manmade or natural, such as after the devastating Uttarakhand floods, or to the inauguration of major projects, this was one of the first occasions — barring party functions — at which all three showed up.
The message: the Congress stands in solidarity with all those who lost loved ones, homes and livelihoods — and since most of the victims were Muslims, with the minorities.
It was also meant to signal a difference from Mr. Modi’s backers, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliates which, ground reports suggest, played a leading role in provoking the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar; and an admonition to the Samajwadi Party government that allowed a local crime to balloon into a conflagration.
But, equally significantly, the picture of the three was also intended to convey an understated — if uncommunicative — style of leadership, one the Congress doesn’t appear to want to change even though Mr. Modi’s flamboyant, I-me-myself manner is apparently gaining traction, especially in urban India.
If Mr. Modi had to claw his way up to being named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Mr. Gandhi has been the Congress’s unofficial PM-in-waiting for some years now — and continues to be as Ms Gandhi made it plain in 2004 that she was not interested in high office. The party already has a sitting Prime Minister in Dr. Singh who the leadership is unwilling to retire. And realistically, there is no fourth candidate — at least one that is acceptable to the party — in sight.
Pitch for 2014
If the Congress finds its strategy limited by mounting anti-incumbency, exacerbated by economic distress, administrative paralysis and communication failure, its style is dictated by what it projects as its tradition and its core beliefs.
What does the Congress then have to offer the voting public? It believes it has the successes of its pluralist, inclusive credo that brought some comfort to the people after the tension of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance years, and the successes of its social welfare agenda. Indeed, when the recent Parliament session ended, the focus was on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government’s achievement in pushing through laws on food security, land acquisition and manual scavenging. Briefly, the spotlight was off inflation, spiralling onion prices and the financial scandals that have beset the UPA government in its second tenure. But that respite is now over, with a clutch of key Assembly polls later this year and parliamentary elections barely eight months away.
The spotlight is on Mr. Modi, and opinion polls are pointing to a dismal electoral outcome for the Congress; under these circumstances, the Congress believes it can only gain by contrast in style and content. In leadership, it will hold out modesty against self-promotion; in philosophy, pluralism against Hindutva.
The task of bringing pluralism and inclusiveness centre stage has been made easier with Mr. Modi and the BJP apparently junking the Gujarat model of development for their tried and tested communal agenda.
In recent months, there has been a significant rise in Hindu-Muslim clashes, with the BJP and RSS affiliates playing a leading role.
If the Bajrang Dal played a key role in the violence in Jammu’s Kishtwar district, mobs which went on the rampage in Bihar’s Bettiah and Nawada (after the ruling Janata Dal-United government severed ties with the BJP) and those who made inflammatory speeches at the Jat mahapanchayat in U.P.’s Muzaffarnagar district on September 7 all shouted slogans in support of Narendra Modi.
So, as BJP leaders daily challenge the Congress to name its prime ministerial candidate, the latter remains determined not to be drawn into what it describes as an attempt to convert a parliamentary contest into a presidential one.
Indeed, party booklets on food security and land acquisition, a senior Congress functionary pointed out to The Hindu, “provides the cue”: photographs of Dr. Singh, Ms Gandhi and Mr. Gandhi are on them, just as they were on the posters for the 2009 general election.
“If we removed Dr. Singh’s photograph from the posters,” the functionary said, “it would amount to disowning the last nine and a half years. We are, after all, going to elections on the record of UPA One and Two. So, we have to strongly defend the government.”
On Rahul Gandhi
Does that mean that the Congress has ruled out the possibility of naming a prime ministerial candidate? For the party’s old guard, the fact that the Congress has the tradition of an established leadership, unlike the BJP where the jockeying for power is not over, is enough. Sonia Gandhi is the unchallenged leader, they say, and it is she who will decide who the party’s prime ministerial nominee is.
Undoubtedly, younger leaders have a stake in fast-forwarding the transition set in motion at the Congress’s chintan baithak in Jaipur in January this year, when Mr. Gandhi was named vice-president. Since then, he has taken on many more organisational responsibilities, but as a party insider put it, the division of authority — if not responsibility — between mother and son is 80:20.
If the Congress miraculously does well in the Assembly elections, at least retaining two or three of the five States, there will be a demand, from the younger lot in the party, perhaps, a general secretary said to name Mr. Gandhi as the party’s prime ministerial candidate. But even that seems unlikely.
A majority in the Congress still appear to trust Ms Gandhi’s political instincts and leadership more than that of her son: Mr. Gandhi is yet to win his spurs.