Rahul Gandhi's biggest challenge

Beyond the optics, Rahul Gandhi needs to get down to the task of not just strategising to win elections, but of seizing the initiative and anticipating the big issues

Updated - November 22, 2017 12:02 pm IST

Published - November 22, 2017 01:02 am IST

An era in the Congress will end in early December when Sonia Gandhi, its longest serving president, steps down to make way for Rahul Gandhi and the next generation. In 1998, she had taken up the position more out of a desire to preserve the family legacy in the Congress, rather than to wield power. She was the dowager queen who would keep the seat warm for her son. But in the end, she did much more than that: she grew into the job, led the party and its campaigns from the front and ensured the 10 uninterrupted years in power at the Centre — no mean achievement.

Highs and lows

In 2004, Ms. Gandhi chose not to become become Prime Minister, lest it give the Opposition a rallying point. Instead, she nominated Manmohan Singh as Prime Minister, earning herself a place in history. Even though her style was consensus-driven, she proved she had sharp political instincts. She also worked hard on her speeches, carefully chose her policy interventions, and today has the respect of the entire political class.

On the flip side, though the Congress remains intact — despite some noteworthy departures — it is at a historical low. The party has not just conceded political space but it has been hollowed out ideologically. It now rules in six States/Union Territory. This includes Himachal Pradesh that went to the polls earlier this month, with counting of votes on December 18. Worker morale continues to be low, and apart from the initiatives like the Professionals’ Congress or the Adivasi Congress, and the appointment of some new functionaries, there has been no major organisational upgrade.

It is against this backdrop that the 47-year-old Mr. Gandhi is to take over the Congress. Over the last few months, he has begun to sound better on the stump, while campaigning in Himachal Pradesh and currently in Gujarat, giving his followers hope that he may emerge as the man who can take on Mr. Modi in 2019, even though that will have to be at the head of a Congress-led coalition. He is beginning to get a more favourable public reception, not merely because people are now beginning to look for an alternative but because his speeches appear to be better thought out, with a sprinkling of one-liners that have easy recall. This, in turn, has been a confidence-booster for Mr. Gandhi and is beginning to get reflected in the social media, a space that the Bharatiya Janata Party had been dextrously occupying. There is a fightback, so much so that BJP president Amit Shah warned the youth of Gujarat in September “to beware of the Congress’s social media propaganda against the party”.

But beyond the optics Mr. Gandhi needs to get down to the task of not just strategising to win elections, but of seizing the initiative and anticipating the big issues, and this includes in Parliament where he has tended to take a back seat. He has yet to makes a difference in parliamentary debates with substantive speeches on the economy, foreign affairs and other key policy issues. He can no longer afford to give the impression that he sees politics as a day job — politics today is 24x7 work.

Rebuilding the party

Mr. Gandhi’s biggest challenge will be rebuilding the party organisation and giving the Congress a new storyline with which to take on the might of the Modi machine. For this, he will have to connect with workers at the block-level, restore confidence in them, and be transparent in his selection of both party functionaries and candidates for elections. He has promised to make his new team a mix of the old and the new, but he needs to ensure that he takes members of the old guard he retains seriously. He has also shown an inclination to corporatise the Congress and surround himself with apolitical persons in a bid to break the old way of functioning. But he needs to remember that the Congress is a political party.

Finally, he will need to reach out to other political parties, especially because he requires their help in 2019, as well as to BJP seniors for better functioning of Parliament. His friendship with the National Conference’s Omar Abdullah is well known, and he recently had a much publicised lunch with the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Tejashwi Yadav; he is also in touch with the DMK’s M.K. Stalin and Kanimozhi. But he is yet to emulate his mother’s initiatives in being seen to go out of her comfort zone and approach potential allies.

After three and a half years of the Modi government, there are voices of discontent. The attacks by right-wing elements on Muslims, Dalits and rationalists, the downturn in the economy, exacerbated by demonetisation, the haphazard implementation of the goods and services tax and failure to create jobs, have resulted in a gradual change in the national mood. The time is politically opportune for Mr. Gandhi: he must take advantage of it.

Smita Gupta is a Delhi-based journalist

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