The ascension of Rahul Gandhi and what it means

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As steward of the strongest Opposition in the current Indian political scenario, the Congress scion has a major role to play for the party as well as the country.

The newly-minted Congress president needs to forge a political identity that can match up against the Prime Minister's own. And fast. | PTI

December 11, 2017 is a very important day in Indian political history. It is the day a new Congress President was elected — crowned, rather. Much like Prince Charles of England, the country was beginning to wonder if Mr. Rahul Gandhi would merely forever haunt the corridors of power and never get to the throne. Unlike the former who has little choice but to gestate, the latter has seemed a prince reluctant to ascend.

It has long been a foregone conclusion that Rahul Gandhi would be the successor and go into the annals of history as the president of a party that was once populated by the likes of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Subhash Chandra Bose, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel and Indira Gandhi — this political elite played a huge hand in changing the destiny of the country. Then came the late Mr. Rajiv Gandhi who too was a reluctant prince thrown into power and snatched by fate in a short period of time. Before him, all previous presidents of the party had had an opponent, if not more, to beat and climb to the top. It showed the country and the party the mettle of the person who came to lead them into the future.

Even Sonia Gandhi had Sitaram Kesri, Sharad Pawar to surpass before she could even think of getting near the top rung of the Congress ladder. Rahul Gandhi's climb ran more parallel to his father with regards to him being a reluctant prince being thrown into the game. His struggle, however, is unique in a way.

 

Rahul Gandhi needs to create his own political identity independent of his rival. Calling oneself secular is not an identity. Everybody calls themselves that.

 

 

Unlike his predecessors, Mr. Rahul Gandhi has had to fight a powerful foe who did not belong to his party. This foe did not even share his ideology, and was a polar opposite to Rahul Gandhi in every single manner. Loud, articulate, naturally charismatic with an impressive track record and connect with the common man, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was everything Rahul Gandhi was not. Rahul Gandhi’s identity became defined by his political lineage as he came to be seen as a person to whom everything was handed on a silver platter, someone who was a child of an illustrious father and mother and had nothing on his own.

In the 2014 elections, though, Rahul Gandhi was very active in the party — he practically ran the election campaign. His arguably biggest mistake, which was perceived as arising from his weakness, was his and his party's reluctance to declare him the Prime Ministerial candidate. Whereas Mr. Modi came across as a man of action who did not back down from any challenge. Neither the soft-spoken Manmohan Singh, who became an object of ridicule, nor Mr. Rahul Gandhi who was mocked with the moniker “pappu” (little kid) could stand up to what Mr. Modi projected.

With the humongous loss in the election that ensued, Mr. Rahul Gandhi's ascension appeared to be doomed — those who wanted him in power felt his lack of conviction ruined the election while those who hated him highlighted the failure using it to show him in poor light. While the rampant corruption charges in the previous government driving anti-incumbency was the key factor, the Congress’s strategy backfired into a personal loss for Rahul Gandhi.

 

Every super hero needs a good super villain. The contest raises both the evenly matched parties to a higher level. Rahul Gandhi was no match for the political acumen and charisma of Mr. Modi, who captured the imagination of the public. And the Congress scion ended up a dud, turning Mr. Modi the real super hero of the 2014 election. 

Mrs. Sonia Gandhi had to quell the internal voices, become active and prepare the ground all over again for her son. His reluctance killed the momentum and the results made immediate promotion impossible. Voices came up requesting Priyanka Gandhi, who reminded people of her illustrious grandmother, to take the throne. Had she chosen to, it would have been a coup of sorts.

The road ahead for Congress depends on Rahul Gandhi’s political identity

In India, as in many other electoral regions, the personality of the party-face makes or mars the party's political fortunes. And here's where political identity becomes crucial. Mr. Rahul Gandhi lacks a political identity he can be proud of. He is the son of a former Prime Minister of India and a former president of Congress who ran things for around two decades. That is all he has as an identity currently. Besides this, all he has to show is a dismal failure — the nadir of the party’s electoral history — in the form of the 2014 elections. The five-State election gains were also lost arguably due to lack of direction on his part too.

Gujarat’s election, if the showing is good and results are favourable, would be his first victory in effect. He does not have to win the election; he just has to make it close to show he is no longer the boy who did not want to play king, and that he has arrived. He can show that he is someone who has inherited the mettle of his mother, grandmother and great grandfather. Though, that would still not make up for his lack of political identity.

 

Mr. Modi’s identity now is not that of being unbeaten in Gujarat elections or the wave he generated in 2014 elections. His identity is his agenda of development, nationalism and standing up to the troublesome neighbours. This mix has forged him an identity that at this point makes him politically invincible. Even the controversial GST and demonetisation moves only reinforced his identity of the man capable of taking bold decisions for developing the country.

Rahul Gandhi needs to create his own political identity independent of his rival. Calling oneself secular is not an identity. Everybody calls themselves that. He needs to create this identity and shine it through the rank and file of the party, making it the party’s identity. Then and only then will he be able to stand up to Mr. Modi and revive the party’s fortunes among the people of the country.

The crucial role awaiting Rahul Gandhi in Indian Politics

No matter how robust a person in power is, he needs a strong opposing force to temper his shortcomings, challenge him to improve, and check an inveterate state of affairs. The only politically powerful person who can stand up to Mr. Modi’s political image was Nitish Kumar. Unfortunately, his potential as a counterbalance ended when he dropped his national ambitions to shake hands with Mr. Modi. Arvind Kejriwal and his AAP were never really a challenge, as the five-State polls exhibited. The communist parties are nowhere close to a scale where they can challenge Mr. Modi outside Tripura and Kerala.

The only party with the infrastructure required to stand up to Mr. Modi and his new and improved BJP is Congress. This makes Congress a crucial cog in the political machine. This makes the role of its party president even more critical. With Mr. Rahul Gandhi being confirmed for the position, the country depends on him to put his hands up and say, 'I am game'. He is in the right direction where he is moving away from the “secular” political narrative and is attacking the right issues like the negative impact of demonetisation, GST or unemployment. He needs to step on the gas and take this approach to the whole country on a consistent basis rather than merely using it as an ad-hoc electoral campaign tool.

A combination of the right approach with a well-defined identity would do wonders for Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party, and the whole country, by strengthening Indian’s political bench strength to keep Mr. Modi motivated to further the interest of the country. It would also give a voice to people who are not tied to any party and are looking for someone to point the government’s mistakes out to it — be it with regard to intentions or implementation, and how it affected them. By becoming a good opposition leader affirmatively and by taking the reins officially from his mother, Rahul Gandhi, along with Mr. Modi can take India to new heights and fulfil the vision our former president Mr. APJ Abdul Kalam had.

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