Taking up the mantle of Congress presidentship in a party that is characterised by spinelessness and sycophancy, Rahul Gandhi is beginning his innings with unusually low public expectations. That, undeniably, may prove to be a blessing in disguise for the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, who was born with the proverbial silver spoon in his mouth but has had no dearth of challenges in his 47 years of life, not the least of which have been the loss of his father Rajiv and his paternal grandmother Indira Gandhi through ghastly assassinations.
The jury is not out yet on whether the challenges have either steeled him or enriched him in terms of maturity. Has he imbibed some of the qualities that his ancestors were endowed with? Will he prove to be a quick learner on the job or will he preside over the virtual decimation of a glorious 130-year-old party which led the country’s momentous freedom struggle but is today a pale shadow of its erstwhile self.
Rahul has so far given little indication that he is learning from the adversities he has been facing, but the best hope is that he may have latent reserves of good sense that may stand him in good stead as time goes by. It may perhaps be unfair to judge him too early. But in the rat race, in which he finds himself, he will have to learn quickly.
Rahul’s mother and predecessor, Sonia Gandhi, was an upstart when she took up party presidentship. But she was more worldly-wise and not as naive as Rahul is today. In her heydays, she talked less and had the benefit of being schooled in politics watching her mother-in-law, Indira, who was a past master in guile and was gifted with the ability to survive with rare grit in a man’s world.
Since he is unmarried, Rahul has only his mother’s shoulder to lean on. Many believe that his sister, Priyanka, is endowed with greater political insight than him, but that is untested.
If Rahul is to become a prime minister one day, he will have to learn the ropes of politics as it is played in India. He would need to considerably brush up his understanding of national and international affairs and to pick up tact and diplomacy, which he woefully lacks. Today, he comes off as a leader who has no depth and is low on understanding.
It is being surmised that Sonia Gandhi would retain with her the role of dealing with other opposition leaders to sew up any alliances that would hold up in election times. That could be of help to Rahul because with long years of virtual leadership of the opposition, she has a way with them which Rahul does not. Her political instincts are also sharper. Though there is no perceptible danger of the Old Guard in the party being sidelined comprehensively, as was speculated earlier, it would devolve on Sonia to keep them in good humour and yet under check.
By far, the biggest challenge for Rahul would be to resurrect the Congress party from the disastrous showing in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and to regain power in some of the states where it has lost out to the BJP. That would be no mean task considering that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s charisma is still holding out strongly more than three years after the last polls. While beating the BJP at the hustings may be too tall an order in 2019, Rahul will have to convince the electorate that he could be the victor in 2024.
There cannot be a better starting point than later this month when the Himachal and Gujarat assembly poll results come in. For 22 years, the Congress has waited to turn the tables on the BJP in Gujarat. While a repeat of the BJP’s spectacular performance would spell the death-knell for the Congress, an impressive showing could do Rahul and the Congress a world of good in Modi’s home state.
Congressmen are relying on an anti-incumbency vote against the BJP and on the Hardik Patel factor. Rahul’s charisma is not in the reckoning at all.
Rahul has had a series of election failures since he became Congress vice-president in 2013. His party was mauled in the general election in 2014, after ten years in power, winning only 44 seats in the 543-seat Lok Sabha. Some states were lost and in two states where the party won more seats than the BJP — Goa and Manipur — it could not garner enough support to form coalitions, losing the initiative to the BJP. That reflects poor leadership.
The failure of the Sonia-Rahul team in central polls was papered over and not a finger was raised against the duo in the party because of the sycophantic culture that permeates the Congress. Double-standards in the grand old party are endemic and standards of accountability apply selectively.
There, certainly, are huge challenges ahead for the Congress and it has to measure up to them if it is to have any hope of a resurrection. Rahul will have to resist the temptation of disappearing abroad at the drop of a hat. His mysterious foreign jaunts have become an enigma and show his lack of commitment to professional politics.
Indeed, Rahul represents a generational change, but the moot question is that would he breathe a whiff of fresh air into a party that sorely needs it to come out of the rut. At present, he seems clueless about how to bring the party back on the rails.
The author is a political commentator and columnist. He has authored four books.