WHEN he returned to India after 12 years abroad, he brought very little to the table. He had no particular accomplishments or professional successes of which to boast, but enjoyed a jet-setting lifestyle and had a Venezuelan girlfriend on his arm.
The lost, forlorn lad, just shy of 21, touched the hearts of millions as he lit his father’s pyre. A quarter century later, Rahul Gandhi is striving for another shade of emotional connect with the people, on the cusp of stepping into his late father’s shoes (and those of his grandmother, great-grandfather and great-great-grandfather). After 15 years of will-he-won’t-he, he is to be Congress president. But has he evolved into a leader?
When he returned to India after 12 years abroad, he brought very little to the table. He had no particular accomplishments or professional successes of which to boast, but enjoyed a jet-setting lifestyle and had a Venezuelan girlfriend on his arm. He parachuted into Parliament and the top rung of the party, with zero grassroots experience. Understandably, his political career was marked by idiotic gaffes, poor judgment calls and failed experiments in organisational reform.
The progressive shrinkage of the Congress accelerated on his watch. Not once did Rahul take responsibility for electoral reverses or organisational snafus. Indeed, as Congress vice-president, he reviled the party leadership and the government for their errors. Every electoral loss or doomed attempt at organisational revival was blamed on the party’s veteran leaders, including the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh.
His performance as a member of Parliament was unspectacular, both inside and outside the Lok Sabha. He retained his Amethi seat in 2014 with a much-diminished margin. As Congress VP, he was regarded as being inaccessible, a fuzzy thinker with a limited attention span and an enigma in terms of his political philosophy. Congressmen could not relate to a leader who immured himself behind a team of whiz-kids and academics, none of whom had any understanding of the challenges they faced on the ground. In their own lingo, Team Rahul had no domain expertise. The exodus from the party increased.
While he dreamed of a new deal for the Congress – a streamlined, youth-led organisation riding on technology and progressive ideas – outside the walls of his Tughlaq Lane bungalow, it was pretty much business as usual. Rahul showed no signs of thinking outside the box, merely reiterating the single-point agenda to which the Congress had been reduced that the BJP was a divisive, polarizing force and Hindu extremism was the main threat to the nation. His flash disappearances from the country continued and he seemed oddly disconnected from the people he purportedly served.
The turnaround came earlier this year, when pressure mounted on Sonia Gandhi to take decisive steps to revive the party. For one thing, the Election Commission of India had made it clear that organisational elections were imperative. To delay Rahul’s ascension further might invite mutiny, in the form of a credible opponent from within the Congress ranks. Nor could Rahul be a lame-duck president, presiding over the demise of the grand old party.
He would, somehow, have to capture the public imagination. This was easier done than said, thanks to the NDA government’s bold economic initiatives. As the adverse effects of demonetisation and GST kicked in, the Congress found itself with a readymade electoral platform. Rahul has capitalised on it to the hilt, castigating the government for job losses, excessive taxation, a failing economy and the continuing crisis in agriculture. His public speeches are complemented by a smart social media team, headed by a Kannada cine-star, which churns out sarcastic tweets and a running commentary against the government.
Rahul continues to make the occasional gaffe, his recent potato-to-gold comment being a prime example. But overall, he is on firmer ground when talking about the ills plaguing the economy. His cultural connect with India is weak and he has realized that here, he is not on a level playing field with the BJP. Engaging with it on matters of religion, culture and nationalism will be counter-productive. Cleverly, he has declared himself a practicing Hindu and left it at that, marking a radical shift from his earlier ‘Hindu extremist threat’ stance.
To cement his position, Rahul badly needs a victory. The very fact that he chose to become party president on the eve of the Gujarat election results indicates that the Congress is reasonably confident of winning. He is by no means the lead opposition campaigner in Gujarat; that privilege belongs to Hardik Patel. But the stakes are higher for Rahul than for Hardik. The Congress must put in a credible performance in Gujarat, even if it does not form the government, so that Rahul can claim the party has a future. He may not get another opportunity to do so, if the NDA succeeds in ironing out the glitches in GST and the economy recovers.
The sad fact is that Rahul has no alternative vision to offer, no game plan to fix the economy. On job creation, he parrots the mantra of entrepreneurship. On agriculture, he cites the same old formula of post-harvest management, as if that would solve farmers’ woes. He cannot transform the economy, any more than he can roll back GST or grant job quotas to the Patels. All he can do is leverage public discontent for a while.
Also, he is faced with a tough balancing act within the organisation, between the old guard and the new. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh has kept his end of the deal by endorsing him as party president, but other veterans who enjoy grassroot support must be kept on board even as the young turks are accommodated.
Rahul once said, “If India is a computer, then Congress is its default program.” If so, that program has been corrupted; the party must rewrite its source code.
The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.