It had to happen even though he preferred an extended apprenticeship. The timing of Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the President of the country’s oldest political party comes on the eve of the assembly elections in Gujarat, the home state of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This leaves him barely 18 months for the next general elections in the first half of 2019. In between, there are assembly elections in no less than half-a-dozen states. It is only in Karnataka that the Congress is in power. In the remaining five states – Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashra, Chattisgarh and Haryana – the BJP rules having systematically sent the Old Lady of Bori Bunder packing. The country’s map is splashed with the saffron colour. Modi, being in the vanguard of campaigning for the BJP, has been crippling for the Congress since he stormed to power at the Centre in May 2014.
Having been made the Congress Vice President in 2013, the dynasty continues, and the 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi is not shying away from acknowledging the certitude given the fact that his mother Sonia Gandhi has been the longest serving Congress president for 19 years.
There is no doubt for he has been calling the shots lately but the challenges before him in revitalising the party can be frustrating. The party, which was in the forefront of the freedom struggle, is in a shamble. Intense infighting is its bane. Unlike the past, it is shorn of mass leaders in the states, which is a major handicap, thanks to the high handedness of the all-powerful Congress High Command. In the last few months, since his interface with teachers and students in Berkeley in the United States, there has been a marked change in his approach. He is more amenable in having an interface and listening to the people along with becoming more active on the social media. At the same time, there has been a chorus periodically in the Congress seeking his elevation as the numero uno of the 130-year-old party.
In the last three-and-a-half years, the Congress has faced a crippling downslide having failed to approach the people with economic programmes for the uplift of the teeming poor and the country’s development. The Election Commission of India has played its part in speeding up the process as it had fixed a December 31 deadline for completing the organisational polls in the Congress party. Having campaigned and caught the imagination of the people in Gujarat, any excuse at this juncture in putting off the leadership issue would have amounted to create self-inflicted problems. There is anti-incumbency against the BJP in Gujarat where it has been in power on the trot for no less than 22 years. The angst against Modi, who was also the chief minister of Gujarat for more than two terms, is discernible.
There is no doubt now that the Lotus party has a challenge on its hands this time. Its leaders express serious doubts whether they will be able to achieve the target of 150 seats fixed by BJP president Amit Shah in the 182-member Gujarat assembly. At the same time, they believe it will be a saving grace if they retain power and manage anywhere from 100 to 110 seats.
However, losing power in Gujarat will be a big loss of face for Modi which is bound to cast its shadow on the 2019 general elections. Rahul Gandhi’s elevation next month, which is more of a formality than any contest, is bound to see younger leaders coming to the fore. This does not mean that the seniors will be side-lined or sent packing as their experience will be of great help. As Sonia Gandhi is unwell, her role in the party has been left vague and unsaid till now.
Despite a generational shift taking place in other political parties, particularly the regional ones, she has developed a rapport with opposition leaders over the last two decades in working out coalition arrangements.
As evidenced in the past, the Congress leadership has to fill the vacuum of having mass leaders in the states. This situation has arisen because of the high handedness of the central party’s leadership for which it must accept responsibility. It must become the principal opposition party and strive in restoring itself as a political force. The Congress will have to think out of the box as its rank and file is demoralised. Simply put, Rahul Gandhi has more than his hands full in galvanising the party. A senior politician disappointed with the Nehru-Gandhi scion emphasised that “politics is a 24X7 job in this country”.
Lately there has been a marked change in Rahul’s political approach. Getting elected as the President of the Indian National Congress will be a cake walk for him. However, the difficult part is getting accepted as a serious, interactive and committed leader.
In the 2014 general elections, the Congress finishing with its lowest ever tally of 44 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha was a shocker. They failed to secure even one-tenth of the seats in the House of the People to become eligible as the Leader of the Opposition. On the other hand, the BJP chalked up a majority on its own for the first time in the Lok Sabha.
BJP’s concerted attack against Rahul Gandhi has enabled him in becoming the main opposition leader in the country. There is no doubt the Congress requires a radical overhaul. It is a difficult, tricky and uphill task requiring patience, tenacity and purposefulness for winning the electorate’s affection. Congressmen believe the timing of Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as Congress President could not have happened at a more opportune moment.
The writer is a senior journalist and commentator.