In just over a year, the mood in the Congress has transformed from utter despair to burgeoning hope. The party believes it is on the upswing, thanks to the see-saw effect of Indian politics: as the ruling NDA’s popularity sinks under the weight of public censure, the Opposition’s standing rises. Rahul Gandhi, the reluctant politician, is now a man in a hurry, eager to take over the reins of the grand old party. He has been more visible in the last month than in the entire UPA tenure.
The formal anointment of Rahul is perhaps best put off to after the Bihar assembly elections. The Congress has limited stakes in the state but even so, it would prefer that he was insulated from the fallout of a tepid result. The Congress has begun to grasp the fact that while the party will never hold a Nehru-Gandhi accountable for electoral debacles, the public has no such qualms. Nothing is sacred to the irreverent young voter, particularly not dynasty. Another electoral failure will expose Rahul to merciless cyber-ridicule. Having said that, there is no real shift in the Congress mindset. The generational change that is currently underway does not imply a fresh perspective, ideas, goals or strategy. After all, the dominant faces – Rahul Gandhi, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasad, Milind Deora, Jyotiraditya Scindia – are all products of dynasty. Young Deora will take over his late father’s role, that of liaising between the party leadership and corporate world. The others have already donned the mantle of state satraps. So the Congress remains mired in the past, even as it showcases its future.
The strengthening of internal party democracy and the empowerment of the party workers are no longer on the agenda. It is Rahul’s hand-picked troops who will lead the party in the states. In Punjab, he may choose Pratap Singh Bajwa over Captain Amarinder Singh, regardless of sentiments among the party rank and file. As a result, there is no incentive for Congress leaders to invest in party workers and become grassroots leaders. Advancement can only come from ingratiating themselves with Rahul or influential members of his coterie.The faces in the coterie change but the coterie itself remains a constant. Kaushal Vidyarthi, according to the party buzz, is the current favourite. Kanishka Singh, the erstwhile gatekeeper to Rahul’s Tughlaq Lane office, has now been sidelined. So has his one-time rival, Sachin Rao. Mohan Gopal continues to be the ideas person in chief, despite the 2014 Lok Sabha electoral debacle.
Will the party’s old guard, rendered more or less redundant by Rahul, continue to be relevant in a post-Sonia scenario? It is unlikely, despite the fact that it was the prominent oldies like Malikarjun Kharge, Captain Amarinder Singh and Kamal Nath who won their Lok Sabha seats, while Rahul’s youth brigade lost. If Rahul reaches out to anyone among the veterans, they are C P Joshi (former Rural Development minister and Sachin Pilot’s chief rival in Rajasthan), Jairam Ramesh, Anand Sharma (former Commerce minister) and Kapil Sibal.
Perhaps the leader most affected by the imminent handover from Sonia to Rahul is Ahmed Patel. He has served four successive Congress presidents in key roles, but there is place for him, no less, in Rahul’s establishment. However, Sonia would be loathed to discard him as he has been at her side for over a decade. Rumour has it that Rahul’s “leave of absence” earlier this year had a lot to do with a deadlock between mother and son over the old guard.
At one point post-general elections, Priyanka Vadra took a keen interest in party affairs, setting up her own office and despatching minions to produce ground reports from various states. Of late, with Rahul becoming pro-active and the threat of imminent legal action against her husband Robert Vadra receding, she is less involved in party matters.
Rahul has been heard in Parliament, standing up for the rights of farmers and the poor, attacking the government on the Land Acquisition Bill and characterising it as a “suit-boot sarkar”. Outside Parliament, he has pilloried the government on the IPL cricket and Vyapam scams. He taunted Prime Minister Narendra Modi, reminding him of his promise of a corruption free India – “na khaaonga, na khaane doonga”.
Where Rahul fails is in the articulation of an alternative vision – something both Modi and Arvind Kejriwal pulled off with aplomb. He does not represent the “hope factor” in Indian politics, remaining merely a passive beneficiary of anti-incumbency. Until he figures out a way to capture the public imagination, he will cede space to whatever alternative presents itself to the voter, be it the Aam Aadmi Party or an entirely new political formation.