Ahead of the 2019 general elections, the Congress vice president, Rahul Gandhi, is on a two-week tour of the United States (US), which he began by addressing students at the University of California in Berkeley. In his speech, Rahul spoke on a number of issues – ranging from Mahatma Gandhi’s idea of non-violence to the current socio-political scenario in India.
He was frank in his confessions about himself, his party and talked about the promises of tomorrow. While being confident, he also showed enough courage to accept his own mistakes and the failings of his party over the past few years. He described his party as a ‘culture of conversation’ and went on to admit that a certain amount of arrogance had crept into the party midway around 2012 which ended this ‘culture of conversation’.
During his speech on the theme “India at 70”, he talked about the unique nature of India and also quoted his late grandmother, Indira Gandhi, in the following section:
“India is a massive country. It is also one of the world’s most complex countries. Every time you think you have understood India, she will reveal something new to you… Most of [the] experts didn’t expect India to survive and predicted it would fall apart, torn to pieces by its own diversity and contradictions. And yet somehow, as Indira Gandhi said, when asked whether India leans left or right, India came out standing straight and tall.”
Rahul Gandhi also utilised the opportunity to send a clear message that he is ready to lead his party in 2019. However, he should know that the ‘conversation’ with the Indian masses, which he said, had ended in 2012, has still not restarted.
This is where Rahul could follow the path of Indira. In the current phase, when the Congress is facing an ‘existential crisis‘ across the nation, he can learn from Indira on how to revive his party and himself. He has before him, the example of his grandmother – who, after a humiliating defeat in the elections post-Emergency, had travelled across the length and breadth of the country to connect with the masses that had rejected her.
In 1977, Indira had reached the lowest point in her political career. She had lost her seat from Raebareli. It was humiliating for her. Her own party members had turned against her. An enquiry was also initiated against her by the Shah Commission. But, in 1980, she staged a comeback. Indira’s biographers and other commentators have written about Indira’s comeback, beautifully (for instance, see Sagarika Ghosh’s “Indira: India’s Most Powerful Prime Minister“). She regained her immense self-confidence by connecting with the people again.
For instance, in 1977, when the newly-formed government by the Janata Party was in power, Bihar’s Belchi village (in Patna district) witnessed eight Dalits and three sonars (goldsmiths) being shot and burnt alive. The massacre by upper caste people was one of the most gruesome atrocities. The incident had shocked the nation. Indira decided to meet the families affected by visiting the village.
The monsoon, along with lack of road connectivity to the village, made it difficult for Indira to reach the village. But she remained unaffected. She abandoned her car and decided to ride an elephant to reach the village, which was flood-affected. This provided to be a turning point for Indira. It revived her image as the leader of the masses. Appreciation and public support boosted a depressed Indira at that time. And Belchi returned a confident Indira. This visit was indeed one of the most important moments in her life.
Rahul Gandhi has made visits to a number of places where the issue of caste has raised its ugly head – including Hyderbad, where a Dalit student, Rohith Vemula, had committed suicide allegedly due to caste-based discrimination and injustice. Even then, the Congress party could not make a connect with the toiling masses. Moreover, in a number of incidents, the Congress, as an organisation, has not been seen at the forefront to take on the ruling class.
Unfortunately, the Congress has become an elitist party. Its leaders still fail to connect with the common man. Since 2012, the Congress has missed out on narratives and issues – and especially after becoming a part of the Opposition in 2014. Moreover, the party lacks credible faces from neglected sections of the Indian society. For instance, the Congress doesn’t really have a Dalit face who can be portrayed as a mass leader. Rahul Gandhi must provide platforms to individuals from these communities, who would be willing to work for the society and the party.
Therefore, Rahul Gandhi must devise a new strategy to deal with the current challenges before his party – while also asking the party workers to perform with renewed vigour and an almost missionary zeal. He must change his style of working. Before he sets on his path to correct things, he must remember how Indira Gandhi regained her momentum after losing the election. Rahul Gandhi must show his vision of India.
The author is a law graduate from Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. He tweets at @anuragbhaskar_