Rahul Gandhi is all set to be the Congress party President. He is the sole nominee for the post, as, by far, he is currently the most popular pan Indian leader in the Congress. A lot of questions have been asked by the media and other people on the lack of democracy within the Congress party. But the Congress has always maintained that anybody is free to contest for the party president post.
If we remember, earlier we had Jitendra Prasad contesting against Sonia Gandhi. The likely reason why this time nobody else nominated himself or herself for the post, is simply that they know that at the present moment, Rahul Gandhi is the most popular leader available and hence has the greatest possibility of winning.
Now, a lot of people talk about Nehru-Gandhi family keeping firm control of the party. The truth of the matter is that whether we like it or not, currently only the Nehru-Gandhi family can unite the party, and the party runs the risk of splitting, if not for the leadership and stability provided by the family. If we take a look at history, we have seen Sharad Pawar forming the NCP by splitting from the Congress, Mamata Banerjee forming Trinamool Congress, and so on, whenever Congress central leadership has been weak and divided.
Also if we look at the functioning of the other principal parties (other than the regional parties, which are anyway mostly dynastic), the BJP and Left parties, we see Amit Shah being nominated for the post of party president by Modi and not through an election. Similarly, Sitaram Yechury was unanimously nominated as the General Secretary of CPI(M) recently, without an election or votes. So this seems to be the norm in most of the other major parties as well. So let us leave this matter here and move on to other important issues.
The real question is, can Rahul Gandhi revive the Congress party and get it in a position to take on the charisma of Modi and the election machine of the BJP? Let us analyze this at length.
Let us look at his political journey. Rahul Gandhi appeared on the political scene in 2004 as a first time MP from Amethi. This was the time when UPA-1 was forged under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi. He was a shy politician in parliament for most of the UPA years, and, to be honest, he was not an up-to-the-mark performer in parliament. Except for sporadic appearances, Rahul seemed to be more comfortable working behind the scenes to revive the Youth Congress and revitalize the organization of the Congress party, and making sure internal elections were conducted and bright youth leaders got an opportunity to come to the forefront.
In 2013, during the Congress chintan shivir in Jaipur, he was appointed as Vice President of the Congress. In 2014, Congress suffered its historic loss when it won a mere 44 seats in parliament. Rahul Gandhi was made fun of by being called “Pappu” by the BJP, and he and Sonia Gandhi took the blame for the historic loss.
It is correct that Rahul Gandhi was leading the charge of the campaign for Congress, but it is also true that as he had not played any crucial role in the UPA-2 government. Hence the vote against Congress was not a verdict against Rahul Gandhi, but against the image of scams & corruption, the policy paralysis of the UPA-2 govt, etc, and a loss of trust in the dual leadership model of the Dr Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi duo.
It is now three-and-a-half years since 2014, and the conditions have changed. Despite a lot of claims of good governance by the BJP, the people have borne the brunt of demonetization, and the hastily implemented and exorbitantly high rates of GST. As evident from the elections going on in Gujarat, irrespective of whether BJP wins or looses, it has shown that people in Gujarat are angry. Whether the Patidars or the Dalits or the farmers or the diamond merchants of Surat, people have lost a lot during the past one year of Modi rule at the centre, and in general over the famously termed “Gujarat Model”.
It has also exposed the chinks in the armour of the once conceived “unbeatable BJP election machine”. Now whether the Congress has done enough to make sure this anger translates into votes against BJP , will soon be known. One thing is clear and evident, Rahul Gandhi has been at the forefront of the Gujarat campaign, and has visited every nook and corner of Gujarat, spent time with people, conducted huge rallies, and also addressed specific sections like small and medium businessmen, fishermen, students etc. No more can allegations be hurled at him of not taking politics seriously.
He is all set to take over as Congress President, and whatever victory or narrow defeat or humiliating defeat Congress suffers in Gujarat will fall completely on his shoulders. But no one would argue against the fact that he and Congress have made sure that no leaf is left unturned. Also worth noting are his diplomacy and negotiation skills, in stitching together a rainbow coalition of contradictory forces i.e the Patidars, the Dalits, the Thakurs (who fall under OBC in Gujarat), and Muslims. Let us all wait and see how this very interesting election unfolds.
Rahul Gandhi has the golden opportunity to breath in fresh air into the Congress party. After a long time, the Congress has a young leader (relative to politics, of course), and the party is longing for fresh ideas and clear ideological clarity, which has been absent since Rajiv Gandhi’s sad demise. Sonia Gandhi definitely provided the adhesive and fulcrum to bring together different parties to form the UPA, but was seen to be not very interested in bringing any big reforms into the Congress party. She was quite satisfied with the way things worked in Congress. One could argue that this is the reason for the slow decay of the party by the time the 2014 elections happened, which resulted in the miserable loss.
Rahul Gandhi does not have either a very scholarly outlook, or intellectual capacities, like say a Sitaram Yechury or a Chidambaram. Neither is he a brutal mass puller or brilliant orator like Modi. But one quality he has for sure is that he is known to be a good listener, which, I think, is one of the most important qualities missing in Indian politics today. Rahul Gandhi is humble and willing to learn, which is crucial. Congress party has a variety of intellectuals, like Sam Pitroda, who ushered in the Telecom revolution during Rajiv Gandhi’s years. These are the people who form the core team of Rahul Gandhi, and whom he listens to before trying to build his own ideology and perspective. This was very evident during his recent visit to Berkeley and other US universities, which showed a new, confident face of Rahul Gandhi.
So what would it take for the Congress party to put up a good show during the 2019 elections? Congress has definitely stepped up its social media presence and is fast catching up with BJP, and probably can even beat BJP at its own game. Rahul, too, is handling his twitter account with a lot wit and humour, to take on Modi.
What is now needed is for Rahul Gandhi to present a clear policy alternative against the present day Modi government’s policies, which are increasing the burden on people day by day. This has to be based on secularism, social justice, and welfare economics. An economy which can deliver jobs instead of jobless growth, where there is communal harmony between all sections, where farmers get a high Minimum Support Price for their produces and are not forced to commit suicide, where parents don’t need to pay exorbitant fees for their kid’s schools or colleges, and where patients don’t end up paying huge sums for their medical treatment and instead have an option for good quality public education and healthcare.
If we analyze the speeches of Rahul Gandhi in the recent Gujarat campaign, he talked precisely about the same points, which reflects the direction he wants to steer the Congress towards. Just like Jeremy Corbyn has managed to bring back confidence in the Labour party by taking a direction towards the left and taking on issues of austerity, joblessness, and cuts in pension, health funds etc. in Britain, Rahul Gandhi has learned that it is imperative to present the Congress party as a clear Center-Left alternative to the BJP’s right-wing offensive.
One thing which is very clear is that Congress needs allies with similar secular, democratic principles. Firstly, it is important for Congress to get its act straight by ensuring that it first returns to its former 2004 strength of around 140 seats, and then slowly inch towards its 2009 strength of 200.
Is this possible? The biggest setback for Congress is in Andhra, where they had performed brilliantly under YS Rajasekhara Reddy (YSR) in 2004 and 2009, where now they have almost been routed and replaced by the YSR Congress after the state split. Similarly, in Telangana, although they are the primary opposition, they are still very far away from disturbing the Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) for the next five to ten years.
In Maharashtra, they have a good chance to improve their performance in 2019. Similarly, in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, Congress definitely looks far more powerful under the charismatic and youthful leadership of Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia respectively. Karnataka is strong under Siddaramaiah and Gujarat could throw up a surprise, if Congress manages to upset Modi and BJP in their den!
Punjab is back with Congress under the strong leadership of Captain Amarinder Singh, who stole the thunder out of AAP’s dream of winning Punjab. So things are surely looking up for the Congress in the coming assembly elections, and then for the main battle of the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
What matters now is to build and forge United Progressive Alliance-3. Can Rahul, like Sonia, work with diverse players, from the Left Front to Mayawati to Akhilesh? It is tough, but not impossible, looking at the present conditions of these parties.
Left parties are at a historic low of 11 MPs in Parliament. The ray of hope for CPI(M) is the charismatic leadership of Sitaram Yechury. Sitaram Yechury shares a great working relationship with Sonia Gandhi and now Rahul Gandhi. That is the reason Congress offered to support Sitaram Yechury in Rajya Sabha instead of a Congress candidate in Bengal. But it is due to the dogmatic position taken by Prakash Karat and the hardliners in the CPI(M), that the most charismatic leader of the Left was not allowed a third term in Rajya Sabha. Nevertheless, there is an intense debate going on within CPI(M) to come out with a political line to work towards a broad tactical alliance with Congress and other secular, democratic parties, championed by Sitaram Yechury and the Bengal unit of the party.
The CPI(M) West Bengal unit is pushing towards an alliance with Congress in Bengal, as both the Congress and the Left need each other desperately to take on the Trinamool Congress at one end, which has throttled democracy in Bengal and has been engaging in minority fundamentalism, and BJP on the other end, which is fueling majority communalism. It is imperative for a Left-Congress ‘jot’ (alliance in Bengali), as it was called in the 2016 Assembly elections, to take shape, which will be symbiotic for both the Left and the Congress. Similarly, there are indications of the CPI and CPI(M) working with Congress in Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Kashmir, Orissa etc where both are relatively weak.
Then comes the question, can Rahul Gandhi forge a grand alliance between Akhilesh, Mayawati and Congress in UP? It would have been considered a joke a few months back, but after the drubbing all three got in the UP assembly polls by not working together, both Mayawati and Akhilesh seem willing to come together, depending on the seat-sharing arrangement. Rahul Gandhi shares an excellent rapport with Akhilesh Yadav, as both are seen as youth leaders in their respective cadre and parties.
Bihar is relatively simple with Nitish Kumar choosing to join the NDA camp, at the cost of alienating himself in Bihar. Lalu Yadav and his son, Tejaswi Yadav, who is the rising star of Bihar politics, are in a strong position as many among the minorities, Dalits, and OBCs see Lalu as the only hope against BJP’s Hindutva politics. Here too, Rahul Gandhi has been meeting Tejaswi recently, to discuss politics over lunch.
Similar is the case between National Conference (NC) chief Omar Abdullah and Rahul Gandhi, who are childhood friends. The Congress-NC alliance seems all set to sweep Jammu & Kashmir in the next elections, after the badly misfitting alliance was forged between BJP & Mehbooba Mufti’s PDP, which has ruined the political climate in Kashmir with new age tech-savvy social media friendly militants sprouting here and there, and Kashmir militancy’s ‘Azaadi’ slogans now slowly making way for dangerous slogans of Islamic Jihad.
In Tamil Nadu, the DMK-Congress alliance might make a comeback in the next elections, and there are talks of the Left joining the DMK led alliance as well. The doors seem to be closed for AIADMK after the demise of Jayalalitha, in the absence of any strong leadership to retain power in the next elections. Again, here, MK Stalin represents the new face of DMK after years of Karunanidhi, and Rahul shares a good rapport with Stalin.
So to cut the long story short, Rahul Gandhi seems to be making the right alliances and shares a good rapport with most of the opposition party leaders, which makes it easier to forge the foundations of UPA-3. Congress has already ramped up its social media presence and is no longer the butt of jokes on Whatsapp and Facebook, as propagated by BJP’s IT cell earlier. What is now needed is for Rahul Gandhi to lead from the front and make sure that he, alongside leading the Congress in election rallies, which is vital, also participates intensely in parliamentary debates – and most importantly, provides ideological clarity to the cadres and the people on his ideas regarding issues of social justice, welfare economics, and job-creation for a future prosperous India.