Can he deliver?

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Photo: Vijay Pandey
Photo: Vijay Pandey

Had you not been a Gandhi, would you have been in politics at all?” Arnab Goswami of Times Now asked Rahul Gandhi in an interview telecast on 27 January 2014. The fleeting moment of awkward silence that greeted the question was not only deafening but a little foreboding, too. A categorical and an emphatic “Yes” would have silenced critics, reassured sceptics and impressed fence-sitters but instead the young leader sought to explain, unconvincingly, what was at “the heart of my politics”.

Cut to April 2015 and a born again Rahul made a fresh attempt to shake off the tag of being a reluctant politician. The 19 April rally at Delhi’s Ramlila Grounds was billed as his comeback after a nearly two-month-long sabbatical during which he is understood to have reflected, cogitated and distilled his thoughts. And he cut to the chase by telling farmers who braved the afternoon sun: “Prime Minister Modi has brought the land acquisition Bill to repay his industrialist friends. He wants to give your land to the corporates from whom he had taken loans for his election campaign.”

Two parliamentary interventions in three days – giving the notice for an adjournment motion in the Lok Sabha on 22 April to debate net neutrality and his 20 April speech on the land acquisition Bill – were more than what even some his worst detractors might have anticipated. They are not entirely to blame; the statistics speak for themselves: In the past 11 years that he has been a Member of Parliament, Rahul has only made three speeches to date, participated in eight debates and asked only three questions. Moreover, his attendance in the Lok Sabha has dropped steadily from a high of 63 percent in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-2009) to 43 percent in the 15th Lok Sabha (2009-2014).

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Gone was the faux aggression of the “Congress Ek soch hai. Ye soch hamare dil mein hai” variety one saw in January 2014 or the wanton aggression of the ordinance-is-complete-nonsense-it-should-be-torn-up-and-thrown-away kind that one was witness to in September 2013 or even the emotion-laden “power is poison” speech at Jaipur in January 2013 after he was made the vice-president of the party.

In its place one saw a new visage, that of a confident and composed Rahul who was more assertive and less aggressive, more direct and less coy.

For once, the Gandhi scion commanded the discourse and forced a smug Modi government to react. Prime Minister Modi was drawn into the land acquisition debate early on when he sought to dispel critics by saying that his government remained committed to the welfare of farmers and disempowered minorities. In the Lok Sabha, Rahul employed wit and sarcasm, which Modi is known to use liberally in his speeches, to score a political point or two over the Treasury Benches when he chided the government and questioned Modi’s instincts for ignoring 67 percent of India’s population, which is dependent on agriculture.

Paint the town ‘pink’ Farmers from Haryana look on as Rahul Gandhi addresses a rally at the Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi on 19 April
Paint the town ‘pink’ Farmers from Haryana look on as Rahul Gandhi addresses a rally at the Ramlila Grounds in New Delhi on 19 April, Photo: Vijay Pandey

“I have a question in mind. If PM understands political [calculations], then why does he want to anger more than 67 per cent of the people?” Gandhi wondered aloud. And then came the coup de grace: “Only one answer comes to my mind and that is … the land price is increasing at a fast rate and your corporate friends want that land. That is why you are weakening the farmers and then you will hit them with the ordinance axe.”

As a long-time Congress watcher told TEHELKA, “Rahul seems to have put his absence to good use … he has worked on his speech-making capacities. A good indication of it was how his eloquence rattled the Modi government.”

Already, support is coalescing around a proposal from a section of the party to elevate the young leader to the post of the Congress president although it has met with reservations from the likes of Amrinder Singh, Sheila Dikshit and her son Sandeep.

Harish Khare, who served as media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in the UPA-2 government, thinks it is an opportune time to repose faith in the young Gandhi. “The sooner he takes over, the better it would be for the party,” Khare told TEHELKA. “Organisational confusion of two power centres (Sonia and Rahul) has to come to an end.” But has the new, improved version of Rahul come too little, too late? Can he deliver the Congress party from inconsequence? Does he have staying power? There are no easy answers yet.

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Sceptics abound

Sanjaya Baru, in his book The Accidental Prime Minister: The Making and Unmaking of Manmohan Singh, writes: “In UPA-1, Sonia and the Congress did not really have a Plan B; Rahul was not fit to become Prime Minister and Sonia did not trust anyone else apart from Dr Singh. In UPA-2, a Plan B began to emerge as Rahul started getting ready to take charge.” What followed from then on were all part of a series of ­orchestrated attempts by the Congress to burnish Rahul’s image and position him as a logical claimant to the post of prime minister.

It included, as sources told TEHELKA, a proposal to kick Manmohan Singh upstairs as President of India in succession to Pratibha Devisingh Patil in 2012 and elevate Rahul as Prime Minister but the idea fizzled out as quickly as it was floated because Pranab Mukherjee, who has since been sworn in as the President, let it be known that he would want to be the Prime Minister if Manmohan Singh became president, which was not acceptable to the Gandhi family.

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However, the poor showing by the Congress in the 2012 Assembly election in Uttar Pradesh put paid to those attempts, at least until the second half of 2013 when Rahul sought to carve out a niche for himself. “Probably, to bolster his image, Rahul chose defiance to authority as his strategy for political relevance,” Baru wrote in the book. That probably explained the Gandhi scion’s September 2013 outburst over an ordinance brought by the then UPA government for protecting convicted MPs and MLAs.

Baru, who was the media adviser to Manmohan Singh in the UPA-1 government, told TEHELKA that the young Gandhi was “a nice guy” but a “liability” for the Congress party. So does he still maintain that Manmohan Singh fared better than Rahul when it came to political instinct? “Most certainly. Without question,” Baru retorted. “Manmohan Singh is more politically astute than him.” He added that there was more to politics than giving impressive speeches: “[For one, it requires] a lot of patience.”

While Baru favoured Sonia Gandhi’s continuation at the helm of the party’s affairs, some others who did not want to be named insisted that Sonia has already had a long innings and that the party needs a new, younger leader. “By process of elimination, the only person available is Rahul,” a source said. It is argued that all organisations undergo renewal from time to time and Rahul ought to do it now because the first and last overhaul of the Congress happened at the time of Sanjay Gandhi when a new crop of young leaders came on the scene and who have served the party till now. They include Kamal Nath, Ahmed Patel, Ashok Gehlot and PC Chacko, among others, who cut their political teeth when Sanjay Gandhi was alive.

But does Rahul have it in him to take on a Modi? Some argued that people had an erroneous notion of what leadership was about and what it entails. The most common notion is that whoever wins an election is a leader; the corollary is that anyone who loses an election is not seen as a leader. This section of the party, which was behind Rahul, believed that the Congress needed to get its leadership act together and that there was a window of 18-odd months for doing just that.

Photo: Vikas Kumar
Lending an ear: Rahul Gandhi listens to farmers who met him in New Delhi on 18 April to express concern over the agrarian crisis and the land Bill Photo: Vikas Kumar

So where does all of this leave P Chidambaram’s comments made to NDTV in October 2014 when he said that a person from outside the Gandhi family could become the party president? (“Could a non-Gandhi be the Congress president?” Chidambaram was asked. His reply: “I think so, someday, someday yes.”) The jury was still out on that one. A sense of the Congress dilemma could be had from Baru’s book in which he wrote that former PM Narasimha Rao “believed that a political organisation that was more than a century old, the party of India’s freedom movement … ought to imagine for itself a life beyond the Nehru-Gandhi family”. However, Baru cited Mohit Sen, the late communist leader, as saying that “without a Nehru-Gandhi family member at the top, the Congress would splinter and wither away.”

Incidentally, after the Congress lost the parliamentary election in 1996, some party leaders had demanded that Rao step down as party president. One of them, Kamal Nath, was quoted as saying at the time that when a team loses, its captain ought to resign. However, there was no such demand made of the incumbent Congress president after the party’s debacle in the 2014 parliamentary election. Although the Gandhi family was reported to have offered to resign, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) was quick to pass a resolution expressing full faith in the leadership of Sonia and Rahul.

Going forward, Rahul would be expected to be politically savvy by not only keeping the government guessing but also establishing a working relationship with like-minded political parties, including, but not limited to, exploring possible alliances. In Sitaram Yechury, the newly-elected general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), the young Gandhi might have a moderate voice who might be more willing than his predecessor (Prakash Karat) to forge a common strategy to take on the government.

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Challenges remain

So, if Rahul is to indeed lead the party into the future, how should he go about it? There are as many opinions as there are people. According to Dilip Cherian, an image guru, a leader has to have three attributes: Consistency, brand value and action to justify him/her-self. “Rahul,” Cherian told TEHELKA, “falters on consistency. Sometimes he is the angry young man, at other times he plays the role of a vanished young man or an immune young man. Unfortunately, unless he decides to portray a consistent role, people wouldn’t know what to expect [from him]”.

Cherian (see graphic p31) believed that the Congress brains trust ought to impress upon Rahul to remain consistent, available and visible. If the young Gandhi has decided to adopt a pro-poor, pro-Dalit and pro-farmer approach, then it behoved of him to attack the gaps in the BJP’s fortress when it came to the disenfranchised minorities, which, he reasoned, “is a reasonably large canvas to play with.” His advice to the Gandhi scion: Get on social media!

Debashis Chatterjee, the author of Timeless Leadership: 18 Leadership Sutras from the Bhagavad Gita and a professor at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Lucknow and formerly director of IIM-Kozhikode, in turn, told TEHELKA that while political leadership was more complex than organisational leadership, someone like Rahul needed to be consistent and have a “growth team” comprising people with complementary capabilities (see graphic p31). He has a word of caution, too: Being pro-poor should not necessarily translate into being (or being seen as being) anti-corporate. The messaging, he said, has to be nuanced.

Point to ponder

Bob Dylan was barely 21 when he wrote the memorable lines, “How many roads must a man walk down, before you call him a man.” Exactly 53 years to the day after he wrote the lyric, Rahul, on 16 April, returned home to make a new beginning, as it were. He has set a blistering pace from the word go, but will he be consistent this time? The party certainly hopes so but, to quote Rahul back to himself, can “the man who comes in on a horse, the sun in the background, [with] a billion people waiting”, fix everything that is not going right for the Congress? Watch this space.

ramachandran@tehelka.com

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