Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session on 17 January in the capital, New Delhi, was, by far, one of the best ever delivered by anyone from the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Not for content, but for forceful display, correct Hindi phonetics, smooth delivery and right amount of theatrics, finger-wagging included. Rahul has come a long way from 2005, when he would just smile nervously and mumble inaudibly while addressing delegates. He also appears more determined and serious now about his role not just in the Congress, but also national politics. As things stand, that role may be of Leader of Opposition — which, in the balance, may not be such a bad thing.
Rahul’s father Rajiv Gandhi’s smooth ride to the top chair in 1984 received such severe lashings by 1988 that it not only lost the Congress its best-ever majority, but a third of the party itself. A couple of years in Opposition and people were yearning again for the charismatic Rajiv and the stability he represented. Meanwhile, the Congress was rid of some of its fat. Running a government with all its weights and complex measures can test the best. Hopes of a clean administration from VP Singh evaporated within 11 months. Delhi CM Arvind Kejriwal may be about to do an encore. That Rajiv’s son receives his lessons before ascension may actually energise the old party.
Those overly worried about Rahul’s lack of political charisma at 43 would do well to remember that Narendra Modi had at best only a quarter of it at the same age, different backgrounds and upbringing notwithstanding. A stint in the Opposition may actually bring out the influence of his uncle Sanjay on Rahul. Having lost in 1977, Sanjay showed he was made of sterner stuff and could lead street battles. Since then, the Congress has never had a leader in the same vein, unrattled by witch-hunts and court appearances. The BJP is feasting on “strong leadership is the need of the hour” theme, but they might be helping steel Rahul’s nerves.
As a party, where does the Congress stand? Or more precisely, what is Rahul inheriting but a bunch of tired, corrupt leaders ready to make compromises and strike deals at the slightest opportunity? Most BJP state governments are now in their third terms not because people don’t vote for the Congress, but because they don’t want to vote for this shameful lot. In terms of voteshare, the Congress still commands 40 percent share both in Sukhbir Singh Badal’s Punjab and Modi’s Gujarat, about 35 percent in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and yes, Rajasthan. The timely change of regional leadership has just not happened for it to forge ahead. The same Amarinder Singh, Digvijaya Singh, Kamal Nath, Ajit Jogi, Sushil Kumar Shinde, Ashok Gehlot, Suresh Pachauri, Pramod Tiwari continue to occupy prime space. At the same time, the BJP and other regional parties have built a leadership, ranging from Shivraj Singh Chouhan and Raman Singh in the north to Mamata Banerjee, Nitish Kumar and Naveen Patnaik in the east.
Rahul wants to learn from the success of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP). The main thing to absorb here is that people want change, a fresh face, a new ray of hope. In the recent round of Assembly polls, the Congress and the BJP together repeated 75 of the 90 sitting MLAs in Chhattisgarh; 50 of them lost. The Congress’ loss was greater at 27 out of 36. In Madhya Pradesh, 78 sitting MLAs lost, including 11 ministers in a house of 230. It is simple. A third of the house is never repeated, and if you insist, that can go up to more than half the house. Rahul needs to weed out fast and some of that weeding will happen on its own if he sits in Opposition for some time.
If Delhi is to remain a durbar and the Gandhis, the Mughals, then Rahul has to learn from history when the regent Bairam Khan was sent on a pilgrimage at the right time. Not many can recall the names of Todarmal or Birbal’s progeny, shining jewels they might have been at the peak of Mughal domination. The Mughals knew how to create and sustain satraps and just when to discard them. They knew that people would tolerate and even love the Mughal heirs but not the sons and daughters of the satraps. The foisting of Sachin Pilot and Arun Yadav is akin to promoting Todarmal’s sons, something people dislike. The Mughal simile may not be for the Gandhis and the Congress alone, as today regional dynasts have emerged everywhere and wisely do not allow more dynasties within their own systems: whether its Badal, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Lalu Prasad Yadav or Ramvilas Paswan. A stint in the Opposition may teach Rahul all this and much more. He may be better off learning his politics on the streets rather than in cloistered rooms.