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The transformation of Rahul Gandhi
As he prepares to take over as Congress president, the Nehru-Gandhi scion must build on the traction he has been getting of late if he wants to be a long-term player in Indian politics
Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi is likely to take over the reins of his party on December 5, ending the ‘suspense’. He will be fifth member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty to become the president of the 132-year-old party. Congress strategists are delighted that in the run-up to the elections in Gujarat next month, Rahul Gandhi is getting a good response.
Rahul seems to have engineered a remarkable makeover by shedding his reticence and adding a ‘talky’ approach to his public image. He has been doing a much better job as campaigner and in terms of speech delivery. The issues he has taken up to attack the BJP clearly indicates a carefully crafted strategy of the party managers. His September US trip showed that he had some careful coaching. After dilly-dallying for 14 years, Rahul himself declared from the US that he was ready to become the Congress party’s prime ministerial candidate.
Rahul has reasons to smile as he is being taken seriously. His new-found humour in his tweets and responses are catching traction in social media perhaps because he is able to catch the imagination of the people. Moreover, he is no longer just a shrill critic of Narendra Modi but raises much more calmly issues of importance — both political as well as economic. The GST and demonetisation, the two economic issues he has taken up, are important as they represent the discontent among the traders, middle class and others. People who were dismissing him as “pappu” have sat up to look at him afresh. The bigger change is that the BJP has been responding to the issues he has raised instead of ridiculing him. Not only senior cabinet ministers but also Modi and Amit Shah have reacted to Rahul Gandhi’s charges on economy and other issues. A senior Congress leader says, “I don’t know what is happening. Earlier we used to request most newspapers and channels to give us some space and they never did. Today, on their own, the media coverage of Rahul and the Congress has increased considerably.” Party strategists believe that he is on the way to becoming a 24/7 politician. “Once he takes over as the party chief, he might even become more accessible. He will have to if he wants to make a mark,” says a Congress Working Committee member.
All this improvement will disappear if Rahul as Congress president does not deliver. It is too early to say whether Rahul’s presidency will make a positive difference to the Congress because the task ahead is stupendous. Though in the short run nothing much might change, in the long run, Rahul needs to think of a strategy if he is serious about emerging an alternate to Modi. Clearly, Modi- bashing alone is not enough. There are no short cuts except to build an alternative development agenda and a new narrative. The Pachmarhi conclave and Shimla conclave brainstorming sessions had yielded new ideas in the past. In 2004, the Congress came up with the concept of “Aam admi” which clicked. He needs some out-of-the-box thinking to woo voters.
Secondly, it is vital to build the organisation, which is in shambles. Unfortunately, both mother and son have taken little initiative in the organization all these years. Unless this is done, the Congress has no hope to rule again. The BJP has a strong leader, organisational strength, the support of the Parivar and unlimited finance.
Thirdly, the party needs second-rung leaders. The Congress had in the past strong State leaders like BC Roy, Sanjiva Reddy, Morarji Desai and YB Chavan and also national leaders like Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajendra Prasad, and Sardar Patel. An insecure Indira Gandhi had put puppets in the States, which continues still.
Fourthly, a good team with a blend of old guard and the younger leaders is required. The old guard will provide the experience while the younger ones will induct fresh blood. Pedigreed leaders like Jyothiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot and Deepender Hooda are in his inner circle. Though it cannot be a disqualification he has to ensure others also get importance.
Fifthly, the party has to find ways of connecting with the people. Only this will retain old voters and get new voters. Chanting Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi will not help any more as many youth voters have no clue about who they are. They have aspirations, which need to be fulfilled.
The sixth is to build a good caste coalition. In the past, the Congress had a winning caste combination of Brahmins, Dalits, Muslims and Backward classes. But they had all moved away due to the emergence of caste and identity-based parties. Rahul has to find ways of getting them back by way of social engineering.
The seventh is to build credible alliances. Sonia Gandhi was able to build the UPA in 2004 but it is shrinking. Since it may take a while for the Congress to come to power on its own, the alliance is the next best way to fight the BJP. After all, Modi had come to power with just 31 per cent of votes; the rest are scattered. The efforts should be to ensure that Opposition votes are not split.
It still remains to be seen whether the Gandhi scion can emerge as a formidable opponent to the Prime Minister. He has to show his determination, dedication and political astuteness to match Modi's leadership. One visible aspect though of his transformation, is that for the first time the Gandhi scion is enjoying his role as Opposition leader.
(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)
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