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The long wait may be over but many questions remain

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The long wait may be over but many questions remain

That Rahul Gandhi is finally being elevated to lead the Congress is not surprising at all. Nevertheless, the million dollar question is: Has the Congress scion developed the political acumen to take on the BJP?

It was one of the worst kept or rather the most publicized secret of Indian politics — Rahul Gandhi becoming the president of the Congress. Ever since he came into politics and contested the Amethi Lok Sabha seat 13 years ago in 2004, there was not even an iota of doubt that he would be the top boss of the party one day.

The reason is simple: ‘Dynasty’ is the keyword for the Congress and a leader, whose mother, father, grandmother and great grandfather have been Congress presidents, would naturally take over the mantle some day. There is no rocket science involved here and everyone, even in the remotest part of the country, perhaps, knew it. It was simply a matter of time as the question merely was ‘when’ and not ‘who’.

No wonder, soon after he became an MP, there had been a consistent clamour by an overwhelming section of the younger generation of Congress leaders, primarily the dynasts and speculation in the middle and upper echelons of the deeply entrenched party men and women, as to when and how will Rahul Gandhi take over from his mother, Sonia Gandhi.

Now that the decks have been cleared and the heir-apparent for a long time would finally take over as Congress president in the first week of December, speculations will finally end. In fact, after having occupied the post of the party president for the highest number of years in the entire 132-year-old history of the Congress, speculation would now be on the role of party chief Sonia Gandhi in the grand old party. Also, what will now be the role of the old guard of the Congress, which has been consistently loyal to Sonia Gandhi and who managed to read her mind over the years as also influenced her directly or indirectly, occasionally in conflict with the stated desires of the younger Gandhi. 

Perhaps what prompted the Congress to anoint Rahul Gandhi as the new party chief at this juncture in the month, when the Congress was founded in 1885, was the perpetual indisposition of 70-year-old Sonia Gandhi. In the high decibel, Himachal Pradesh Assembly election, she did not campaign at all. Even in the ongoing campaign in Gujarat, she is conspicuous by her absence. She was vacationing in Himachal Pradesh when a small bout of illness again forced her to go back to Delhi. She has been in and out of India for treatment for a while now.

In fact, it was the 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi, who was made the party vice president in 2013, who was the de facto party president for the last four years after officially becoming the Number Two in the party hierarchy at the Jaipur convention. It is a different matter that now, this official No. 2 position is being sought to be elevated to Number 1, even though the entire brass of the party knows that the actual decision-making since 2013 was being done by Rahul Gandhi himself.

The million dollar or rather the billion rupee question is: Has Rahul Gandhi re-invented himself to take on the mantle of not only the Congress but also the electoral charisma of Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

As we can see in the electoral polity, it is increasingly becoming a clash of towering personalities, something similar to the presidential form of contest and electioneering in the United States. Rahul Gandhi proved himself to be incapable of taking on Prime Minister Modi in the 2014 Lok Sabha poll, followed by several Assembly elections, the most important of which was the Uttar Pradesh Assembly poll.

In his home State, Rahul Gandhi himself selected the candidates, and decided to go for an electoral alliance with the Samajwadi Party and then faced one of the most crushing defeats of his lifetime, the second time in a row. When he took the mantle in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh poll, taking all decisions, the party just managed a little over five per cent of the seats. Both in 2012 and 2017, the entire political strategy in the largest State of the country of the soon-to-become Congress president collapsed like a house of cards, exposing him to several uncomfortable and probing questions.

Of course, what saved Rahul Gandhi from a complete political humiliation in March this year was the redemption in Punjab to a great extent. Here again, in the clash of two personalities — Capt Amarinder Singh on one side and the Badal duo on the other (Parkash Singh Badal and his son Sukhbir Singh Badal), the former won. Even though Rahul Gandhi’s political strategy was limited to non-interference in Punjab affairs and leaving almost everything to Capt Amarinder, no one would really call it a sign of a maturing Rahul Gandhi. Punjab cannot really be termed as a victory for Rahul Gandhi’s political acumen. Not even the staunchest Congress supporter would buy that argument.

So, what has changed between the disaster of Uttar Pradesh in March and certain ascension of Rahul Gandhi in December? Politically, nothing but perception wise, the Congress is thinking that the tide is somewhat turning against the BJP at the Centre and it is the right time for Rahul Gandhi to take over so that he can be projected as a leader of stature against Modi in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha poll. The party, perhaps, thinks that by projecting a prime ministerial candidate, they would be able to stitch up an anti-Modi alliance in the remaining months.

There is also a belief amongst Congress strategists that an element of voter fatigue with the BJP has crept in after being in power for three and a half years at the Centre and they are increasingly finding traction once again amongst the electorate.

In the last six months or so, speeches of Rahul Gandhi in foreign countries and during election campaigns in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat, is being cited as signs of the maturing of a leader. Of course, Rahul Gandhi does not sound immature now the way he did all through his tenure as a politician, it remains to be seen how it translates into votes in the near future. In fact, trust deficit of the electorate with the Congress has only widened over the years and months since the summer of 2014, when the grand old party of the country was reduced to its lowest figure in its entire electoral history of independent India.

Instead of reinventing itself in any big way and offering a new narrative to counter the electoral juggernaut of the BJP, the Congress is more or less counting on anti-incumbency, if any, against the Modi Government and is hoping that the alleged negative impact of demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax on the economy would help it overcome the political odds stacked against it. Being the principal opposition party at the Centre and most States, it is hoping that it would come to power by default rather than by a concrete design and roadmap. Is it a mere wishful thinking or is there any concrete electoral traction on the ground, only the results of Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat on December 18 would show.

Rahul Gandhi would become the party president in the middle of the Gujarat election campaign — a State where the party is hoping to make a comeback bid. Not that the Congress hopefuls are hoping to return to power in a State where they have been out of the equation for decades. All they are thinking at this moment is a good show to use it as a launch pad for the next 16 months when the rival political parties would try to match each other in high decibel in the run up to the general election of 2019.

(The writer is senior editor at The Pioneer, Chandigarh)

 
 
 
 
 

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