Challenges galore for Rahul Gandhi

| | in Oped

With Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi all set to take over the reins of his party next month, he has his task cut out. While the immediate test for him will be the upcoming elections to various State Assemblies, the real test will be the 2019 Lok Sabha poll

So at last, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi is ready to take over the reins of the 132-year-old Congress next month. There is a sigh of relief in the party that finally, suspense will be over. His take over as the party president might end the “will he, won’t he”  suspense and open a new chapter in the party.  Though he chose the US to announce that he was ready to be a challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 Lok Sabha poll, the young Gandhi has his task cut out to build the organisation in the next 18 months and keep it poll-ready. The party has been on a steady decline since 2014.

The timing is advantageous for Rahul Gandhi as the ruling NDA is under attack on account of growth decline, inflation, job losses and problems arising out of the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax and demonetisation. For the first time after three and a half years, Prime Minister Modi is on the defensive about the slow down of the economy.

 There are many in the party who would still bet on his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi to take on Modi, particularly the old guard, who feel quite comfortable with her. One senior leader remarked that at least now, the dual power centre will end and Rahul Gandhi can lead the party from the front. Sonia Gandhi led the party for a record 19 years; of which 10 years, the Congress-led UPA ruled the country. 

Rahul Gandhi has been in politics since 2004 and there has been speculation about his elevation ever since he became the party vice president in 2013. With Sonia Gandhi’s health problems and the party facing leadership crisis, it has become necessary for Rahul Gandhi to take the plunge.

But what does Rahul Gandhi’s elevation mean? He will be the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi family member to head the Congress — a very long time indeed to play dynastic politics! It is clear that there are no challengers to the Gandhi family and his elevation would be smooth.  The important thing, however, is: How will Rahul Gandhi project himself as an alternative to Prime Minister Modi?

It is not an easy task and he has to be a 24/ 7 politician to produce results and ready his foot soldiers. The immediate test will be in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections. While the Congress is ruling in Himachal Pradesh, the party is poised as an alternate to the BJP in Gujarat. The BJP is facing acute anti-incumbency in Gujarat where it has been ruling since 1995, except a brief 18 months of President’s rule. 

Next year, there are elections to at least eight State Assemblies, including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka, and in most of these States, the BJP and the Congress have been in direct contest for decades. Then, there will be the 2019 Lok Sabha poll.

Second, Rahul Gandhi’s elevation might end leadership confusion as there is no single command, with the mother-son duo taking most of the decisions and the two have their own coteries. Many in the party feel that it is better late than never and the elevation might give him both confidence and the authority, which might help him to function better even if he makes mistakes. While Sonia Gandhi will continue to be the mentor of the party, Rahul Gandhi will have to take the credit or the discredit of the party’s performance hence forth.

Third, Rahul Gandhi will have to build his own team. It is not as if he did not have a say earlier, but in the past few months, he has put his men in important positions and also chosen young Congress leaders as Pradesh Congress presidents and the All India Congress Committee general secretaries. He has mostly shown the door to old timers who were apprehensive of their positions in the new regime.

Fourth, will he be able to provide leadership to the coalition?  The UPA allies have been disappointed with his hide-and-seek politics. He is junior to leaders like Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party or Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress or Lalu Yadav of the Rashtriya Janata Dal. While they had no problem in functioning under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, will they accept Rahul Gandhi as the UPA prime ministerial candidate? A win in the coming Assembly elections might establish his leadership even

among the allies.

 But the most important thing is how to change the narrative. It is clear that the communal/secular theme has not worked so far.  Merely criticising the Modi Government will not help the party get votes. The Congress has to come out with a clear-cut agenda of what it stands for and what it wants to do to win over the people.

Pro-poor policies and a viable caste combination are sure shots for winning elections, as has been proved by the Modi-led BJP. The Congress also has to come out with an economic agenda, which will appeal to the voters.

Last but not the least, is communication. Till now, the Congress vice president’s efforts to connect with the people of the country have failed. His efforts to concentrate on the social media has given some results as he has added two million followers on his twitter account in the past two months.

No one expects Rahul Gandhi to wave a magic wand, as the horse can only be taken to the pond but many will watch him closely.  It is for him to prove his merit in the next 18 months.

(The writer is a senior political commentator and syndicated columnist)

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