It was some years ago, during an unscheduled conversation in Parliament, informal and with a touch of banter, that a senior journalist lobbed that age-old Indian question to Rahul Gandhi: on his marriage plans. Rahul’s repartee was equally on the borderzone between light and serious: “You people keep talking about dynasty, why do want to me prolong it further?”
He was yet to be appointed vice-president of the Congress and casual exchanges were still possible. And an unstated code ensures that such off-the-record remarks usually never find their way to news spaces. But this one did: call it ‘public interest’, if you will. Headlines spoke of the ‘Bhishma-like pratigya’ of Rahul Gandhi, till Congress minders, who then had enough clout with the media, pulled strings to get that spicy bit of news spiked.
Being a dynast is an accusation that has followed Rahul Gandhi, and will hound him through his life: that’s the other side of the Faustian pact. It had similarly followed his father, in those early days of his initiation. Sonia Gandhi too faced her own special brand of hostility, unremittingly, for being a vital part of a dynastic story.
Even Indira Gandhi was not spared criticism for promoting her sons in politics, and converting the grand old party into a family fiefdom, despite the overhanging tragedy of Sanjay Gandhi’s death. The talk around her only subsided with far more momentous events, bigger tragedies and triumphs, taking over the news cycle. (Of course, the level of discourse was different then, but both the crown and the barbs around it were bequeathed to Rajiv).
The Gandhi family did not have to compete with the Mughal dynasty as a reference point. Nor are the critical opposition or editorial writers as a logical corollary comparable to the following colonial rule. All that is facetious. What is a fact is that, history apart, Rahul will have to put up with accusations of being a dynast—of having it easy, with an unchallenged succession lined up for him—till he comes to change the news climate around him.
For that to happen, Rahul has to either give the Congress some stunning electoral victories, or ensure the Congress brand is not subservient to the Nehru-Gandhi family’s brand equity—or, indeed, both. That would be a far more lasting solution.
If Rahul Gandhi wants the Congress and its idea of India to be saved, there’s really no two ways about it. And they do need to be saved. Not because of his political career, nor even because the Congress has to survive the vagaries of time in an obviously changed world, but because the people of India need a viable option, a minimum bipolarity, to be a functioning and robust democracy.
So that, as it evolves, it can prove democracy actually takes roots beyond EVM buttons, and India’s politics is not defined by a succession of single-party majorities, a new form of reign, one following the other, with interludes.
Did the Congress have opposing polarities to contend with when it was in its prime? Were similar perceptions of calamity and doomsaying foregrounded if the opposite happened? Undoubtedly.
India has had a bipolar politics, with shades of multi-polarity and politically very active zones, all through. Even before Independence. Take, for instance, the landscape in the run-up to the partition of Bengal in 1947. It’s not just the Congress posited against the Muslim League. It’s also the complex interplay of the Hindu Mahasabha, the CPI and the Prajatantra Party—a Dalit outfit talking in exclusive Bengali identitarian terms—that determines the course of history.
Take Nehru or Indira or Rajiv, the three Congress prime ministers who had the chance to head majority governments. They were never without a powerful political force juxtaposed against them, whether inside Parliament or the polity. Their political/electoral outreach or brand equity notwithstanding.
The Herculean task for Rahul is reviving the Congress on the ground: through popular support and cadre revivification, which feed off each other. The rise and spread of Modi-era BJP, particularly in UP and Assam, proves all that leadership can do. Much is often made of the might of the RSS, its grass roots presence, its socio-religious network, its multifarious pan-India fronts. Had that been enough, Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh would not have come to power. The Jan Sangh/BJP would have had governments before Vajpayee’s. However, it’s evident that the Sangh is a force multiplier.
Rahul too needs his force multipliers. Beyond establishing his own brand equity—it takes more than just bolstering his ‘Hindu identity’—it’s the Congress and its frontal organisations that need to be breathed life into. These are not identical objectives, though linked. The first is integral to the task: and the way he’s doing it in Gujarat, the effect of the hard work is palpable, and the GoP suddenly looking fighting fit.
Going beyond means becoming an attractive enough political platform for newer, younger forces to join in. To foster and cultivate the presence of new leaders in the states—imagine this Gujarat campaign with a charismatic chief ministerial candidate.
For, Rahul is not inheriting the Congress of either Indira or Rajiv. Nor does he have the advantage of his mother, who was backed by strong satraps like YSR. But the party committed hara-kiri in Andhra/Telangana. Rahul can count only Siddaramiah and Amarinder Singh as of now.
Yes, he may not have to bother about Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh; both have two ambitious young men wanting to CMs to keep the Congress alive. Maharashtra too has not entirely fallen off the radar. And other pockets like Kerala and Himachal.
But in UP, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, Bengal and Odisha, the Congress needs to be virtually built from scratch. Rahul cannot do it all by himself. He also has to manage public perceptions on an ongoing basis on a wide range of topics: from economic policy to Ayodhya. The survival of the Congress depends as much on him as on the Congress itself.
Political Editor, The New Indian Express