Author of Aadhaar: A Biometric
History of India’s 12 Digit Revolution,
and Accidental India
In his treatise, The Prince, Niccolo Machiavelli observes that there are two critical variables for success. One is Fortuna, or the cards that one has been dealt with. The other is Virtu, or inherent ability. He says, “I hold it to be true that fortune is the arbiter of one-half of our actions, but that she still leaves us to direct the other half, or perhaps a little less.” On Saturday, Rahul Gandhi, by the twists of fate and Fortuna, took charge of the grand old party of India, the Indian National Congress. The party is arguably at its worst. It is not only about what he is left with in terms of seat and vote shares, but also who he is faced with for an opponent. Neither Rajiv Gandhi nor Sonia Gandhi, and perhaps even Indira Gandhi, had to confront someone like Narendra Modi.
Fortune, says Machiavelli “shows her power where valour has not prepared to resist her.” While examining the inter play, Machiavelli says the Prince must cultivate Virtu, match Virtu with Fortuna, embrace risk and do what it takes. Thus far, as the vice president and particularly in the campaign in Gujarat, he has been lending his voice to issues that have occupied attention and triggered outrage. A party president, however, cannot be only the symbol of agitprop politics.
In the age of social media and hysterical hashtags, RaGa is the acronymised title for Rahul Gandhi. Raga, has its origins in Sanskrit, literally meaning colour or passion. Raga is also the expression of moods, of music. Typically, an Indian raga is based on a scale with a set of notes in a particular order. Success in politics too needs notes to be set to scale.
The question is: does RaGa have a signature tune?
Jawaharlal Nehru invested political capital on pluralism, democratic traditions and scientific temper — and in atomic energy and space programmes. His faith in socialism was influenced partially by Fabian socialists and partly by the Congress, which even before the Independence was rooting for a socialistic pattern. And swayed by he victory of the Soviet Union over the mighty Germany he opted for state-led industrialisation.
Indira Gandhi by contrast wasn’t wedded to ideology per se. She had a juke box of tunes. In 1966, India under Indira devalued the rupee 57 per cent and had plans to open up the economy. Liberalisation was aborted after lenders backed out. In the late sixties, she split the party and turned Left to preserve power — bank nationalisation et al followed. The creation of Bangladesh enabled capitalisation of nationalism. In 1980, on her return after the disastrous Emergency, she dumped the Left and the Soviets and chose to befriend the US and signed tech and trade agreements with Ronald Reagan.
Rajiv Gandhi, an accidental politician, chose modernity. In his early avatar he ‘outed’ the power brokers, allowed raid raj under V P Singh the raids raja, opened up imports, put technology and computerisation on the map and introduced the usage of 21st Century in political discourse. That he messed it up flirting with contentious mandir-masjid politics when engulfed by corruption charges is a salutary lesson on how not to! Regardless, to many, he represented aspirational India.
Sonia Gandhi, a reluctant politician, came in with obvious left of centre leanings — her perference for rights-based approach and entitlement economics was reflected in her support to activists and movements even before coming to power. Unsurprisingly, political power, in UPA I and UPA II, was deployed to write out a regime of entitlements — from MGNREGS to RTI to Forest Rights to Food Security.
Globally, parties have reinvented themselves after hitting the trough — although few have plumbed the depths that the Congress has. So what is the model for revival? There is the Tony Blair model where he articulated ‘the third way’, which repositioned the fuddy-duddy Labour Party. Barrack Obama evangelised the audacity of hope with the sum of pieces approach to politics and economics to counter Republicans. More recently, Jeremy Corbyn, dubbed winner in defeat by the British press, used leftist socialism to re-revive the Labour Party.
The Congress is really a coalition of ideologies and interests and in a sense this affords molding an approach. This requires reconstruction of the operating model. The Congress party is infested with geriatrics in a country with a median age of 29. The grip of feudal, loyalty-based rent seekers, an anathema for aspiring middle class voters and urban India, precludes lateral entry of fresh blood and thinking. Ideation and execution calls for induction of merit and experience and a structure, something akin to King Arthur’s round table with seating for the seasoned and a shadow cabinet of the young to challenge the establishment.
When the Congress was in power, RaGa, swinging between the de facto and the de jure status, often struck notes signaling what he was for or against. In the Opposition, amidst all the discounting and caricaturing, he has frequently railed against what he sees as wrong. Activism on what is wrong must be accompanied by articulation of how things can be made right. What is the model — of politics and economics — that Rahul presents as an alternative?
Politics also must accept the dictates of realism and need for realignment. The leap from 44 to 272 MPs requires a miracle — the Congress is like a start-up taking on a behemoth. The predominance of Modi, and the BJP’s expansion, has pushed regional outfits in a corner. In corporate-speak, market share can come via mergers, acquisitions and collaboration. Does Rahul have a template which will persuade expansion of allegiance and affiliation?
Composing a signature tune calls for arrangement of ensemble — of the strings quartet, keyboard, and percussion. Can RaGa leverage Fortuna with Virtu to deliver a signature tune?