The Congress Party published full-page advertisements in New York to announce a Rahul Gandhi meeting there. It made history by including, alongside the pictures of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira, Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, those of Lal Bahadur Shastri and P V Narasimha Rao. Shastri was never recognised during the Sonia years while Narasimha Rao was actively ostracised. To give the non-person that was Rao all these years a place now in the galaxy suggests something of an internal revolution.
Is there one? Is the Congress finally acknowledging the need to re-invent itself if it is to have an address in Narendra Modi's India? Rahul Gandhi’s American tour was itself a pointer to the party’s willingness to do new things. It was essentially a tour of intellectual America by a man considered uniquely un-intellectual. Apparently he made efforts to catch up. Early photographs showed him in Silicon Valley flanked by IT wizard Sam Pitroda, author-diplomat Shashi Tharoor and savvy Mumbaikar Milind Deora, all practitioners of the Kalam art of igniting minds.
Whether it was their influence, or the bracing holiday weather of California, or the compulsions imposed by Modi’s relentless march, Rahul Gandhi rose to unexpected heights, impressing university crowds that are usually hard to impress. The key tactic was to compliment the enemy where necessary and to acknowledge mistakes on his own side. He praised Modi’s communication skills and also his Make in India programme. The focus of this policy, he said thoughtfully, should be on small and medium businesses which do not get access to finance and the legal system. If this was done, Make in India would be a powerful idea, said Rahul. Frank, balanced, informed.
He was just as frank when he said that the Congress Party had developed “a certain amount of arrogance” at one time, that some concepts of UPA-2 had use-by date ten years old. The only off-colour remark was that dynasty “is the way India runs”. That’s not the way India runs right now. And it’s fatuous to compare private industrial dynasties with contrived political dynasties. That slip-up apart, Rahul’s American tour was a success. This was proved when Smriti Irani was scared into calling him “a failed dynast”.
However, Rahul’s success in the US is unlikely to help him or the Congress. The big problem that makes rejuvenation hard for the Congress is the internal fight between the old generation and the young. This is a unique Indian problem. In civilised democracies presidents and prime ministers serve their term, then leave it to others. Obama is still young and active, but he is not manoeuvring to become President again.
In our country, Mulayam Singh and Mayawati still imagine that the nation needs them. Lalu Prasad, discredited and legally debarred from public office, is convinced that Bihar and India itself will be poorer without his services. Oommen Chandy, caught in a maze of scandals that brought humiliation to his party, insists on serving the people. Political leaders never see what others see.
In the Congress, Rahul Gandhi brought in some new faces. Some of them were miserable failures, like Arun Yadav in Madhya Pradesh. But some did well, like K C Venugopal who replaced Digvijay Singh as the in-charge in Karnataka. (Digvijay Singh and before him Ghulam Nabi Azad had contributed mightily to the devaluation of the Congress in Karnataka because they became patron saints of the state’s corrupt Congressmen).
Rahul will be unable to move forward unless he takes a good chunk of the veterans with him. Veterans who still have clout must be in, like Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh. Those with poor track record must be sidelined, like Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan. State-wise, personalised adjustments, patiently canvassed and carefully implemented, can give the Congress a new look, essential for a new future.
Rahul Gandhi cannot bring this about. Sonia Gandhi can because the old guard is beholden to her. She can make them accept a restructuring by telling them that without the infusion of some new blood and new thinking, the Congress will sink. This is perhaps the only chance she will get.
The gap between words and deeds under the BJP Government’s dispensation, the many policy breakdowns of recent years and the economic dislocation that has become too serious for the Government to hide have created a situation where the BJP is no longer the unstoppable force it seemed at first. By uniting the old guard and the younger leaders who have proved themselves, Sonia Gandhi can make history in 2019. This is her moment.