There is a strategic political coup that Rahul Gandhi can execute, and thereby transform the entire landscape of the 2019 election. Routine politicking won’t do in the present climate because Narendra Modi’s oratorical ability to attract mass attention is unrivalled and his party has the advantage of being in power. It will be foolish to see 2019 as a Modi versus Rahul test. The Congress should understand this unusual situation and take unusual steps to meet the challenge.
Rahul can swing everything in his favour with a bit of daring, and a bit of the long view. The first step is to know that he cannot just shrug off the combined handicap of inexperience in government, relative youth and the dynasty tag. Modi makes fun of these by using nicknames like Shazada and Pappu. To imagine that this drawback can be overcome with fiery speeches, a foreign visit or two, and modern marketing technology would be to succumb to the temptations of power. Pressures to commit this mistake must be resisted with daring.
The long view is needed to realise that he has nothing to lose by waiting. Time is on his side. If he remains Congress president but formally withdraws from the perceived prime-minister-to-be position, it will be a boost to the Opposition among whom there are leaders sceptical of his lack of exposure to public office. The acceptability level of the Congress will increase simultaneously, making Opposition unity easier to attain. The Congress will remain a major component of the Opposition alliance, entitled to all the benefits of a victor in case the alliance wins a majority in the election.
What if the Congress wins enough seats on its own to become a legitimate claimant for prime ministership? The shrewdest move Rahul Gandhi can make in such a situation is to put up another Congress leader for the top post and himself become a Cabinet minister intent on gaining administrative experience. That will raise his political stock sky-high.
Indira Gandhi was a minister in Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri’s Cabinet, and she was the better administrator for that (although she didn’t like it at the time). By contrast, Chandrashekhar was a member of Parliament for many years, active as a Young Turk. But he became prime minister straightaway in November 1990 without any administrative experience in any branch of government. The result was that he became something of an Old Turk as prime minister and lasted only seven months, after which he withered away.
Rahul Gandhi can kill two birds with one stone. While withdrawal from the prime ministerial race will crown him with a halo of wisdom, the presence of Congressmen with unimpeachable prime ministerial quality will strengthen the standing of his party in any alliance. Choosing the right one is a problem a party president with Rahul Gandhi’s clout can easily solve.
To cite two examples, P Chidambaram is unofficially mentioned as a potential prime minister. But he could well be a disaster. For one thing, “whispers” about his PM qualities were contrived as far back as in 2012, when “overseas media”, including such weighty titles as The Economist carried the whispers. The Congress even ordered an internal inquiry about it. A more important factor against him is that his name is linked rightly or wrongly with corruption cases, his son contributing to that negative asset. Chidambaram is capable, educated and modernistic, but he is unpopular. His image is his enemy.
Mallikarjun Kharge, on the other hand, is a dream candidate for prime ministership. One of the most experienced politicians in public life today, he has handled ministerial portfolios for more than 40 years, in his state and at the Centre. The portfolios have included, education, panchayati raj, industries, revenue, transport and home. The crowning glory is that he has handled all these without attracting corruption scandals. This must be a unique record.
Kharge has a couple of other qualifications that are important in India’s convoluted politics. He is from the south who speaks Hindi like a native. His role as the virtual Leader of the Opposition in Parliament has evoked the reluctant admiration of even the ruling party. Additionally, he is from a Scheduled Caste, though he never plays the caste card. A Congress party that puts up Mallikarjun Kharge as its prime ministerial candidate, with Rahul Gandhi confidently waiting in the background, will be a formidable force in 2019. The only question is whether Rahul will have the daring and the long view to grab the opportunity.