For a sinking galley, even a floating straw offers the hope of succour. Inbuilt in each failure is the opportunity for redemption. Such is life for the highly demoralised 128-year-old Congress party. For the past few weeks, Gandhi Inc was running around like a headless chicken. It lacked leadership. It existed sans a mission. It had lost all of its aura and visibility. Both its admirers and detractors had dashed off its political obituary, though there remained loyalists who felt that the Congress may be bruised and dented but the idea and ideology of the party was immortal and capable of surviving any political tsunami, hurricane or tornado.
Last Friday, a small miracle turned into an organisational windfall for the beleaguered dynasty. When it won all the three Assembly by-elections in Uttarakhand, the entire Congress leadership went into frenzy as if it had recovered some long lost glory. From Sonia and Rahul Gandhi to CM Harish Rawat, as well as some middle-level leaders, none of them lost any time in terming the victory as the waning of Modi wave which demolished the Congress in the Lok Sabha elections. The Uttarakhand win was much more than just an electoral triumph. Some influential Congress leaders saw it as a vindication of Rahul Gandhi’s policy of trusting the local leadership which had thwarted all attempts to destabilise them. Soon after the Congress lost all the five Lok Sabha seats in the state to the BJP with huge margins just a few months ago, there was clamour to replace all the CMs of those states in which the party’s performance was pathetic. Replacing Rawat was one of the demands of the dissidents because even his wife had lost the elections. But Rahul stuck to his guns. As one of his trusted aides said jokingly, “Rahul follows the principle of leadership enunciated by Napoleon Bonaparte that a ‘leader is a dealer in hope’.” Rahul firmly believes in hope and therefore has ignored all protests and machinations. It is rare for a ruling party in a state to win by-polls within two months of losing in the national elections. Rawat had been given a free hand. As a result, not only had he himself won with a huge margin of over 20,000 votes while convalescing in hospital, the other Congress candidates defeated their saffron rivals impressively. The Congress snatched two Assembly seats from the BJP; one of which was vacated by former BJP CM Ramesh Pokhriyal Nishank.
The Congress is obviously celebrating its marginal recovery in Uttarakhand. But it also means that the Rahul line will prevail in the party. Sonia has always practised the policy of not disturbing CMs in adversity. She had allowed Sheila Dikshit, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, late YSR Reddy, Tarun Gogoi and others to continue in office even after electoral reversals. Of late, however, powerful voices have been seeking the replacement of CMs like Hooda, Prithviraj Chavan, and Gogoi. Historically it’s shown that when the Congress is not in power, it acquires much more ferocity in opposing itself rather than the party ruling in the state or at the Centre. It rules united but fights its opponents divided. Ever since it lost the elections, both the anti-Rahul elements and conniving CM aspirants have been running relentless campaigns for a change of leaders. Some of them even threatened to leave the party and join the BJP. For example, in Assam, 28 MLAs, including a couple of ministers, even went to the governor with a letter expressing no confidence in Gogoi’s leadership. In Haryana, a former Union minister considered close to the AICC boss and a former State congress chief revolted against the CM. In Maharashtra, it was not just its ally, the Nationalist Congress party, but also prominent Congress ministers like Narayan Rane who demanded that Chavan should be replaced pronto if the Congress wanted to put up even a symbolic fight against the mighty Shiv Sena-BJP alliance.
For a while now, Rahul has been under fire for the party’s worst-ever performance since Independence. Pressure was mounted on him to change his non-political (so called) Rasputins in his kitchen cabinet. None of them had any political experience and a few of them had left lucrative assignments abroad to join the young scion. But instead of yielding to pressure, he took a brief sabbatical and returned to active politics with aggravated aggression. It is the new Rahul Congress which has been taking on the Modi government inside and outside the government. Mr Gandhi contemptuously dismissed every suggestion to sideline C P Joshi and Madhusudan Mistry, portrayed as the villains of the Congress’s debacle. The Congress decision to go after Madhya Pradesh CM Shivraj Singh Chouhan and disrupt Parliament on any and every issue is part of Rahul’s strategy to keep the limelight on the Congress.
For both PM Narendra Modi and his Enemy No. 1 Rahul Gandhi, the upcoming Assembly polls in Haryana, Delhi and Maharashtra are deemed crucial. If a defeat in these states, currently ruled by (barring Delhi) the Congress, would dent Modi’s armour of invincibility, it will also strengthen the anti-Rahul forces within the Congress. Rahul has placed full confidence in all the three CMs who are in trouble. After dithering for couple of weeks, it was he who decided to let both Chavan and Hooda lead the Assembly elections. For Assam, Rahul even ignored Mallikarjun Kharge’s report suggesting a review of state leadership. He has scrupulously kept himself away from his party’s desperate bid to acquire the Leader of the Opposition status in the Lok Sabha.
Though Rahul doesn’t have the powers of the party president, he seems to enjoy veto power on all crucial decisions. Perhaps Rahul is still undergoing an apprenticeship for leadership. But he must keep in mind that leaders are not born; they are made. On the face of it, he seems to possess a single leadership trait—saying no and saying yes is the easiest option available to any leader. He has been in politics for over a decade. He was lucky to be born a Gandhi. But his evolution as a leader has been rather slow so far. His promoters have always credited him for the party’s successes and passed over the blame to others for the failures. His excessive political engagement during the past few weeks may reflect his resolve to stay in politics. But he has a champion challenger in Modi. In the coming war for retaining and acquiring political markets, Brand Rahul will need more than just bloodline. Modi has a mission and a model. Rahul badly needs both, and even in a better packaged avatar. An accidental win in a tiny Himalayan state can’t be the starting post for the campaign to recapture India.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla