Though grumblings and disenchantment have been all too audible of late in the Congress ranks because of its growing incoherence, senior Congress leaders expressing their pique with the Gandhi family so openly is quite unprecedented—that too with a leader like Rahul Gandhi, who has often been projected as the prime minister-in-waiting. Though Union law minister Salman Khurshid has been frostily asked to “explain” his critiques of the Congress, party members admit anonymously that he has only articulated the prevalent sentiment in the organisation.
The dissonance with Rahul’s marginal role in party affairs underscores a desperate need of the Congress for fresh ideas and young dynamic leadership. Rahul has been a member of Parliament for eight years now. This was a long enough period for him to have taken his involvement to the next level. But he has done nothing of the sort and is not even accessible to MPs and legislators. The Gandhi scion has not spoken within or outside Parliament on matters of national importance. He has eschewed sustained media interaction while singularly investing all his energy on the Youth Congress when what his party needs is an organisational overhaul.
Had he reconciled himself to a marginal role in national politics, Rahul’s current amorphous avatar would have been acceptable, but not when he is being projected as a larger-than-life prime ministerial candidate. Worse, Rahul has also not accepted any administrative role where his political acumen or leadership skills could be judged. In the eight years he has been an MP, he has not only turned down a minister’s post offered by Manmohan in 2009 but also the party’s vice-presidential post. Furthermore, though he has been the Congress general secretary for almost a decade, he is yet to spell out a clear vision for either the party or the country. At 42, age is also not on Rahul’s side. This is going to be a handicap in a rapidly evolving global political landscape where leaders are getting increasingly younger. David Cameron became Britain’s prime minister at age 44, while Barack Obama, 49, could soon become a two-time US president.
Khurshid’s critique has expectedly caused a ripple in the party and the Congress is now scrambling to endow Rahul’s political presence with more heft in the run-up to national polls. Some say he will soon be anointed as the party’s official prime-ministerial candidate. Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh, considered to be the political mentor of the Gandhi scion, says that by September Rahul will play a much more defined and proactive role in the party. However, Congress president Sonia Gandhi has equivocally said it was for Rahul to chart his future course of action.
The party’s rank and file at the grassroots level has reasons to worry about the growing disconnect between Congress leaders and the party high command. In the past year, the Congress has witnessed the unprecedented spectacle of numerous party leaders venting their ire about the party’s internal affairs. A few have even articulated their dissent in public, while others have been more discreet, expressing their displeasure in private conversations.
Among the heavyweights who have vented their frustration about the current governance deficit as well as a drift in the party in different ways are senior leaders such as Mani Shankar Aiyar, Salman Khurshid, Shankersinh Vaghela, Jairam Ramesh and Digvijaya Singh.
The next general election will see more than 290 seats up for grabs in six states—Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. With Congress’ prospects not appearing too bright in any of the big six, the regional satraps and the UPA allies are set to call the shots here. With his mother and UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi’s clout also eroding fast within the party, the Gandhi heir would do well to heed his party’s wake-up call before it is too late.
Sharma is a former professor of sociology, IIT Kanpur