One of the unravelled puzzles of post-Independence Indian polity is that while the country has been able to evolve a well-functioning democratic framework of institutions at the federal, state and local levels, the leadership of political parties has been moving in the opposite direction — towards authoritarianism. The Indian National Congress, whose modern-day torch-bearers never tire of reminding us that it is India’s oldest party that led the country’s freedom movement, is a classic example.
Almost immediately after the party’s national general secretary, Rahul Gandhi, announced that he is ready to play a ‘bigger role’, his self-appointed advisers in the party are rushing in to tell him what he should do. While one party general secretary, Digvijay Singh, wants Rahul to decide whether it should be in the organisation or the government, another, Janardan Dwivedi thinks it need not be an either or situation and cites precedents of dual responsibility in the Congress establishment to bolster his argument. Not to be outdone, Uttarakhand Chief Minister Vijay Bahuguna not only wants Rahul Gandhi to be projected the party’s prime ministerial candidate for 2014 but also for the next 20 years!
True to the Congress culture, the entire charade was an orchestrated one to create an impression that a reluctant leader was being persuaded to take up the role of a ‘saviour’ at a time when the party was undergoing a serious political crisis. The Union law minister’s remarks about his reluctance to take up leadership putting the Congress ‘in waiting mode’ acted as the curtain raiser. While Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh kept on saying that it was for Rahul to decide, the latter kept his party-men in willing suspension of disbelief for eight years, leaving the decision on his ‘two leaders’ before agreeing to play a ‘bigger’ role.
That the uneasy Congressmen are hankering for a miracle to resurrect the party’s dwindling fortunes is, perhaps, understandable in the backdrop of its recent electoral debacles in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh. However, hoping that Rahul can rescue the party’s sinking fortunes is one thing and having confidence in his capacity to energise the party to fight big electoral battles in the days to come is another thing. On the basis of available public evidence, Rahul’s willingness to undertake the charge and his capacity to deliver the desired results remains enigmatic at best.
True, the issue of anti-dynasty politics holds no sway on the Indian voters’ mind and political families continue to hold a special appeal. Ultimately it is the personal appeal of the individual and his/her capacity to lead that counts. Indira Gandhi had to prove herself after she was picked up by the syndicate of powerful Congress state satraps to be the prime minister in 1967 by outwitting her political opponents within and outside the Congress and demonstrating that she could lead from the front. The likes of Naveen Patnaik and Akhilesh Yadav had to prove their political acumen before they won public confidence and will remain on test if they want to remain in power.
Few will dispute that Rahul Gandhi started with a great asset when Sonia Gandhi refused to take over the leadership of the Congress parliamentary party, nominating Manmohan Singh instead. The image of the young politician learning the ropes as an ordinary member of parliament and ordinary party worker glowed under the aura of his mother’s ‘renunciation’.
Subsequently, there has been little visible proof of his mysterious and hidden talents. Despite being the party’s most powerful general secretary, he has failed to reinvent the party organisation. As its electoral mascot, he has only succeeded in attracting crowds, not votes.
His first public commitment after assuming the organisational position, for instance, was that he would democratise the Youth Congress and make it the fighting force of the party. Addressing the AICC session in New Delhi in 2007, he said: “We need to do two things. The first is to build an organisation that is open and relevant to the broad range of young Indians who believe in our values and seek to serve the nation. The second is to build a meritocratic organisation. Young people bring tremendous passion and energy into our organisation. We must see to it that they are accountable. It is our duty to ensure that their progress is linked to their performance.”
Till now neither he nor any of his followers in the Congress have done anything towards translating these words into action. In fact, Rahul seems to have abandoned the agenda without even seriously trying.
Rahul’s performance as the party’s electoral mascot has also been far from impressive in the recent Assembly elections in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. From 2007 to 2012, he spent five years on his much-bandied about ‘Mission 2012’ to revive the party in his home state of Uttar Pradesh. His ‘special efforts’ could not make any inroad into caste combinations forged by Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav and Bahujan Samajwadi Party chief Mayawati despite an opportunist alliance with Ajit Singh’s Rashtriya Lok Dal.
The notion that Rahul Gandhi will be the saviour and renewal force of the Congress reflects an inability to understand the many social and economic factors that have contributed to a steady decimation of the party in many parts of India. The days are long gone when the arrival of a new member of the Nehru-Gandhi family was sufficient to mobilise pan-Indian support.
When Rajiv Gandhi was inducted in politics in the early ‘80s, Indira Gandhi was the prime minister and the Congress was in power at the Centre as well as in several states. Today, the Congress is leading an uneasy coalition at the Centre and is out of power in most big states. Coalition politics demands different dynamics linking up with regional and caste-based parties and leaders. It also means that the challenge of rebuilding the party organisation has to be taken up at the regional/local level without remote-controlling things from 10 Janpath with the help of a chosen circle of advisers who are out of sync with the ground realities. If he accepts the responsibility, Rahul has an uphill task ahead.
Yogesh Vajpeyi is Consulting Editor, The New Indian Express.