A volcanic eruption incinerates all that is dead or alive that stands in its way. When Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi’s inner voice emerged finally on Friday, it not only shook the UPA government’s foundations but polarised the Congress party itself. His 150-second intervention at the press briefing on the controversial ordinance devastated the national discourse on crime in politics. The subtext of his vehemence was a Churchillian riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma—did he undermine the office of the Prime Minister or convert an adversity into an opportunity?
It was a war of words and not ideologies of two eminent individuals. While PM Manmohan Singh manages the compulsions and contradictions of his coalition government to remain in power, the Congress vice-president appears to be fighting for survival of his party, the ownership of which the Gandhis acquired through democratic means. Rahul’s accidental outburst marks the arrival of the Rahul Congress and the beginning of the end of the conventional one. He has sent a clear signal to party leaders and the PM that he is no more just a vice-president. He has taken charge and would like to eject those who can’t deliver according to his expectations. It’s not a mere coincidence that the Congress GenNext, comprising scions of many top leaders, is leading the Congress Spring. The fruits of political family trees are ready for harvest as the party’s core team is flooded with sons and daughters of former ministers, current and former CMs and state Congress leaders. Even progenies of retired civil servants are active as members of Rahul’s backroom organisational team. Does it mean that his latest offensive against the government is an attempt to directly dictate and decide future policy formulations and replace an outdated leadership with younger leaders who have more at stake in future of the Congress? Or is it prompted by frustration stemming from his own failure to effectively lead the party in the past nine years? Rahul has spoken out to prove that he not only has views but also enjoys the authority to admonish his government when required.
Gandhi Jr’s opponents have ridiculed his rare parliamentary appearances and occasional disruptive interventions in public debates. Rahul has been under attack for his silence over mismanagement of the government and party. He has been accused of performing vanishing acts when his party was looking towards him for guidance. His acerbic, contemptuous and piercing remarks against the dubious ordinance have more to do with redeeming the sagging image and plummeting fortunes of the party, which he inherited from his mother Sonia Gandhi. Rarely has a leader of a ruling party termed an action of his or her government as “nonsense” and advised followers to tear up a decisive document and throw it away. Rarely has a leader publicly questioned the wisdom of his PM by instructing him to retract his ‘nonsensical’ decision taken at the behest of his Cabinet comprising 30 ministers who belong to his own party and allies. Rarely have young ministers protested a decision of their own Cabinet. But the Congress is not a political party. And Rahul is not just any leader. He is an owner who expects rich dividends. Singh was chosen as PM or CEO of the government not because of merit. He was picked by the Gandhis to lead a political company that they own. As it happens in many family-owned corporates, young inheritors rarely get along with executives chosen and trusted by forbearers since they have been brought up in a different milieu and play by their own rules. Initially they tolerate the status quo but are always on the lookout for an opportunity to dismantle the old edifice and replace with their own. The Gandhis are no exception. It’s in their DNA to encourage dissent against the establishment and discard the antediluvians. Indira Gandhi defenestrated the Syndicate and reinvented the Congress in her own image. Her son Sanjay Gandhi introduced Youth Dominance. He was a young man in a hurry and would have changed both the Congress culture and ideology had he not been snatched away by a divine nemesis. Rajiv Gandhi, who became an accidental PM after his mother’s tragic assassination, was already in the process of superimposing suave urban technocrats on the Congress structure and inducting them in the political process. Though a natural charmer, Rajiv was also abrasive in his public outbursts. He sacked and replaced senior civil servants and CMs. A reluctant politician, Rajiv also created the dismal dynastic landmark of being the first Gandhi who failed to win a second electoral mandate.
His wife Sonia turned out to be the exception. No doubt, she was guided by Machiavellian elements to get rid of P V Narasimha Rao, and then Sita Ram Kesari as Congress Presidents in a questionable manner. But she retained old family loyalists and brought the Congress back to power within six years of taking over as party president. She realised that a person like Manmohan Singh with his impeccable track record minus political ambition would be the best choice to run the country. She made him the PM but retained the power to choose his ministers and exercised her right to provide mandatory policy instructions on many issues. He turned out to be an asset who delivered handsome dividends. The Gandhis have now realised that CEO Singh and his executives have outlived their utility and can’t ensure profits anymore. As a single shareholder, Rahul wants a CEO who understands not stock exchanges in New York and Mumbai but political markets in Muzzafarnagar and Madurai. He feels that the current government leadership can’t retain the current market of the Congress, which will shrink if corrective measures aren’t taken. He wants the endorsement of the masses, not markets.
After Nehru and Indira, it was under Sonia’s leadership that the party won for a second time with a record number of 206 seats—more than what Rajiv garnered in 1989. Now, almost 24 years later, his son, who is seen as a part-time politician, has realised that he would be held accountable for the lapses of the government, which is misperceived as functioning through remote control by the Gandhis. With his mother taking lesser and lesser interest in party affairs, it is for Rahul to revive the Congress and take it to victory in 2014. So far, he has been an outsider crisscrossing the country in search of Bharat, accompanied by close aides. Hardly have the PM and other senior party leaders consulted him on national issues. So, the young inheritor finds himself disconnected with their style of working. By projecting Rahul as India’s future prime minister, party veterans have already made him the general who has to win the war of 2014. Rahul understands the trap. From being a frequent traveller within and outside India, he is now forced to become a full-time politician and face the heat and dust of dirty Indian politics. Rahul has taken the plunge by sending a message. He has taken a risk, which could mar or make his career. He has minimised the PM, but it takes much more than just talk to become the country’s maximum leader.
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