Dilli Dur Ast for Congress

As the seasons change, there is a spring in the step of the Congress which suggests that a long and harsh summer in the political wilderness maybe ending. Rahul Gandhi is finally set to take over the party leadership, there is a buzz around the Congress’ aggressive social media strategy, new anti-BJP alliances are being cemented in poll-bound Gujarat, demonetisation and GST have become useful weapons to attack the government and open rebellion by senior BJP leaders like Yashwant Sinha has given further ammunition to the Opposition. But the truth is, while the Congress maybe scenting a comeback, in reality it is still a case of ‘Dilli dur ast’.

Let’s start with Rahul Gandhi’s much-delayed ‘coronation’ as Congress president. It’s now almost five years since he was made party vice president and warned that “power is poison”. That speech in Jaipur only seemed to confirm a widespread belief that Rahul was a reluctant politician. When after the party’s debacle in the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, he retreated into the background, even refusing to take up the challenge of Opposition leader in the Lok Sabha, it only further typecast him as a cocooned, risk averse dynast.

Now, the manner of his impending ‘election’ as Congress president has also been less than ideal. Rather than going through the farcical exercise of getting state Congress units to blindly endorse his name, the party should have thrown up a potential challenger. Sonia Gandhi’s mettle was tested, first when the likes of Sharad Pawar questioned her over foreign origins, and then, when Jitendra Prasada took her on in the party president elections. She earned the respect of the cadre because she showed a willingness to fight all her critics.

By contrast, a red carpet welcome has been laid out for Rahul with no one willing to take him on. Rahul would have still almost certainly won but a hard fought win would have earned him the respect that many Congress leaders in private are reluctant to give him and also enthuse the dispirited cadre. Instead, the soft landing offered to Rahul only reaffirms the sycophantic anti-democratic culture of the party of the freedom movement, one which is now ‘umbilically’ tied to a single family.

A competitive election for all posts in the party, including the Congress Working Committee, would help strengthen the party organisation which has been enfeebled by the ubiquitous high command culture of ‘nomination’. Here, Rahul cannot be entirely blamed. This is, after all, a legacy of the redoubtable Indira Gandhi, who systematically downsized regional Congress leaders and made the party apparatus subservient to her own larger than life image. To his credit, Rahul has often spoken about organisational restructuring as his prime goal, but the fact is, he has been unable to open up the party to new talents, leaving the same discredited coteries in charge.

When a patient is in an ICU and facing lingering death, band-aid will not do. The Congress needs a major surgery, one which must begin with overhauling its local units at the block level in districts and talukas. Importantly, the Congress needs to find a fresh narrative rather than simply wait it out and expect Narendra Modi to self-destruct. It is faintly amusing to find, for example, the Congress celebrate Sinha’s diatribe against the Modi government’s economic policies, almost as if an ageing soldier of the BJP can single-handedly stop the Modi juggernaut. Where is the Congress’ own recipe for revival that goes beyond catchy tweets and slogans? Yes, social media is now an important element of the media machine, but elections are not won or lost only by adding followers or increased likes and retweets on Twitter.

Which is why Rahul’s first task as Congress president should be to energise the party by giving it a hands on leadership that reconnects with a ‘new’ India where voters are impatient and aspirational. There must be a relentless desire to shape the agenda, communicate a vision, reach out to new constituencies, and, most importantly, always be battle-ready. It cannot be, as appears to be the case in Gujarat, that the party wakes up just months ahead of a big election and expects instant results. Politics in the age of Modi is a 24X7 ruthless exercise where only the fittest will survive. Is Rahul really up to the challenge?

Post script: At a book function a few months ago, former finance minister P Chidambaram was asked why Rahul wasn’t able to summon up the fighting spirit of an Indira after she was ousted from power in 1977? Pat came the reply: “Don’t forget Indira had to face Morarji Desai and the old socialists, we are confronted with Modi and the formidable RSS election machine!”

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