Dumping on Rahul Gandhi has become a fashion: while his BJP opponents have ‘Pappu-fied’ him as an incompetent leader, many of his Congress colleagues in private hold him responsible for the deepening crisis of the grand old party. Its almost as if every time any Congress person quits the party or indeed, the party suffers any election defeat, Rahul Gandhi is the chief culprit. So lets cut to the chase and ask the central question: would a Congress minus Rahul be in a better position to challenge a Narendra Modi led BJP?
After two massive electoral debacles in the 2014 and 2019 general elections, the obvious answer would be to suggest that a Rahul-led Congress is incapable of besting a Modi-led BJP. There is little doubt that the Gandhi scion is the tailor-made foil for the prime minister. His presence as a fifth generation dynast allows Modi to play the ‘naamdar versus kaamdar’ narrative to the hilt. Modi craftily deploys a populist war cry: would you choose a privileged, untested inheritor of a family legacy or would you opt for the up by his bootstraps ‘chaiwallah’ (tea boy) who has gone on to become prime minister after years of toil? For a ‘new’ India built on a meritocratic ideal, the well-marketed Modi journey is far too compelling when compared with the pampered existence of a Lutyens elite offspring.
Moreover, the sustained toxic campaign of the BJP in damning Rahul Gandhi as a ‘Pappu’ – through a mix of lies, half-truths and self-goals – has clearly influenced millions of voters. Even when he raises valid and searching questions, as he has done during the entire Covid period in the last year, the image of Rahul Gandhi as somehow an unsuitable leader has stuck. And in politics it isn’t easy to repair the damage, especially when a complicit media is happy to play along with the ruling party.
And yet, it isn’t as if the Congress was doing spectacularly well before Rahul Gandhi first entered the political scene seventeen years ago. This is, after all, a political party which hasn’t won a majority at the Centre since 1984, an election triumph which was literally bequeathed to Rajiv Gandhi after the assassination of his mother. The decline in UP and across the Hindi heartland is a late 1980s phenomenon, a reflection of the changing paradigm of Indian politics where the Congress’s hollow secularism and weak commitment to social justice was exposed by the rising power of Mandir and Mandal forces.
Besides, an imperious ‘high command’ culture that evolved in the Indira Gandhi years meant that more than one generation of regional leaders within the Congress firmament were systematically emasculated and marginalized. From a Devraj Urs to a Sharad Pawar to a Mamata Banerjee, any state leader who dared to challenge the ‘high command’ was either ousted or constrained to form their own regional outfit. Not surprisingly, there are now as many as eight former Congress leaders who are present day chief ministers. The unswerving belief that only the Nehru-Gandhi family could hold the party together weakened its core leadership structure and atrophied the party organization to the point of no return in large parts of the country.
For the organizational decline that has pushed the Congress to the brink, Rahul Gandhi cannot be solely blamed since it pre-dates his arrival in politics (he perhaps can trace it back to his Dadi). What he can be held responsible for is his failure to recognize that the Congress in its present shape is not an ideological adversary to the sangh parivar nor a robust election machine capable of taking on a Modi-led BJP. The Congress is a large and loose ‘big tent’ party of power, whose power-hungry leaders are habituated to VIP privilege, be it a lal batti car or a Rajya Sabha seat and a Lutyens bungalow. It cannot be transformed overnight into a revolutionary party of hardened secular activists or a party of like-minded left leaning fellow-travellers. Those who have left the Congress in recent times, including those once seen as close aides of Rahul Gandhi, mirror the inescapable reality of a political culture that is discomfited with the prospect of being out of power for an extended period. If Rahul Gandhi is not seen as a vote catcher or an astute election strategist, then a large section of the Congress will never fully embrace him.
Which is why if Rahul Gandhi wants to genuinely ‘democratise’ or reform the Congress, then he must realize that he cant do it while remaining in the Congress fold. Truth is, you cannot be in the present day Congress or perhaps even in electoral politics for that matter and then claim to be leading a ‘moral’ revolution: sharply competitive and resource intensive contemporary power politics has little space for intellectual engagement or soul-stirring wannabe Mahatmas. For example, you cannot claim to be a secular fundamentalist and then compromise for power by tieing up with the Shiv Sena in Maharashtra or with an Islamic cleric in Bengal. The Congress frankly is weighed down by too much baggage to be seen as a resolute defender of progressive values.
If Rahul Gandhi truly wants to wage an ideological war against the BJP-RSS, then he is leading the wrong army. If he is committed to value-based politics, then he must show the courage of his convictions, take the risk of breaking the present ‘Indira-Rajiv-Sonia’ Congress and forge his own path by forming his own party with all comrades who share his dream. If he has a vision for a better politics, then he needs to agitate for it, not just by attacking the Modi government on twitter or by holding online chats with American academics but by hitting the streets of the country and connecting with people, replacing the culture of entitlement with that of egalitarianism. That is the only way he can hope to emerge from the dynastic trap and be seen as a formidable challenger to the existing ruling arrangement.
Maybe he can even draw a leaf out of his Dadi’s playbook. Like Rahul as ‘Pappu’, Indira Gandhi too was lampooned as a ‘Gungi Gudiya’. Yet, by 1969 she was determined enough to break with the old guard in the Congress and forge her own identity with stunning success. Mrs Gandhi though clearly saw herself as an artful 24 x 7 practitioner of realpolitik. Rahul Gandhi too needs to decide: is he willing to play a lead role in the ruthless pursuit of power or else opt out and operate in a more academic universe of ideas? Staying in a status quoist comfort zone is no longer an option for him or the Congress.
Post-script: Recently, when Mukul Roy rejoined the Trinamool Congress, Mamata Banerjee was asked about taking back someone who had betrayed her. She was emphatic that there are no ‘closed doors’ in politics. It’s a lesson in no holds barred powerplay that the Congress once excelled in and perhaps needs to re-learn. Else the original pan-India ‘umbrella’ party will be reduced to a localized rump grouping.