An open letter is perhaps the best way to communicate. The reason I write is to add my two paise bit to the controversy over your decision to take a ‘leave of absence’ on the eve of the budget session of Parliament. Loyal Congressmen tell me that this is no holiday break but part of a genuine desire to ‘introspect’ and prepare a blueprint for the party’s future. Jairam Ramesh in an interview went so far as to suggest that “we would now see a new Rahul: Open, pro-active and communicative.” That sounds wonderful: After all, who wouldn’t want to see a freshly minted politician. We all strive for re-invention and if, as Ramesh claims, Rahul has learnt from his mistakes, then we must be ready to give you a chance.
And yet after 26 years in political journalism I find it hard not to be a trifle sceptical. Reports of the Congress re-modelling itself or even the suggestion of a ‘new’ Rahul emerging leave me wondering whether I haven’t heard it before. I recall that after the Congress suffered a debacle in the 2012 Uttar Pradesh elections, there was a promise that you would now focus your energies on reviving the party in your ‘karmabhoomi’. Instead you chose to withdraw and preferred to limit yourself to the family bastion of Amethi.
A year later, in December 2013, after a defeat in the Delhi and Rajasthan assembly elections, you again promised to change the Congress. “You will see the Congress party transform in more ways than you can imagine,” was the exact quote. Your words were impressive as indeed was your speech a month later at an AICC session at the Talkatora Stadium. Your strident call for action sparked enthusiasm in the party’s rank and file. The election campaign that followed didn’t reflect the rhetoric though: In the face of the Modi juggernaut, you constantly played catch up rather than defining the political narrative. Perhaps the baggage of 10 years of UPA was hard to shake off. It would be unfair to lay the blame for the Congress’ 44 all out squarely at your door.
And yet, post-May, the Rahul Gandhi we see reveals that maybe the cut and thrust of 24×7 politics is not really what excites you. In the last nine months, we haven’t seen or heard you take up any issue that can truly galvanise an Opposition. It isn’t as if the Modi government hasn’t provided you an opportunity: The repeated loose talk by the Sangh parivar functionaries on the nature and content of Indian secularism should have been reason enough for you to raise a red flag and spark off a national debate.
Now, the land acquisition ordinance threatens to become another political flashpoint. You could legitimately claim to have championed the original Bill, which was piloted by the UPA. Your agitation in Bhatta Parsaul in 2011 was perhaps your most visible intervention in a street agitation to date. And yet, now when political groups from left to right seek to raise the issue, you are once again missing in action. The Congress chooses to hold a rally in Jantar Mantar but the leader isn’t even there: It suggests the party’s lack of ambition.
I can only contrast this diffident approach with that of AAP leader and Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal. Like you, Kejriwal too had to bite the dust in the Lok Sabha elections, swept away by the Modi tsunami. And yet, defeat did not seem to deter him and he even publicly apologised for resigning as chief minister. Through the harsh Delhi winter, as you were ‘introspecting’ behind closed doors and the BJP leadership was engaging the world from New York to Sydney, Kejriwal campaigned across the mohallas and colonies of Delhi. It couldn’t have been easy for him, but then there are no shortcuts in politics. For Kejriwal, Delhi was a do or die battle: He chose to fight rather than concede more ground. And the voter rewarded his effort. By contrast, by the time you chose to do the token roadshow, it was yet again too little, too late.
The Congress is at the crossroads: The BJP appeals to the aspirational middle-class, AAP is attracting lower-income groups and regional parties continue to be entrenched in their pocket boroughs. You need to provide a robust vision that will enthuse a new generation of voters who are no longer bound by traditional affiliations to a family or an ideology. But instead of offering that alternative, your political career has been a case-study in never missing an opportunity to miss an opportunity.
In 2011, you could’ve reached out to anti-corruption campaigners but did not. In 2012, you could’ve publicly engaged with the campaign on Delhi’s streets after the December 16 gang-rape, but you did not. In 2013, you suggested that “power is poison” rather than lead the party. And now in 2015, you’ve sent out mixed signals once again. As the example of your grandmother, and indeed even your mother would remind you, politics rewards the marathon runners.
Post-script: This week, my daughter began her CBSE exams. Like all the students in her class, she knows she must work very hard in an intensely competitive world to succeed. Young people in India no longer have the luxury of introspection, less so to go on a ‘leave of absence’.
This article first appeared in Hindustan Times