The suspense over Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as Congress president has been more tantalising than the drama over the release of Padmavati. Though there may be a sense of deja vu in the rumours, smoke signals emanating from the Congress headquarters at 24 Akbar Road indicates it might happen before Gujarat goes to the polls (since it is highly unlikely that anyone will file nomination other than Rahul). How far the timing is strategic and whether it would positively affect the election results will only be known after December 18, but finally the Congress seems to be working to a plan.
Critics may argue that the jubilation over his appointment may divert attention from the Congress campaign in Gujarat. Announcement of Congress’s Chief Ministerial candidate name may have better relevance for the elections. But, Rahul’s advisers probably believe his ‘election’ will give a bigger boost to the Congress’ prospects.
There is another possible explanation. Congress strategists know that winning Gujarat is still a very unlikely outcome. In the event of a defeat it may be a trifle odd to promote Rahul immediately. Therefore, it may be better to make him the President right away and get some mileage for it while the media hype about a “resurgent Congress” lasts.
Rahul himself seems rearing to go. Still radiating the after-glow of his US trip and buoyed by the apparent traction of his Gujarat campaign so far, he looks like the teenager who having acquired his driving licence is all set to sit at the wheel of the family Ambassador and pressing his foot on the accelerator pedal.
Like during any change at the top, beneath the excitement on the surface, must be lying a good measure of nervous anticipation about changes the new leader might bring along. While the young Turks may be looking forward to being rewarded in the coming dispensation, the old guard would be equally apprehensive of how they will fit into the revised scheme of things. Much, therefore, depends on how the Rahul Gandhi chooses his core team and circle of advisers.
Though it might appear Rahul will be spoilt for choice, in reality that might be Rahul Gandhi’s biggest challenge even more than what Narendra Modi was faced with when he took charge as Prime Minister. Modi’s job was relatively simpler because the massive mandate had vested him with tremendous moral authority.
Equally, the onus for delivery was entirely on him and, he knew, the team he selects would be incidental, he will need to lead from the front from day one and all the way. Therefore, apart from picking his own trusted handful, Modi’s task was to essentially balance between various interest groups and power centres within the party applying with a double filter of character and competence.
In contrast, no matter how elaborate is the charade of election and expertly choreographed act of ascension, Rahul’s curriculum vitae does not have any impressive credentials other than family antecedents and his recently acquired black belt in Aikido. Even the usual Class Prefect or Secretary of Debating Society is missing. Rajiv Gandhi at least had the successful execution of the 1982 Asian Games to show. Rahul could not even appropriate the credit for the Common Wealth Games from Sheila Dikshit because of the scandals that followed. Therefore, Gandhi family loyalists like Veerappan Moily are hard pressed to think of achievements to give him credit for other than his Berkeley Interactions and the still-in-progress Gujarat election outing.
Modi was on test from Day 1 on premiership. But, at another level he had also had the benefit of an unstated period of honeymoon. Rahul Gandhi will have no such leeway. In fact, he has a lot to do in terms of undoing his poor track record so far. Most importantly, Modi came with a huge bank of goodwill and political capital. In comparison, Rahul has only his family equity to draw upon. While political capital can be generated, legacy has a limited shelf life.
That would call for Rahul building his own political credibility rapidly in the run up to 2019. However, no amount of PR blitzkrieg and Social Media warfare can substitute actual delivery on the ground. Electoral analytics and caste algorithm can do a part of the job but the last mile has to be covered by the leader himself. This is likely to put Rahul under severe performance pressure without the benefit of his mother’s shield and the screen-guard of the old 10 Janpath coteries.
If Rahul is, indeed, serious about radical changes in the party then he has to necessarily make a clean break from the past. Perhaps, Sonia Gandhi will assign a trusted aide like Ahmed Patel to help with the transition assuming he is willing to fade away in due course (which is a clear possibility due his reported health condition). But, certainly Rahul cannot take the chance of his continuing as an alternate power centre. Similarly, if he remains true to his intentions (like his father was, at east to begin with) he has to get rid of some of the veteran power brokers, which would leave Rahul with limited options.
Ideally, Rahul should look for a combination of energy and competence. This might make him naturally inclined towards his “Baba-log” brigade. But, most of them lack experience of running a state or even a full-fledged ministry just like him and come with the baggage of “entitlement” many of them being either being minor royalty or coming from privileged background. He can always create an outer circle of advisers from among the elders. But, very few of them would be altruistic as Sam Pitroda who has strong personal ties with the family. In the event of Rahul becoming the Prime Minister, fulfilling the dream of his well wishers, if he were to co-opt some of them into the government few may be willing to play second fiddle a la Manmohan Singh in the Cabinet.
This is where Rahul runs the risk of falling into a trap like his father surrounding himself with a bunch of urbane youngsters and technocrats with little grassroots experience or political skills. Or, like his mother, becoming captive to ideological mavens, professional activists and intellectual mercenaries in another equivalent of the National Advisory Council (NAC).
To succeed, Rahul has to practice the same virtues he preaches to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, namely being inclusive, listen more to the voice of reason and experience. Rahul must realise that he does not have the mystique of his mother, charisma of his father, the political genius of his Dadi or the vision of his great grandfather. He has to lead as one among equals.
Rahul has to dispel the myth of “eternal youth” that has been fed to him by party men and shed the adolescent hurry to change the world. For that he has to get comfortable in dealing with heavyweights without feeling threatened. Allow genuine autonomy to the state units and usher in true inner party democracy. In short, converting it from a closely held family enterprise to a public limited company listed in the stock exchange of the masses.
That would mean doing a virtual 'perestroika' in the Congress. Will Rahul Gandhi have the wisdom, humility and courage to do it – only time will tell.
(Author is a writer and popular blogger on current affairs. His Twitter handle is @SandipGhose)
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