Can He Change India?
It was the Congress party’s and young India’s “Obama” Moment. It is being billed the coming of age of Rahul Gandhi, the newly appointed vice president of the Congress party. For over 40 minutes, speaking alternatively in English and Hindi he kept hundreds of Congress leaders both young and old spellbound, alternatively speaking from the heart and mind, shifting from the written page in front of him to the extempore as decided to mix emotion with hardcore politics.
As he spoke, leaders were choked and had tears in their eyes including Sonia Gandhi and those sitting on the dais. Not to forget the leaders and workers and the media in the auditorium. According to a senior leader the speech was 24 carat gold and had the expert touch of a master wordsmith though by all indications, Rahul writes his own speeches and is known to consult sister Priyanka, though she was not present at Jaipur during the coronation of the new vice president of the party.
Identifying the problems in the system, the lack of any rules and regulations within the Congress party, the lack of tall leaders who have not been groomed, the stranglehold of a small group of leaders who are running the system, the need to become transparent and open while taking decisions. He spoke about the emotional moment of his life when his grandmother Indira Gandhi died, the way his father was a broken man after that, his fear of the darkness and how he was frightened after the huge responsibility given to him last night and how power is a poison which should be used only to empower voices and not for personal gain and a host of other issues.
It was the speech of a young man who wanted to change the system which was steeped in archaic ways but he confessed that after eight years he has understood change must be made slowly, taking everyone into confidence and change must have been thought about deeply before it is affected.
Rahul Gandhi brought the house down and received a standing ovation when he said that power is poison and they must understand that. He was loudly clapped when he said that those speak about corruption are themselves the most corrupt, those who speak about giving women their rights, exploit women the most. Like many others, these words were targeted towards his Congress colleagues many of whom have mastered the art of double speak and hypocricy.
He has spoken about putting systems in place, of putting India on the world map where it is taken seriously, of becoming a party which can produce and groom leaders for the future so that at any time there are innumerable candidates for chief ministers and prime ministers. At the moment the biggest excuse offered by the Congress leaders in not removing any leader is “what is the alternative”.
In his first speech as the vice president Rahul became emotional, in what is being seen as taking a leaf out of US Presidential speeches where there is emotion and the personal touch coupled with programmes and policies and an informal communicative approach, which lets the speaker connect with those who are listening.
Rahul began with the Independence movement and how India chose non-violence to drive out the British and from there it was his eight years of being in the Congress where he has learnt a lot both from the seniors and the youngsters.
He ended by saying that now Congress was his life, the people of India were his life and he was prepared to work and do whatever was required for the people and the Congress. He asked the assembled Congressmen to stand with him and help him run the Congress party.
It is expected that some swift changes are on the cards as a number of leaders have offered to quit their ministerial responsibility and work with him. Sachin Pilot is learnt to be the first to have offered to work with Rahul in the organisation. Many changes in the AICC and the states are in the pipeline as Rahul appears to be determined to put in place his own brand of politics, which appears to differ from his mother both in style and substance.
The most telling indictment was his comment that there were no rules and regulations which govern the Congress party and that these can be changed and altered to suit the moment. He repeatedly drew applause as he spoke about respecting and empowering the workers.
The Congress is headed for a new era of power politics in the days ahead and while there was enthusiastic welcome for his speech and ideas, the senior leadership appears to be a little jittery with Rahul focusing on responsibility and accountabilitry and the need for leaders to deliver or be eased out.
Congress analysts say if he can implement even half of what he says, it would go a long way while putting systems back in the Congress party and help the leaders top re-connect with their own workers and the people.
Interestingly, in the run up to the Congress Working Committee crowning Rahul Gandhi as the vice president, there were many leaders who did not appear to be in the loop over what was to come. Even as television screens were showing the bursting of firerackers in front of 10 Janpath and youth Congress leaders dancing to drum beats hours before the official announcement, senior leader Digvijaya Singh told the media not to go ahead with the story as it was not happening. TV journos under pressure from their bosses in Delhi were suddenly confused and did not know what to do.
Was Digvijaya unaware like many other leaders of what was to follow or was he deliberately misguiding the media or is the truth somewhere in between? The question remains unanswered.
It appears that only a handful of leaders were in the loop on what was to follow—the three family members, Ahmed Patel and Janardhan Dwivedi though whispers were there since the morning itself.
While the Congress was taken aback by the maturity and sagacity of Rahul’s speech, BJP leaders and the media were equally confounded at this new Rahul. The carefully crafted strategy of projecting Rahul as the leader of a new India, a young India, an impatient India and an India ready to stand with the best in the world was slowly but surely unfolding. The Congress had been guided and led by Sonia Gandhi’s brand of careful and inclusive politics as that was the need of the hour then.
Now the Congress was ready to experiment with a new leader in keeping with the impatience of the youth who were seen as decisive in the battle to win India. The BJP was enfolded in its own internal warfare, it was unclear who the leadership was and how its election campaign would unfold, the regional groupings were strong in the states but had nothing to offer at the national level. So Rahul as the pan India national leader would be the new Congress mascot in the run up to the 2014 elections with his own team.
As the Congress worked to project and welcome Rahul Gandhi, it was clear that his crowning had overshadowed both Sonia Gandhi and the Chintan Shivir as the AICC session was spent in singing praises of Rahul establishing him as the new power player within the Congress party. While formally the reigns of power had not been handed over to Rahul, it was clear that he was the new boss of the Congress party.
Alert Congressmen, well versed in the language of power, smelt which way the power wind was blowing as most leaders praised Sonia Gandhi for the role she has played in the last 14 years in building the Congress and bringing it to power and hailing Rahul as the harbinger of a new energy called youth power which was the highlight of the day. Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde went as far as to mention that Rahul Gandhi has taken over power.
The day long AICC session was to welcome Rahul as the new leader and bid farewell to Sonia Gandhi.
The first speaker of the day Nirmal Khatri, the Uttar Pradesh PCC President said Sonia Gandhi has a great amount of responsibility in terms of managing the UPA government, keeping track of the allies and sundry other responsibilities. He said that she should hand over the responsibility of the organisation to Rahul Gandhi who would be able to run the affairs of the Congress.
Speaker after speaker from the youth Congress and the NSUI, who were given pride of place in the AICC session extolled the leadership of Rahul Gandhi and said because of him they had risen from nobodies and were part of the organisation as they had been handpicked by him. The first was the very eloquent Amrinder Singh Raja Brar who began his political career as a student plastering posters and who is now an elected MLA from Punjab. He is from a poor family and wrested his seat from the Akali Dal after 43 years. He gave the credit to Rahul Gandhi saying he encouraged him and said even if he loses the party will look after him.
As the Rahul juggernaut rolled the whole day, it was clear that Sonia Gandhi had decided the time was right for Rahul to have a bigger and much bigger say in the running up the organisation. The endorsement of Rahul as the vice president by the AICC meeting kicked off huge enthusiasm within the Birla auditorium with clapping, shouting and cries of Rahul Gandhi zindabad renting the air. It was the Congress machinery working at its very best, backed by enthusiastic youth workers and savoured to the full by a proud and emotional mother who was personally supervising the crowning of her son as the new Congress leader.
There were senior leaders like Sushilkumar Shinde and Geeta Reddy who thanked Sonia Gandhi for giving power and positions to the dalits, the backwards, the minorities and women and there was young minister Manish Tewari who praised Sonia Gandhi for her handling of the UPA government and bringing the Congress to power at a very difficult time when the Congress had been written off and at the same time speaking of the future under Rahul Gandhi saying great revolutionaries had been young leaders and it was the youth movement which had changed nations.
In her opening speech as the Congress president Sonia Gandhi spoke about various aspects of the government and the organisation, most of which was a reflection of the speech she made when she kickstarted the Chintan Shivir deliberations two days ago. She said the party will face elections in the coming year and the need of the hour is for the leaders and workers to remain united and disciplined. She said this is all that the workers expect from their leaders.
In a cutting hit at the leaders, which received the maximum applause, she said that it is the party which has given posts and positions to both party office bearers and ministers. She said that it is now time for them to repay the party by working together and ensuring that they carry all the workers with them and not just their favourites, which has been happening.
During the three days in Jaipur, the Congress president put a great deal of emphasis on women empowerment and the problems faced by women. Interestingly, during the sub group meeting on women empowerment headed by Girija Vyas, and in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, a number of women voiced complaints about the status of women within the Congress organisation. They said the party has been unable to implement the 33 per cent quota within the organisation while Sonia Gandhi talks about implementing it outside. They said as women they are not given posts or positions and this is not done on merit. One woman even complained of exploitation by senior leaders of women in the party.
In response to these complaints Sonia Gandhi is learnt to have directed that a cell be set up in the AICC dealing with women exploitation and harassment.
Even as loud voices were coming from all sides of the auditorium to make Rahul Gandhi the prime minister, the current Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh looked a little old and a little tired and was finding it difficult to get up every now and then as was required. The SPG had to help him get up and sit down, not displaying the same energy and alacrity which was evident in the last session.
Sources say the elevation of Rahul Gandhi as vice president in the CWC took him by surprise and after A K Antony proposed Rahul’s name and Janardhan Dwivedi seconded it, Dwivedi turned to the Prime Minister taking his name but Dr Manmohan Singh failed to either congratulate Rahul or even speak a word. It was only after four other CWC members greeted Rahul with bouquets that the Prime Minister got into the act.
The build up of Rahul Gandhi as the new leader of the Congress who is now empowered to take decisions is probably a clear signal to the experienced Dr Manmohan Singh that the next election belongs to Rahul Gandhi. If the party wins he would be the Prime Minister, and if it loses he would be the leader of the opposition. The power game within the Congress is now clear. And more than any one else, it is clear to the galaxy of senior leaders sitting on the dais, many of whom have enjoyed unfettered power for decades.
While the announcement of Rahul Gandhi overshadowed the deliberations at the Chintan Shivir, deep worry was evident in Sonia Gandhi’s speech as the three day Jaipur meeting began.
With elections to 10 state assemblies, followed by the Lok Sabha polls immediately after, the Congress leadership appeared to have woken up to the harsh reality that all is not well with and within the Congress party. Giving a wake-up call to the party leadership, Sonia Gandhi’s message was loud and clear: get your act together or be prepared to sit in the opposition.
Kicking off the brain storming session at Jaipur, the Congress President dealt with the harsh realities confronting the party which has now been in power for the last nine years. The most worrisome aspect which she outlined was that the Congress is now facing increased competition from other political parties who have made “inroads into our traditional support bases”. This is with reference to the states where regional parties have successfully captured the Congress political space.
There is also increased worry about the states “where we have been out of office for too long” as this has an adverse impact on the party’s morale and organisational ability. This refers to key states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal where the Congress has not been able to win its support base back and where its workers have been demoralised to the extent that they have left and joined other political outfits.
While the Congress is not pushing aside alliances as it needs its allies to continue in power for the full term, the Congress president made it clear that in the states where the Congress is in alliance, “we have to strike a balance between respecting these alliances and ensuring that the party’s rejuvenation is not compromised”. This has been a problem for the party since many if not all the allies have come out of the Congress party and have taken the political space which had earlier belonged to the Congress. But compulsions of the power game had ensured that the party had held out its hand of friendship.
Critics of the alliance politics say that till such time as the Congress continues on the alliance crutches and continues with its coalition politics, it would find it difficult to win back and re-occupy its political space.
There was also criticism of Congress state chief ministers who have not been able to use the central schemes of the government of India, revolutionary programmes and historic legislation enacted by the central government. “In some states the party has not been able to translate this into political support. I hope this will be discussed and that concrete suggestions will emerge.”
The Congress President also flagged new areas of concern which require new solutions and which have been in the limelight for some time now. Sonia Gandhi brought the focus on the backward areas where the party has been losing its vote base and where protest movements related to land, forest, water and livelihood have been taking place. Asking state leaders to adopt a more pro-active role, she said that a great amount of money is released from the Centre but it does not get used judiciously at the local level.
It may be recalled that Digvijaya Singh had been raising these issues in the context of the rise of the Naxal movement after their alienation from the mainstream along with the need to bring in stringent forest laws so that the forest dwellers are not deprived of what is theirs by right. In many such areas in Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and other states, the Congress has been consistently losing and not recovered its lost ground.
Opinion poll on Rahul Gandhi’s first speech as Vice President Can he really bring a change?
Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to VP of the grand old Congress party is being welcomed within every corner of Congress party. We saw a new Rahul Gandhi who looked as if in command of the current situation willing to bring out a change in the current system. We saw a confident Rahul Gandhi who wants to act to fill the vacuum & bring back confidence level among the party workers to build an India which his forefathers have thought.
As much expected in the political circles, his elevation to VP didn’t come as a surprise. But can he really bring a change is a million dollar question which will be answered only & only by time. We will have to wait & watch on how he really transforms his speech into working events.
Today’s Chanakya thought to evaluate people’s view on Rahul Gandhi’s speech which he delivered at Jaipur.
- Today’s Chanakya interviewed a random sample of 4120 people on January 20 (after Rahul Gandhi’s speech) and January 21.
- Respondents chosen had seen the complete speech of Rahul Gandhi.
- Interviews were conducted in metro & Semi metro cities namely Mumbai, NCR (New Delhi, Noida, Gurgaon) Pune, Kolkatta, Hyderabad, Bangalore, Coimbatore, Chennai, Indore, Bhopal, Patna, Ahmedabad & Jaipur.
Special care was taken to have equal number of male & female respondents & then they were weighted to average.
How would you rate the speech of Rahul Gandhi?
Very good (75%); Good (13%); Ok (5%); Poor (5%)
Did Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to Vice President surprise you?
Yes (29%); No (35%); Its Congress internal matter (30%);
Do you feel that Rahul Gandhi looked confident & in command while delivering the speech?
Yes (89%); No (8%);
Do you think that Rahul Gandhi can really bring a change?
Yes if he delivers he can bring a change (69%);
No it’s too late; UPA Govt. is a non performer (23%);
Are you convinced that he had even raised questions within the system of his party – Does it make you feel that he is serious to do something?
Yes (76%); No (20%);
Will your view towards current UPA change, if Rahul Gandhi actually starts delivering?
Yes (39%); No (26%); First let him deliver then will see (32%)
There is also increasing worry within the leadership over the perception that the Congress is losing support from middle class and urban India. In the last election the Congress won big time from urban Indian cities across the length of the country from Jammu to Trivandrum but with corruption being raised as a major issue by civil society and young people coming on the roads, the Congress President said, “We cannot allow our growing educated and middle classes to be disillusioned and alienated from the political process.”
In a clear message that the party cannot rest on the laurels of the success of the NAREGA programme and the time has come to move on from there, Sonia Gandhi said they need to provide over one crore youth productive jobs year after year. While NAREGA was for rural India, they have to now focus on skilled employment especially in semi-urban and urban areas. For this a practical approach on investments has been advocated by her.
In terms of lavish weddings and opulent lifestyles of Congress leaders she asked the question: Where is this wealth coming from? She has asked for suggestions and norms that can be accepted and adhered to.
Possibly with the prompting of Rahul Gandhi and the phenomena of the youth coming on the streets in major agitations last year, Sonia Gandhi has addressed the rise of youth power and how the Congress can access and tap this. She said the party has to recognize the new changing India, an India increasingly peopled by a younger, more aspirational, more impatient, more demanding and better educated generation. She said, “Our youth is getting more assertive, it wants its voice to be heard.”
She said that people are expecting more from their political parties. She said they are fed up with the levels of corruption they see in public life at high levels and also with the corruption they have to deal with in their daily lives. She has asked political leaders to be more responsive, show greater accountability, better delivery and ultimately demonstrate integrity.
And then there is the question of unity within the Congress which she has been taking up in meeting after meeting but with little or no impact. She asked, “Is it not the case that we have squandered many opportunities that people are willing to give us simply because we have been unable to function as a disciplined and united team?”
She said in states where they are out of power especially, “we should be coming together setting aside personal ambitions and egos and working cohesively so that the party triumphs”. Again emphasing on unity she said this has to come from within as workers feel the party loses because they are not united. In an attack on senior leaders for not allowing leadership to grow in their areas, she said leadership should be built at all levels, a leadership that is pro-active and that is not afraid of moving forward, and taking up issues and programmes which highlight the concerns and aspirations of the people.
“Performance not patronage, must be the ladder to advancement in the party” was her dictum but this is now more for its violation than its implementation.
Asking the assembled Congress leaders to speak their mind, to be free and frank in whatever they say, the Congress President almost sounded a war cry when she said, “We are here on serious business which will determine our future.”
The party came back from Jaipur armed with the Jaipur Declaration which is the essence of three days of discussion, debate and dialogue and which lays out the party’s road map for the next year primarily with the focus on how to win elections, both assemblies and the centre.
While the euphoria of Rahul Gandhi’s coming of age has left Congress workers enthused, just the day after the electrifying speech of Rahul Gandhi which stunned both his admirers and detractors, the main question being asked is what next? Having taking expectations sky high with his words, his promises and a pledge to put systems right both in terms of governance as well as the leviathan Congress party, political leaders are unsure of how much he will be able to deliver and how it will impact his future politics if he is unable to deliver what he has promised.
During the centenary AICC session in Mumbai soon after having won a huge mandate from the people of India after the assassination of Indira Gandhi, the newly elected Prime Minister and Congress President Rajiv Gandhi had delivered a stirring speech which spoke of the need to cleanse the political system and get rid of power brokers whom he said were strangling the system. Rajiv was young. Rajiv was well meaning and as an idealist he meant every word he said. He wanted to change but over the next five years of his rule he not only frittered away the goodwill which had given him a historic mandate but also compromised with and accommodated the same power brokers whom he had fought so hard against.
The big difference this time around is that Rahul Gandhi is speaking after having been active in the Congress party for the last eight years. He has traveled around, visited states and numerous universities, slept in the homes of dalits, brought democracy and elections back in the youth Congress and the NSUI and at the same registered the deep shock and dismay of badly losing an election he had spearheaded and put his heart and soul into it. He gave tickets to outsiders and after the defeat they upped and left, he dealt with senior leaders of the party who said yes to what he wanted but ensured his decisions were overturned and not implemented as the vested system in the Congress got together to keep in humour but on the sidelines of the mainstream Congress politics.
As one leader admitted some years ago: “We are happy Rahul is dabbling in the youth Congress. This lollipop will keep him busy for some time and keep him out of the parent Congress party.” The leaders continued to praise the good work he was doing with the youth even as they continued running the party and the system.
Rahul came to the Jaipur Chintan Shivir and the AICC meeting having been called an immature leader, as an inarticulate fellow who could not deliver a coherent speech and as a young man who was on hoardings and billboards by virtue of being a Gandhi. On January 18, when the Shivir started there were no expectations from him as the focus was on Sonia Gandhi and the posters all around Jaipur and the Birla Auditorium were focused on her as the Congress President.
But just two days later, by the evening of January 20, the entire atmosphere was changed. Overnight posters of Sonia Gandhi were replaced by those of Rahul Gandhi even at the Chintan Shivir. Nation wide celebrations of Rahul being elevated as vice president were on display. The Congress machinery was in full active gear as thousands of youth Congress workers were at the airport and at 10 Janpath to burst firecrackers and welcome the new leader of the Congress party.
But more than the orchestrated machinery of the Congress party, what changed the mood and created the buzz and unexcitement was the unexpectedly mature and well-articulated thoughts of the young leader. While this electrified the assembled AICC members and senior leaders of the party, the nation wide telecast of the speech made Congressmen and others sit glued to the TV listening and watching with admiration the transformation of Rahul Gandhi. The normally critical media also did an about turn as praise and accolades began pouring in.
The century scored by Rahul say those close to him, was the result of his own hard work and the lessons he had learnt in the last eight years of his political life. It made him speak openly and frankly, a fact which may have made senior leaders squirm but which endeared the middle rung leaders to him.
But the question now is: What next? As one admirer cautioned: If Rahul does not bring in much required changes in the AICC, the PCCs and the chief ministers as a start, it would dent him rather badly since he has raised expectations rather high. An AICC member who has been around for the last few decades said that after his speech every Congressman was willing to stand behind him but then added that he would need to show he means business as simply words will not do. He said every Congressman wants change from the existing system and the current style of decisions and if Rahul is able to dent this, he would have the Congress workers eating out of his hands.
Having promised reforms not only in the Congress but in terms of governance, Rahul may live on the glory of his speech for some time to come but sooner rather than later, he would need to show he means business.
Since every leader has a comfort level with his own set of people, Rahul would also bring in the group which he feels the most comfortable with. Rajiv, soon after coming to power had sacked the Indira loyalists PC Alexander, RK Dhawan and Sharda Prasad. He brought his own Johnny-tonnies as they were then called and so the cycle has renewed itself.
Already questions have begun on who will go and who will remain. But what is clear is that Rahul’s stamp will be visible on the coming reshuffle as the party prepares to work with the young leader who will lead the charge both for the coming assembly elections and for the Lok Sabha. What is clearly evident is the discomfort amongst the old guard both in the government and in the Congress party. A senior leader in the Congress known to have been very close to Sonia Gandhi stunned his listeners when he said the speech was ok but had more emotional rather than political content. A senior cabinet minister made all the right noises but failed to show much enthusiasm for the Rahul brand of politics.
Leaders enjoying power for the last 14 years of Sonia Gandhi are still holding a brief for the status quo to continue. They have justified the move that under her leadership elections to the CWC have been discontinued. The CWC has itself been made a redundant body which meets for obituary references while the wisdom of six persons in the core group has been used to solve the nation’s problems. A move was afoot in Jaipur to pass a resolution that those holding organisational positions like BCC, DCC. PCC presidentship and AICC office bearers who will manage elections will not contest elections but would then be adjusted through the Rajya Sabha route. But fortunately this move, says a senior Congress leader who has won seven Lok Sabha elections, has been thwarted for the time being.
Rahul Gandhi wants to reverse some of the policies of his mother. Like the IYC and NSUI, he wants elections in the parent body. He wants to revive the CWC which distills the wisdom of senior leaders across the country. He wants the elected representatives who understand the process of electoral process and elections itself to manage the organisation and does not want new entrants to the Congress to be given huge responsibility and unbrindled power.
From the rule of the few to the rule of the many is the new mantra of Rahul and his team. But the old guard is and would continue to resist change, as is evident in the corridors of 24 Akbar Road. Those sitting there feel too much democracy cannot work in the Congress party. They want power to remain with the back rom boys who have never won an election and probably will never do so.
It is now over to Rahul Gandhi and how he balances these contradictions. His next few months will show whether he can stand up to the vested interest in his party or will he take a full circle like his father and then retreat? Will he bring in a worthwhile team which understands both rural and urban India and the compulsions of the have-nots or will he surround himself only by graduates of foreign universities who are theoretical but have no practical access to the minds and hearts of the majority of India and Bharat? Will he bring democracy back to the Congress party? Will he restore pride of place to the Congress worker who makes or breaks an election? Will he bring accountability and responsibility to the Congress or will a Mukul Wasnik continue in power after reducing the party to four assembly seats in Bihar and being incharge of Rajasthan for eight long years as the puppet of the chief minister?
Rahul has earned the goodwill and respect of the Congress worker by his speech in Jaipur. But now begins the hard work as people wait to see how he carves out his vision for the Congress and India, which he says is now his life.
By Renu Mittal from Jaipur