Challenger Rahul, Challenged Modi
Call it the return of the prodigal son or the return of the native, Rahul Gandhiâ€™s return after 56 daysâ€™ sabbatical coupled with his aggressive speech at the Farmersâ€™ rally targeting NarendraModi and his suit boot ki sarkar was like a volcanic eruption, especially for the TV channels. Most TV anchors were gleefully quoting sentences critical of Modi.
Suddenly the acche days seem imminent for the Left-dominated media and the usual suspects. Once again, the Modi-baiters were having a field day, hailing Rahul, a born again politician strong enough to match 56-inch chested Modi. They concurred with him that acche din might not come for the people in the Modi regime, but acche din for the Congress were dawning.
Was the era of Modi straddling the spectrum of Indian politics all alone, over?
Doubts crept in as one pondered over the thrust and contents of Rahulâ€™s speech. It was not tenable over a long period.
Rahulâ€™s repeated claim that the Gandhis have always been pro-poor is laughable, in fact pathetic. Since Indira Gandhiâ€™s tenure and until now they have either ruled or controlled the government through remote for over 41 years. But nothing concrete was done for them. The schemes under MNREGA etc were not very successful.
The manner of his speaking and his thrust on being pro-poor, as said earlier, does not give much hope either. If he visits a village, the elders sitting on chaupalâ€ˆwould hardly hesitate in telling him that the lot of poor farmers has, if changed at all, not due to his family or his partyâ€™s governmentsâ€™ policies, but because of changing situations like some industry having come up nearby. Rahul must also realise that the farmers are quite disillusioned. Farming a bigha or two is not only unprofitable but also the reason for their growing debt. Most are thus not keen to continue farming. Their children have mostly taken to other occupations. So Rahul would be well-advised to shed less tears for â€˜poor farmers.â€™
Modiâ€™s policy is to help the poor for them to earn themselves and cast off poverty. The assurance by Modi that it would help farmers or any village poor was well-received. But the Land Acquisition Bill now hangs like a Damocles sword and could hurt Modi. The RSS too believes this. Modi has literally handed over on a platter to the Congress a deadly weapon to slow down him in plethora of reforms. Although if the Billâ€™s provisions are carefully read, one easily believes that it wonâ€™t kill or make a farmersâ€™ family starve.
The problem is that Modi has no one to explain to the farmers, the real intentions behind the Bill. The Congress knows this handicap would slowdown Modiâ€™s reforms and also alienate a large segment of voters. But all this is Modiâ€™s headache.
Meanwhile, the saiyan bhaye kotwal brigade is getting ecstatic over Rahulâ€™s interventions during debates in the Lok Sabha. The Prince, who spoke possibly two times in the last Parliament, intervened thrice in five days. His mentors are keen that he shows himself capable of and ready to take on partyâ€™s leadership. But what is noticeable is that in his first intervention in the parliamentary debate when he spoke for 23 minutes he just kept haranguing Modi. It showed that he still has no roadmap or plans for his party.
Such paucity of ideas does not augur well for him or his party. But letâ€™s presume that he will be anointed leader soon. And Rahul is ready and willing to take his leadership role. But the leadership of what?
And has he been able to equip himself with qualities to match up to Modi?
The party, which heralded the freedom movement, has been in doldrums. In most major states except Karnataka, it is non-existent. In Delhi it has no representation at all in the state assembly. How do outcries and blame games of an invigorated Rahul help him in building up a state party organisation? So putting him on the chair of his mother would not help the Congress Party. The past experience is that whoever was appointed in senior position in the state party unit turned out to be a believer of political brokering. There is neither any reason to believe that Rahul after meditation or merry-making during his sabbatical is a chastened person, that he would be working 24X7 and would not sneak out to faraway exotic lands for totally un-political activities.
In any case, one has to analyse Rahul post-his-grand launch. Does he appear strong enough to negotiate with political manipulators like Mulayam and Lalu when the Land Acquisition Bill came up for discussion in the Lok Sabha. Has he matured enough to discuss and extract some seats for the Bihar polls this winter? Has he been able to re-think strategies to make his party attractive to the young aspirational youth?
A commentator said, â€œAfter almost a year in hibernation, the Congress seems to be awakening to the role of an Opposition. But the choice of Delhi for the rally and the contents of Rahulâ€™s speech suggest that he and his party are still engaged in a half-hearted politics based on a limited imagination. And Rahul seems even now to be stuck to the old politicking. Even after two-months of being away from the hurly-burly of Indian politics, his speech was centred on his pet pre-parliamentary election themeâ€”â€˜Modiâ€™s singular purpose was to promote interests of the business and industrial houses, whereas he and his party, the Congress was committed to protecting the interests of the poor and farmersâ€™.â€
Rahul, high on rhetoric and sharp in criticism against Modi, did not bother about facts, nor did he give a mantra or two to the gathered party leaders and workers to boost their dampened morale or give them outline of a much-awaited roadmap that could rejuvenate the Congress, which is suffering from a worst ever crisis.
There was also, by Rahul’s own stated standards, too many contradictions in his speech between what he preaches and what he practised. Rahul keeps on lecturing how he wants to change the course of politics, from an â€œIâ€ centric politics to â€œwe the collective millionsâ€ but he went on and on with his â€œwhen I went to Vidarbha…. when I went to Bundelkhand… when I went to Niyamgiri… when I went to Bhatta- Parasaul… I have an old friendship with guys from Bhatta-Parasaul, when I met them… when they came to meet me… when I fought their battle… let me explain it to you…, et alâ€.
In his exuberance to attack Modi, he forgot that the list of his travels in India to impress the crowd that he had first-hand understanding of the sufferings of the masses and farmers suicides, covered the period when the UPA was in power.
He forgot that Narendra Modi bull-dozed his party by citing the same plight of farmers. He couldnâ€™t succeed in detaching himself from follies of former PM Manmohan Singh or other previous Congress governments. His Ramlila Ground speech was an indication that he had decided to keep on trying the same formula with the hope that it may have failed in the past but may yield dividends now. Such slip-ups do not give much hope that the Prince has matured, his aggressive tendencies seem to have been honed. He has yet to learn a lot before he can hope to take on Modi.
Secondly, as far as re-building of the party is concerned, one has to remember that the rebuilding of a party is not only hard work but needs time and above all knowledge of the people in the region for which the organisation is to be re-built. The computer would be most harmful if it is used to induct people. Instead of a computer Rahul could try through various sources, someone trustworthy and with credibility in his area and then work for the rejuvenation of the Congress. If he does not indulge in showing authority stemming from his dynastic credentials, the party could after a long time open up to real politics.
His biggest danger would come from his no-good chamchas. They would hate to come out in such heat and dust and escort Rahul to â€˜backwardâ€™ areas and travel to meet â€˜uncouthâ€™ locals, who might have only desert-coolers. They could tempt him to succumb to the dynastic routine of â€œsaving the party and the countryâ€.
On whether he does or does not would decide how much he has matured. Instead of crying himself hoarse, accusing Modi of working in the interest of corporate and big bagwallasâ€”Rahul told the audience that Modi took huge amounts to finance his campaign and now he is returning the favours by acquiring their lands, their lifelineâ€”he should initiate the process of rebuilding the party. And given the present condition and reputation of his party, he would re-write Congressâ€™s history, if he as Congress vice-president announces that he will preside over the election of a party president (in which he wonâ€™t be a candidate) in the next six months. This would stir the party out of its current state of paralysis.
The rejuvenation of the party does not mean giving tough speeches from a Delhi dais. It involves hard workâ€”as Rahul once sought to do in UP. It is not enough for the party to be on television screens. It has to be present in cities and townsâ€”and of course, where farmers live and work. For the last two generations, the party has consistently alienated the ordinary worker because local-level leadership was never predicated on networks of workers but on networks of family and social power.
It has been sad 30 years when during the period of governmental power the Congress partyâ€™s politics consisted of running governments, brokering power between diverse claimants and presiding over the distribution of private and public patronage.
And when in opposition, so-called Congress persons have only laboured to protect their small fiefs and local patronage networks, occasionally by joining the new centre of power. Long years of this style of politics have meant that the ability of current Congress persons to undertake politics in the real senseâ€”to mobilise, define and raise issues, align with specific social sections, and, above all, give meaning to being a party memberâ€”has almost disappeared.
In his excitement of chastising Modi he forgot that the list of plight of the poor covered the period of UPA I in power. He was indicting his own â€œMaa-Bete ki Sarkarâ€. This showed how immature he and his advisers still are. It is beyond such people to rebuild a party which used to be like a Bunyan tree, nothing grew under it. The Delhi rally might have failed in winning over many farmers and poor, but one wonders if it could prove to the Indian voter that he could lead the country. It was to tell the Congress worker that he has it in him to run the party.
However, in recent weeks many senior Congress politicians, including Amarinder Singh and ShielaDikshit, both former chief ministers, have suggested a succession be postponed indefinitely and Sonia stay put.
This will not lead to a war of leadership because there is no tug-of-war between mother and son but a substantial sections of the party don’t quite trust Rahul’s instincts, judgement and ability to manage a complex political situation. If Rahul was attempting to change their minds after 56-day holiday, he didn’t quite pull it off.
He has not moved on. He is still in a time warpâ€”2004 to 20o9â€”and his ideas are stuck in the age of the elders and not in the era of Young India with 65 per cent youth, aspirational and in a hurry. The wider issue is Rahul was and is still expected to shape a platform for the future, and for the period leading up to the 2019 election. This platform cannot simply be an iteration of the initiatives and achievements, such as they were, of the UPA government, especially in the 2009-14 period. The platform’s elements have to be forward-looking and contemporary. Does Rahul have any idea? No one can guess, not even his party!
All the changed political imperatives and the impatience of the young today could prove too demanding and complex for a man used to the comforts and lifestyle of the rich.
In all probability, Rahul Bhaiya will revert to be a Pappu heading a 130-year-old party, all its skeletons rattling. The people will hopefully take pity and bury it in 2019.
Congress president Sonia Gandhi talks to party vice president Rahul Gandhi on stage during the farmers rally at RamlilaMaidan in New Delhi on Sunday.
By Vijay Dutt