It is clear that the Congress under Rahul Gandhi is destined to sit in the opposition for five long years. It is also an open secret that Congressmen of all hues and shades would prefer a Gandhi as their leader than a Shashi Tharoor, or a Sachin Pilot.
In such a grim, status quoist scenario, Rahul Gandhi has a task to keep himself in the reckoning. He has to convince his party leaders and country at large that he is still trying and attempting to offer a credible alternative to Narendra Modi and the BJP. Apart from owning the responsibility of the 2019 poll debacle, Rahul has to fix responsibility at all levels of the party hierarchy — particularly in the communication wing of the party which had a pathetic performance across social media platforms, TV news channels and in the print media. Rahul is himself to be blamed for not having a 24×7 media consultant and quick-response mechanism throughout the election campaign.
The Congress president needs to sort out his professional ties with his sister, Priyanka Gandhi. It is not a family arrangement anymore among family matriarch Sonia and her two children. Congress workers need to get a clear idea about Priyanka’s mandate of a free hand to act as per her political instincts. It will be wise for Rahul to either entrust her with the task of organisational revamp while he focuses on the parliamentary wing or give her the specific task of leading the party in Uttar Pradesh for the Assembly polls in 2022 or poll-bound Maharashtra/Haryana.
Rahul is also required to give a clarion call to various breakaway groups of the party — the NCP, YSR Congress, Telangana Rashtriya Samiti and even Trinamool Congress — to unite with the parent organisation. A test of sincerity would be offering all high offices of the party and readiness to make sacrifices. Such a gesture may not find ready takers but it would showcase Rahul as someone who is genuinely committed to the cause and ready to pay a cost.
The Congress’ inability to communicate the benefits of the NYAY scheme, reach out to first-time voters, farmers suffering from agrarian crisis, unemployed youth and women voters requires a volume under a title of ‘missed opportunities’. However, it will not be too late for the Congress president to pay some urgent attention to them as these issues are potent in the coming Assembly polls of Maharashtra and Haryana.
Rahul needs to change the entire decision-making apparatus. His set of advisors needs to have far more plurality and a mix of the old and young. Much like Rajiv Gandhi’s initial years in public life, he needs to have a set of politically experienced men in the mould of P.V. Narasimha Rao, N.D. Tiwari and Uma Shankar Dikshit who used to give Rajiv sober and dependent counsel. Rajiv had a group of sizeable new entrants like Kamal Nath, P. Chidambaram, Ashok Gehlot, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Rajesh Pilot who had earthly, grassroots-level understanding. As luck would have it, Rahul has Nath, Chidambaram, Azad and Gehlot as senior, experienced hands along with Captain Amarinder Singh, Ahmad Patel etc. Rajiv had a band of technocrats like Sam Pitroda, Arun Nehru and Arun Singh who provided the cutting edge, but when Rajiv realised their growing interference in the political domain, the two Aruns found the exit door staring at them. In Rahul and Sonia’s Congress, nobody ever faced the axe or exit door.
The inhouse legal team was a disaster, making Rahul look every inch ludicrous when the Supreme Court had slapped a contempt notice to Rahul over the ‘Chowkidar chor hai’ reference. The matter should have been resolved with an unconditional apology in the first hearing, but his incompetent legal battery kept haggling over ‘regret’ and ‘apology’, making a fool of Rahul up to the first five phases of voting.
In spite of having a pool of talent and counsel, the Congress under Rahul requires institutional mechanism to get things going. The party’s parliamentary board, which finds mention in every second paragraph of the AICC constitution, has not been constituted since 1991! The Congress Working Committee met fewer and fewer times between January and May 2019 and when it was supposed to function as the Central Election Committee (CEC), Rahul left the entire process of the selection of candidates to one man — K.C. Venugopal in consultation with the respective Congress Chief Minister or state party chief. This ‘short cut’ was costly as it deprived the party many crucial and critical inputs. Crucial issues dealing with pre-and poll alliances were left to an already overworked Rahul where small panels of skilled negotiators would have produced much better outcomes.
A bit of clarity on future alliances would do a lot of good to the grand old party. In pragmatic terms, it is always difficult to discuss seats adjustment as a head of the party because the first and obvious task of the AICC chief is to safeguard party’s interest. Whereas, a team of experienced hands like Azad, Gehlot, Nath, Ahmad, Chidambaram etc have a better chance of striking a good deal.
Most importantly, Rahul needs to communicate more, rather hear out ground-level views. The AICC session should be convened twice a year, preferably away from Delhi and both Rahul and Priyanka should try spending weekends in party offices in various states and districts. At the Avadi session, U.N. Dhebar, president of the All-India Congress Committee AICC) in 1955, spoke extensively with a poet’s flair in the presence of Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and others, who nodded their heads in approval. Dhebar had said, “What is the Congress? It is a tear, fallen from the sufferings and agonised heart of humanity in bondage, coming to life.”
A Congress party paper at the 2006 Hyderabad plenary had read, “Each political epoch needs a leader and a visionary who changes the traditional paradigm of society to face contemporary challenges.” Does Rahul Gandhi have it in him?
Rasheed Kidwai is an ORF visiting fellow, author and journalist. Views are personal.
This article was first published on ORF.