Forty-two days after the Lok Sabha election results, Rahul Gandhi Wednesday made his first public statement, saying he had resigned from the post of the party president.
The note made it clear that he was going to remain active in politics. “I will, of course, continue to fight for the ideals of the Congress party with all my strength… I am available to the party whenever they require my services, input or advice.”
Rahul Gandhi broadly performed three functions. First, he ran the party organisation. Second, he was ultimately responsible for the party’s strategies for state and Lok Sabha elections. He performed these two functions with some degree of autonomy only since December 2017, when he became the party president.
The third function Rahul Gandhi has performed is that of being the public face of the party. He has done this ever since he joined politics in 2004. By virtue of being the son of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, he needs no post to be the Congress party’s public face.
It is in this role that he has been the greatest failure. As party president for 18 months or so, he can justly claim to have led the party to victory in two BJP stronghold states, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, and kept the BJP out of power in Karnataka. Even in the Gujarat assembly elections in December 2018, local Congress workers told me the election was better fought with direct oversight from Rahul Gandhi’s office. There was less factionalism, fewer cases than usual of the undeserving getting tickets, and so on.
Prince forever in waiting
It is Rahul Gandhi as the public face of the Congress, which has not taken off in the 15 years since he has been in politics. It is no doubt an act of humility to step down as the Congress president, but it changes nothing because a new president will anyway be seen as a puppet of The Family. Whether it is Mallikarjun Kharge or Sushil Kumar Shinde or Ashok Gehlot or Sonia Gandhi herself who becomes the new president, Rahul Gandhi will continue to be seen as the prince-in-waiting.
What the Congress party needs is a charismatic national face who could capture the mass imagination. Right now, it has nobody to fill that role, not even the alleged Brahmastra of the Congress party, Priyanka Gandhi.
As former party president, Rahul Gandhi will likely remain the party’s star campaigner in elections. His words will continue to set the tone and agenda of the Congress party. He might do a press conference one day and tear apart a party document, like he once did to an ordinance cleared by his own government. He might say things that make little sense, leading to the BJP’s troll armies turning them into funny videos and circulating them to millions of voters through their infinite WhatsApp reach.
A party without PM candidates
Journalist Saeed Naqvi gave American diplomats his assessment of Rahul Gandhi’s leadership in 2005, which came out in WikiLeaks in 2011. In this conversation, he presciently said Rahul Gandhi “made no impression on the people of the state” of Uttar Pradesh that his party hoped he would revive for the Congress. Naqvi also said that “Gandhi dynastic politics had no future, as the family has run out of prime ministerial candidates with appropriate charisma”.
It might help if Rahul Gandhi announced he was never going to be his party’s prime ministerial candidate. But even then, the challenge of creating a pan-India mass leader will remain. The Congress needs its own Narendra Modi and if you don’t like the analogy, a new Indira Gandhi.
Making it worse
A puppet Congress president will only deepen the crisis in the party, especially because it is not clear who the real puppet-master is. As this crisis has shown, The Family doesn’t always have the same view on everything. Sonia and Priyanka, many have reported citing sources, didn’t want Rahul Gandhi to step down. Will the new puppet president report to Ahmed Patel, Sonia Gandhi, Priyanka Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Working Committee, or all of these?
Rahul Gandhi’s stepping down seems to be less an act of taking responsibility and more of blaming his party colleagues. ‘You didn’t make enough noise about Rafale? Now go handle it yourselves,’ he seems to be saying. ‘You didn’t listen to me? Now let’s see what you can do’. One can visualise him winking.
Rahul Gandhi will use this time and opportunity to again reinvent himself. Once again, he will fail at it. The Congress party will continue to spend its energy trying to build the image of its anointed leader, to little avail. Nothing is going to change.
Views are personal.