Rahul Gandhi can’t be a Modi-like outsider and shake up Congress because he is a part of the problem.
The Indian National Congress is at a strange cusp in its history, perhaps even an inflexion point, where the leadership and the party are at the cross roads – both seemingly reluctant to take ownership of each other.
For India’s main opposition party to be in a peculiar leadership crisis such as the present one is not only a poor reflection on its 131-year-old legacy, but also the primary reason for the alarming lackadaisicalness within the opposition space. Even the Punjab win has not moved the needle, which is worrying for a party that traditionally thrives on momentum.
At the heart of the problem is Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi, who is currently enjoying an extended run of social media attention. Creditable as the turn of fortunes may be, the truth is it’s transient just like his ‘suit-boot’ remark which actually forced the BJP to introspect and course-correct its rich-poor narrative.
It appears, at times, the BJP, perhaps, takes Rahul Gandhi more seriously than his own party. They work very hard at monitoring him, his barbs, comments and remarks; and respond almost always in a manner that holds up the ‘spoilt-kid-with-a-silver spoon’ narrative, and that of a dynast who knows little.
The Congress, on the other hand, is still waiting for him to take over as president from his mother. It’s almost an endless ‘will he-won’t he’ debate, which, if looked at practically, is quite pointless because effectively Rahul is functioning as a party president. He takes all decisions, has the final word, makes all appointments, wields all influence and authority of a party head, which in a way makes the much-anticipated elevation somewhat of a redundant exercise.
Yet, the exercise can’t be dismissed lightly. Let’s go back a few years. When Rahul started out, he positioned himself quite like the outsider within his own party. He scorned the Congress culture of privilege and patronage, even though he was a benefactor.
He wanted to bring in US-style inner party democracy, punish the corrupt, ensure transparency, and much more, even if that meant publicly tearing up an ordinance his party had endorsed to its own government.
The pitch, however, failed. But it worked for others who tried it, particularly Prime Minister Narendra Modi. He also approached his party from the outside, took on the Delhi leadership and ran his parallel campaign after winning the nomination. On assuming office, Modi successfully prompted a change of guard at the helm of his party resulting in the elevation of his trusted ally Amit Shah as BJP president.
The trajectories have, thus, moved in opposite directions for both leaders despite similar approaches. And that’s a valid reason for dejection, if any, for Rahul Gandhi. In 2009, when UPA retained power, he was all set to take over the party and government in due course but by 2012 (UP elections) and then 2014, the story had turned south while in the same period – 2012 (Gujarat polls) and 2014 – Modi climbed, trounced and soared.
What has remained through this fall is that continued disconnect with the Congress party. It’s nothing to do with the old or a new guard, but all about abandoning his old political positioning. Genuine as his intentions or beliefs may have been, there was a fundamental contradiction in his positioning that has surfaced in the worst possible way for the Congress. And it hasn’t died away.
The contradiction is that unlike Modi, who was one of the CMs in the BJP edifice, Rahul Gandhi was at the heart of the Congress edifice. In other words, Modi was situated on the outside, while Rahul wasn’t. In fact, he couldn’t possibly distance himself even if he wanted to because he truly wielded way more influence than Modi did on his party then.
Which is why Rahul’s narrative wasn’t convincing, it appeared false, untrue, bordering the ludicrous when he admonished his own party and government. The truth is Rahul Gandhi is an embodiment of the Congress in its entirety with all its positives and its faults. His reluctance to take ownership of that has posited him against his own party.
To the extent that many even within the Congress now have begun to internalise that he is the problem, the reason for their poor electoral run. At the same time, the message to the Congress is also clear – to accept him as the Nehru-Gandhi family nominee if that’s going to be the way forward.
But before any of that, Rahul Gandhi has to take ownership of the Congress the way it is, as his own, which means lead it as a member of the team, not a lone ranger who can shoot and scoot.
Also read:Talk Point: What is the impact of Rahul Gandhi’s social media repackaging of himself?