Former foreign minister Natwar Singh says there’s a distinct change in Rahul Gandhi since his ‘Pappu’ days, but taking over the Congress will be a huge challenge.
New Delhi: The long-awaited change of guard at the top of the Congress is all but done, with Rahul Gandhi set to take over as party president from his mother Sonia after years of speculation.
In the build-up to his ascension, the Congress has witnessed a minor rebellion, courtesy Maharashtra leader Shehzad Poonawalla. On the other hand, the BJP has gone on the offensive, with Prime Minister Narendra Modi comparing Rahul’s ascension to Aurangzeb’s, and Union minister Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi terming it “promotion without performance”.
ThePrint spoke to veteran Congress leader and former Union external affairs minister Natwar Singh, who has worked with four generations of the Nehru-Gandhi family, to get a sense of what Rahul’s elevation means for the Congress and the country’s politics going forward. Excerpts:
You once said, “Politics is a 24/7 job. Rahul is a good man but he lacks the fire.” Have you changed your mind, now that he is becoming Congress president?
I think there is a distinct change in Rahul. One, he has become much more active. Two, he is choosing his words carefully. I don’t know what happened, but since his return from the US in September, there is a metamorphosis.
I think that Rahul should have become the Congress president long ago. Why was there a delay? In 2014, he was not active in the sense that he really did not play a crucial role in the elections. Now he is doing a lot of it. Rahul’s stature has grown. People are no longer calling him ‘Pappu’.
What kind of role do you visualise for Sonia Gandhi after Rahul takes over?
She will be the power behind the throne, because in the Congress party, she is highly regarded. Sonia is now the mother figure.
Will she become the Congress Parliamentary Party leader?
She does not have to. Her position is such that she does not have to hold any office.
And what about Priyanka Gandhi?
Personally, I don’t see her coming into politics, because what would happen to Rahul then? You can’t have two power centres. She would not like to disrupt her brother’s politics. I don’t think she could make that impact which she could have made ten years ago. She will help, but it is too late for her to come in. At one time, she was a very big factor.
Was it Sonia Gandhi’s intention to install Rahul right from the beginning?
There are two things. First, this is an elected dynasty, so you can’t say that he has been imposed by anybody. They get elected. Second, if she did not install him, it would have been Priyanka. So I don’t think there was any complication about the decision.
You were part of the team that brought Sonia Gandhi to politics. Do you regret it at any time?
I think she would have been a disaster as Prime Minister – an absolute disaster. She had no idea at the government level. She knew Manmohan Singh was no threat to her, and he was not. He is a wonderful man, but a Prime Minister has to be ruthless.
Do you see the dynasty continuing?
I personally think this is the end of it, because there is a Gandhi fatigue, like there was a Clinton fatigue (in the US). People who are in their twenties don’t care about the dynasty.
Why is Rahul taking over now? What is the significance of the timing?
I think the timing is proper. It is a good time to take over, and this is a good challenge also for Rahul to prove himself, because he proved a failure earlier in 2014 and in UP, but the Congress will improve in Gujarat. Even in Himachal Pradesh, Congress will not be wiped out. Next year, crucial assembly elections are coming up. I think it is a good dress rehearsal for Rahul.
You have been associated with the Nehru-Gandhi family for four generations, and Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi had transformed themselves on the job. How do you see Rahul’s future?
He is the fifth generation from the Nehru-Gandhi family (to lead the Congress), and this is the only family which still has an all-India appeal. But I think he is the last. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, if he can increase the tally from the present 44 to 144, that will be a big change. If he is able to take it from 44 to only 84, it means nothing. His future is linked to the Congress party. If he can revive it, strengthen it, fine. If he can’t, he will be just like any other politician.
Do you think other senior opposition leaders like Mamata Banerjee, Lalu Prasad, and Mulayam Singh Yadav will work with Rahul?
That will be a factor. I don’t think they will. Politics changes every day. After 2019, there might be a BJP-led coalition government. The Congress will not figure unless it is able to get 144, and this is where Rahul’s test lies. He should revive the Congress as Indira Gandhi did. Rajiv could not hold it together, and it was all over by 1987.
What kind of leadership is required for the Congress in the present circumstances?
We are going through a very uncertain period, and the Congress is at its lowest point. At the moment, there are only six Congress states. They are small states except Punjab and Karnataka. If they can form governments in two or three major states like Rajasthan, it will make a difference. Rahul’s stature will grow. We have one-and-a-half years, and much can happen. The problem is that you need a combination of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi to prop up the Congress. It is a pity because India needs a strong opposition, and the Congress is the only party which can provide this.