Give the nation an ideology distinct from those of other parties; rebuild the Congress bottom-up, and do not expose yourself to the media
The inevitable has happened. The Indian National Congress has given its compulsion the shape of its virtue. The great-great-grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru, great-grandson of Indira Gandhi and son of Rajiv Gandhi — Rahul Gandhi — has become the president of the party, virtually enjoying a walkover in the ‘contest’ for the post. All the ridicule that the person has been subjected to since his official entry into active politics in 2004 notwithstanding, he will have to steward the sinking ship of the oldest political party of the nation hereon. To that end, while the old guard and the young blood of the organization will pull him in different directions — evident in the confused, mutually contradictory strategies he is seen adopting in successive elections and also in his tourism of issues — he has nobody but his naïve appearances in the public domain to blame for not being taken seriously by the polity at large. If there is one lesson he must take from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, it is to stay elusive to the media. What the mother put the nation through is a different subject matter; her shrewd handling of affairs of the party for 19 long years cannot be undermined. Diametrically opposite to her in wisdom, the son has been a cause of sheer embarrassment for the party on innumerable occasions with his unforced slips of the tongue. The most forgettable one for a Congress supporter was the spate of interviews Rahul appeared for in the run-up to the 2014 general elections.
Given the pathetic strength of the INC in Parliament following that election, and the ever-shrinking footprints of the party in States across the country, the foremost job of the chief is to bring clarity to the little-known ideology of the party and, with that message, consolidate its position gradually, bottom-up. Though not cursed with as much of a challenged intellect, his father had tried and failed to discipline the workers during his brief stint in power in the 1980s — while holding the dual posts of the president of the party and prime minister of the country — despite no challenge in the rank and file to his authority and regardless of the INC’s brute majority of historic proportions in Lok Sabha in the period 1985-89. It is obvious that a grand address or two to the cadre, reminiscent of Rajiv Gandhi’s at the AICC during his first year at the helm, is not going to discipline workers who are brought up on the idea of entitlements. On the one hand, Rahul must launch a talent hunt beyond dynasts and empower them; on the other, he will have to phase out the veterans while showing no disrespect to them and while also taking advice from them at critical junctures. And as he goes about this business, he must shy away from the media. Contrary to having the gift of the gab, Rahul is a master of making a mess of intelligent sound-bytes his advisors devise for him.
Whereas the results of the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections are yet to be out, even a slightly better performance of the INC in the first would be credited to the factor of a long anti-incumbency rather than to some brilliant alternative model Rahul could offer to the State of entrepreneurs. Nehru had famously said indeed that the party would have no ideology but a vision, but the ‘vision’ has altered so much over the decades that it is now far more confusing than the mixed economy the first premier of the country had envisaged. Some regional powers like the Samajwadi Party of Uttar Pradesh and Janata Dal (United) of Bihar are better identified with socialism, and the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party is clearly the most market-friendly party of the country irrespective of its own socialistic bouts. The INC cannot appease the minority as much as the Trinamool Congress and it looks silly trying to come across as more ‘Hindu’ than the political wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. The massive section of the population of fence-sitting voters, therefore, do not know what the INC stands for, making it the least preferred voting choice, except when, in a two-cornered fight, the rival BJP does something terrible or faces a State known for sending the two parties alternately to the seat of power. The challenge of looking distinct is greater than ever before for the INC because here we have a prime minister, Narendra Modi, who comfortably switches from the left to the right and vice versa, eliminating its former residents from the minds of the electorate with ease. Yet, Rahul has no option but to take the bull by its horns ideologically as well.
The organisational behaviour of the INC warrants a sea change. The party can no longer afford medium rung leaders deserting it in droves to join the BJP. Workers at the grassroots need indoctrination of the kind the communist cadre received until the 1990s when the circumstances prevailing in the country could not wean them away from their original organisations, particularly the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Easier said than done, of course! It is asking for too much from a person who has only led his team to one electoral setback after another for more than a decade except on one occasion. Then prime minister Manmohan Singh had put his foot down on the issue of the civilian nuclear agreement with the United States; it was endorsed by the people in the form of 206 seats countrywide. At the same instance, a division of votes between the SP and Bahujan Samaj Party gave an otherwise unlikely 21 parliamentary seats to the INC from Uttar Pradesh. Rahul can hardly claim credit for that fluke. Nevertheless, since Indian democracy needs a strong opposition, which neither the TMC nor the Biju Janata Dal nor the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam can offer, the INC, led howsoever precariously by Rahul Gandhi, must take the plunge.