Inside Outside

The new Congress vice-president will find it very hard to overthrow vested interests

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi

A few things can be safely inferred from Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as vice-president of the Congress party and his evocative speech at the AICC session in Jaipur. First, it is a sort of an ending of an era as Congress president Sonia Gandhi will now slowly fade away, passing on the mantle of running the party and controlling the UPA government to her son. Second, Rahul may sharpen the ideological attack on the BJP and RSS in the coming days. And, last, he might follow the template created by his mother which means keeping away from the actual task of running the government and so he could hand over the prime ministership to someone trustworthy in the event of the UPA getting a majority in 2014 (quite a grim prospect at the moment).  

It was precisely to figure a way out from this gloomy scenario that the Congress held the Chintan Shivir in Jaipur. The party wanted to tweak its politics to be battle-ready for, first, the eight assembly elections and then the parliamentary elections in 2014. The manner in which the party came to grief electorally has had a demoralising effect on the cadre. Their anxiety deepened with the street protests against corruption and poor governance that erupted in Delhi and elsewhere. The Congress leadership seemed out of its depth in meeting the new assertion of the middle class and its expectation of quality governance. Sonia and some ministers were again showed up as falling short during the spontaneous agitation over the Delhi gangrape.

Congressmen complained to the party’s central leadership about having to face persistent questions on corruption, policy paralysis, inflation and so on. Party workers stated that the central leaders’ performance was hurting them in the states. Expectedly, the goings-on in Delhi deflected people’s attention from the shortcomings of the governments in UP, Punjab and, to some extent, Gujarat. That meant that, even in assembly elections, people apparently voted against the central government. Last year’s assembly elections were a grim reminder to the Congress leadership led by Sonia that the ground under the feet of the grand old party had begun to slip.

In Uttar Pradesh and Punjab, the Congress performed abysmally. In UP, Rahul had campaigned with uncharacteristic aggression, but had failed to make an impact. The crowds, too, refused to show up for his meetings. During the recent Congress delegates, conference in Lucknow, participants shared their fears with the central leaders about the Gandhi family’s charisma waning.

The message was clear that the masses were not enthused by the way the Congress and the government were going about the business of addressing the people’s problems such as inflation and growing unemployment among the youth.

Rahul’s speech, which brought tears to the eyes of many present, also provided indication that he would continue to position himself as an establishment ‘outsider’ or someone who does not want to become part of the government, but represents the conscience of the grand old party 

In the past, brainstorming sessions had lent some focus to the way the Congress fought the elections. After the Shimla conclave, the Congress had agreed to contest polls with the help of allies. This was a repudiation of an earlier line professed at the party conclave in Panchmarhi where it was suggested that the Congress should go it alone. The Shimla strategy had given the Congress the necessary dividends, as the UPA beat the NDA at its own game.

This time around, the Chintan Shivir focused on some key issues that the party had faced in the last couple of years. It was not just the loss of credibility due to the surfacing of the corruption scandals, but also a growing loss of support from the urban middle class. What also worried the Congress was its inability to build a decent narrative for the benefit of the media about its various achievements. It was also felt that clarity on who would lead the Congress in 2014 would bring about greater focus on how the party would face its challenges. With Rahul’s reluctance all these years, there was anxiety over the party’s future once Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi fade into the sunset.

The Chintan Shivir, in many ways, found answers to several of these questions. The designation of vice-president should not fool anyone that Sonia will still control the shots. In the coming days, we will see many of the old Congress leaders giving way to the young although there is no clarity who will fall in which category. “The oldest of the old will probably go away. The rest may still be around,” a political observer commented. 

Rahul’s speech, which brought tears to the eyes of many present, also provided an indication that he would continue to position himself as an establishment “outsider” or someone who does not want to become part of the government, but represents the conscience of the grand old party. By recounting the incident about his mother coming to his room and telling him that “ power was poison”, he gave ample hints that he would like to reinterpret the way power is wielded in his party. It seems he would like to control who enjoys power and who does not, without perhaps getting into a position where he actually wields power from the office of PM. Time and again, he made it clear that those who enjoyed power had neither any influence on the ground nor any great insight into the country’s myriad problems.

If he shows courage, he can make insecure those who enjoy power and influence in the capital and reorder the party structure. At this juncture in his declamation, it seems he took a leaf from father Rajiv’s book. The latter had made a stirring speech in Mumbai during the 1985 Congress centenary  session against the power-brokers that controlled the party.

Despite his intention to reform the party, Rajiv could not really do much and remained under the control of the power-brokers, which later proved to be his nemesis. Rahul has tried to make similar noises and also made an attempt to accommodate the mood of the streets for change when he talked about reforming politics, judiciary and administration. He wants to do it as an outsider without dirtying his hands. This is easier said than done. His mother was a status quoist, who ran the organisation with the help of old timers and party bosses. Rahul had resisted doing it her way.

The big question is, can Rahul really reform his party without overthrowing the vested interests, of which he and his family have been beneficiaries all these years? It is a tough challenge to reinvent a party that seems reconciled to a long stint in the opposition.

Rahul provided some indication of how the party will take on the challenge of the BJP in the coming days. Home minister Sushil Kumar Shinde, in his speech, made a dramatic assertion that the RSS and BJP were conducting terror camps. This is a serious charge that surely Shinde did not make on his own and it could define politics in the coming days. By reiterating the BJP-RSS links with rightwing terror, it would be difficult for some of the allies to go along with the BJP. Left parties, too, would be compelled to dump
their anti-Congressism if this issue acquires traction.

Be that as it may, Rahul’s taking charge of the grand old party would exacerbate the politics of confrontation with the likes of Sharad Pawar as well as with the BJP. 

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: FEBRUARY 2013