ONLY A HANDFUL

The Congress party finds itself in a quandary over the unexpected drubbing it received in the assembly elections. It needs to reinvent itself to avoid being blown away by the winds of change

Hardnews Bureau Delhi 

On December 8, when it became clear that the Congress would lose all four states, party president Sonia Gandhi and vice-president Rahul Gandhi stepped out of their 10 Janpath ivory tower to respond to a defeat that seriously questions the Congress’s ability to get anywhere respectable in the 2014 elections. Displaying a resolve that belied the miserable performance of the party and doubts about his own leadership, the young Gandhi, in the context of the Aam Admi Party’s (AAP) success, said, “We are going to do a better job than anyone in that party and in a manner that you can’t even imagine.”

The remarks left many in the party confused. Was it empty bravado or did Rahul really have a plan to transform the party before 2014? And what would he do that he could not do all these years? Expressing shock and disbelief after the hammering that his party got in the assembly elections, a senior Congress leader wondered: “Where is the time to do anything? We did our best in these elections and still managed nothing.” The defeat of Sheila Dikshit was particularly painful. No one really expected the Congress to do so badly in the capital where the government had done so much. Still, the people of Delhi did not spare her or her party. The double whammy of Narendra Modi and Arvind Kejriwal just sent the Congress running for cover.

So what can Rahul do to revive the Congress party? Precious little, it seems, till he can get the allies to stand by him and prove he can rescue a sinking ship. It’s not that he hasn’t tried to reclaim lost credibility and the attention of the media. The first and the most applauded one was the manner in which he steered the Lokpal Bill in Parliament. Cleverly, he dissociated himself from the corruption of the UPA government and underlined the imperative of passing the Lokpal Bill in both houses of Parliament. Word from a fasting Anna Hazare, stating that Rahul had played a helpful role, got him some traction in the media. It also compelled the BJP leaders to step up to take part in the “who got the Lokpal Bill passed” game.

Next, he tried to demolish the impression that he was a poor and flaky speaker by addressing the Federation of Chambers of Commerce, where he shared his vision of making the country more friendly towards business. He made conciliatory noises towards a sector that is a hot potato within the Congress party itself, so much so that they are reportedly spending their own money to see its back and somehow get the BJP to power. Rahul talked about how to strike a balance between the need of the industry and natural resources. His speech was widely applauded by businessmen and lobbies.

He followed it up by sacking Environment Minister Jayanti Natarajan who had smothered the industry by holding back permission for projects worth a whopping Rs 10 lakh crore. Natarajan tried to create an impression that she had voluntarily moved to work in the organization, but there was common discussion about how most of the new projects in the mining and related sectors were derailed by her as she was not particularly given to granting clearances. What is really intriguing is why the Congress leadership did not give her marching orders earlier – if indeed she was creating a problem. More such changes in the economy are expected to assuage the angry industrial sector.

Rahul then marched to Muzaffarnagar to hear the Muslims displaced by riots. For more than three months now, the Samajwadi party (SP) government is finding it difficult to send them back to their villages—so vitiated is the communal environment. After returning from Muzaffarnagar, he met Muslim leaders, who told him in one voice that the Congress had to pass the communal riots Bill, which holds the district administration responsible for any incident. The UPA had planned to bring in the Bill during the winter session of Parliament, but it chickened out. It can get it passed in the budget session of Parliament. If minorities stay with the Congress, then it could have some hope.

Some believe that Rahul can do more than “anyone could imagine” if he decides to become prime minister for the four months that the UPA is in power. If he continues to play safe and ducks responsibility, he could be in for a rude surprise. If the recent assembly election results are anything to go by, the people of India have decided to vote for change – in favour of anyone but the Congress. Can Rahul change this script?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JANUARY 2014