After several false alarms, is it possible that this time around also, Congress president Sonia Gandhi will allow her longtime retainer-confidants to yet again delay handing over the formal leadership of the party to AICC vice-president Rahul Gandhi? After the 2014 collapse of the Congress in the Lok Sabha polls, it was clearly time for a change in the party leadership. Given that members of the Congress Party are temperamentally unable to coalesce around any individual other than from the Nehru family, it was inevitable that only Rahul could make the cut, given the Vadra factor affecting sister Priyanka. With little more than a year to go before the Lok Sabha polls, Rahul needs to take over before it is too late for him to have a viable chance of setting a course that could enable Congress to challenge and even surprise the BJP. His success as party chief will hinge on whether Future Rahul will be different from Past Rahul. Throughout the ten years of the Manmohan Singh government, in which the remote control was firmly in Sonia Gandhi’s grip, there was little trace of the Present Rahul. If the Congress vice-president had any objections to the many restrictive laws and policies operationalised during 2004-14, he has kept them to himself. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, for instance, increased the powers of his officials to a level that substantially increased chances for the harassment that is the Standard Operating Procedure of corrupt officials . Rahul watched silently even while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh equated through law the bribe giver with the bribe taker, thereby ensuring that nobody, who had been forced to pay a bribe, would ever reveal that transaction.
In coal, spectrum, petrochemicals and in numerous other fields, official decisions got taken that had no basis in any calculus except that of greed. Favoured businesspersons would buy assets and companies abroad at low prices and later offload them to PSUs at a huge premium. When Pranab Mukherjee was made Finance Minister—possibly because of his world record of imposing a tax rate of 97.25% while serving Indira Gandhi—and expectedly crafted a budget that severely damaged long-term business confidence, Rahul was as silent as when Home Minister Chidambaram introduced the Kafkaesque visa provision that no foreigner could visit India within six months of an earlier visit. Such a prohibition makes as little sense as the present rule for e-visas that only two single entry applications are allowable per person in a single year. Is India so awful that two visits would be the maximum that could be expected?
Regulation following regulation, law after law, procedure upon procedure got changed for the worse during the UPA decade, to silence from Past Rahul, although Present Rahul nowadays condemns similar genuflections to bureaucratic excess, most recently in the matter of how GST has been conceived and implemented. A senior official was fully justified in pointing out that “the present GST is neither good nor simple”. But this is what comes of a process of governance in which only the civil service, and not civil society, is seriously involved in conceiving policies and processes.
Together with the RBI’s total failure to ensure adequate liquidity when demonetisation was introduced, and the fact that compliance is a nightmare for small and medium GST taxpayers, the possibility of a further erosion in the economy is what opens the possibility of Lok Sabha 2019 repeating 2004.
Once his party was humiliated at the polls and driven out of office, Present Rahul emerged, and this has been a welcome improvement over the past. Present Rahul joined hands with Subramanian Swamy (who is not among Sonia Gandhi’s more ardent admirers) in seeking to do away with another of the many archaic provisions in the law, “Criminal” Defamation. Post-2014, Rahul has talked in favour of lower curbs on the internet, a huge departure from his acquiescence in earlier Chidambaram-Sibal monstrosities such as the revised Information Technology Act, whose provisions have unexpectedly found favour with the present government as well. As indeed have a plethora of other pre-Modi regulations and laws that need to be eliminated if efficiency and growth, not to mention the rights of citizens in a democracy, are to be a part of the Indian experience. Even on matters as toxic to traditionalists as doing away with outdated IPC provisions on same-sex relationship, Present Rahul has taken a stand that reflects the realities of the 21st century and not the 19th clung on to by the UPA.
On economic policy, Present Rahul has warned against tax terrorism, although he was silent during the period when Chidambaram and Pranab Mukherjee were handling the Finance portfolio, and raids and prosecutions were common. Not having a direct line to power seems to have made Rahul Gandhi realise that it is India’s hyper-regulated and hyper-expensive governance mechanism that is keeping the people of our country so pathetically poor. But should his party once again get back into the portals of governance, will Present Rahul soon make way for Past Rahul? Will the Chidambarams and the Sibals return to impose their colonial vision on the country, after a hiatus in which both have donned the garb of “minimum government” votaries, or will there be new people chosen? Will Sachin Pilot and Manish Tewari return to their UPA-era aloof mien from their present approachability? Will Rahul Gandhi once more forget that the English language is a boon and not a curse, or that secularism does not mean adherence only to the views of minority fundamentalists and not the moderate majority within the minority? Will he follow Sonia Gandhi in again pushing the majority community back towards second-class status? Or will Future Rahul accept that secularism means equal rights and treatment for all, rather than favoured treatment for some at the expense of the others? What is clear is that if Present Rahul morphs back to Past Rahul in the—still unlikely—eventuality of his party returning to power in 2019, he as Congress president will be attending the swearing-in ceremony of Prime Minister Adityanath in 2024, if not earlier.