What does the long awaited elevation of Rahul Gandhi portend? Does it suggest an alluring “youth” blast from the Opposition positioned for 2019? Is it calculated on a narrower margin of victory for Narendra Modi in his home state of Gujarat, or even a surprise upset? Lord Meghnad Desai in a recent column cautioned against scoffing at the idea of a light-on-substance youth appeal. The nominated political journey, which began in 2004 when Rahul Gandhi became an MP from Amethi, now sees the heir apparent walking the walk and talking the talk better than ever before. Some say it is himself, maturing as a politician, with improved ambition and focus. Others say that Rahul Gandhi seems to have gathered a better set of speech/tweet writers. Throughout these 17 years, Rahul Gandhi has steadfastly stayed away from any office of government, though de facto he has been calling a lot of the shots since becoming party general secretary in 2007, and vice president in 2013. Nevertheless, he has contributed or presided over, it is alleged, 29 consecutive electoral losses. He tried hard to reform the working of the youth wing and the student-based NSUI, change around state unit office-bearers, motivate grassroots workers, etc., with intermittent talk of inner party democracy and elections. In practice, processes have stayed largely nominated, and attempts to induct political novices from disadvantaged sections have fallen flat.
Meanwhile, the 130-year-old Congress itself is reduced to ruling just two large states, namely Punjab and Karnataka, with other small leftovers from a ravished presence in the Northeast.
In Parliament, it has fewer than 50 seats in the Lok Sab ship in the Rajya Sabha. Much however is made of an occasional panchayat, municipal or parliamentary byelection seat win, clutched at as a possible indication of a turning of the tide.
This upcoming presidential “election” suggests Rahul Gandhi has decided to go the distance, despite the punishment. The timing also suggests that pulling it off for an ailing Sonia Gandhi might be running out of time. Of course, as long as she occupies 10 Janpath, there will still exist a parallel centre of power, with yet another, in a much lower key, around the Vadra residence too. It also means the further diminishment for Sonia Gandhi’s long-serving courtiers, with Sonia herself seeing to it that they are unable to sabotage her son. They may not be turfed out right away, but will certainly be supplanted by Rahul’s own coterie. They too are Congress dynasts, who have been maturing on the vine alongside—Scindia, Deora, Hooda, Prasada, Pilot etc., and allies Omar Abdullah, Akhilesh Yadav, Tejaswi Yadav and so on. Prince Charles may be forgiven his twinges of pain, though this is only an abdication and passing of the baton in a political party in the Commonwealth.
But can this lot of suave and privileged scions challenge the Modi-Shah juggernaut for the remaining Assembly elections and the general elections in 2019? Can Rahul Gandhi make more effective decisions going forward?
With the sidelining of the Old Guard, most of the taint of serious corruption that hovers like a miasma over elderly former Union/State and Chief Ministers from the Congress/UPA, and quite a few pliant functionaries/bureaucrats, will be jettisoned. Of course, Rahul has the National Herald case of his own to contend with, and there could be one or two more. The main thing is to stay corruption free going forward. Given this, and making consistent sense in pronouncements, the 40% of voters that are now urban, with 65% of them under 35, may well become enthusiastic in due course. More so, because India is headed towards becoming an urban society within “a generation”. Congress meanwhile is updating its “secular”, minority appeasing, ostensibly liberal outlook, basted with a soft Hindutva to boot.
The urban youth could increasingly buy into the Rahul version of “India”, as opposed to Modi’s more rustic appeal to “Bharat”. This, may not do the trick in 2019 or even 2024, but 2029 could well be theirs. But even this will remain a pipe dream, unless Congress improves its showing in 2019. This means toning up its lousy lack of organisation at booth and block levels to rival anything the BJP and the RSS can bring to bear. The old caste, class, and religion fissures, traditionally exploited by the Old Guard, have been bested by robust BJP’s Mahadalit support, and a new found resonance with Muslim women. This even though the umpteenth version of Rahul Gandhi launched during the Gujarat campaign 2017 has done quite well so far. But with Himachal Pradesh also slated to slip out of Congress hands, there is clearly no winning poll strategy in place.
What can a Rahul Gandhi-led Congress wrest away from Modi going forward? Can it draw blood with his harping on lack of jobs, farmer suicides and low growth? Is it waiting to benefit from Modi’s mistakes? While much of this is true enough, will people believe that Rahul can do better?
Still, those in the ruling combine that ridicule a gaffe-prone Rahul Gandhi and are cocksure of their chances, may be as misguided as Congress raking up the chaiwala image yet again. It is a fact that Modi and his government have not been able to fulfil quite a few of their election promises. And yet, the voting public, from all accounts, has accepted the pain of structural changes, inspired by the untiring efforts of a squeaky clean Prime Minister and his Cabinet.
The Modi government has not, however, scored very high on governance. Much that has been accomplished is perceived to have been rammed through by Modi personally. Is the BJP then seen as low on “bench strength”, compared to the Congress, even a mostly untried new one?
It sometimes seems that way, despite the presence of a number of good ministers such as Sushma Swaraj (who steered the ICJ win recently), Nitin Gadkari, Piyush Goyal, a terrifically successful party president in Amit Shah, and a determined Arun Jaitley. But what about the dozens of others on board who presumably also serve? Fortunately, Modi has the ideological backing and approbation of the stalwarts in Nagpur. This helps him ignore vociferous and senior dissidents, and uncivilised fringe elements, out to embarrass.
All this is apparent to the public too, alongside the good things done. There is vast infrastructure development underway, OROP was settled after 40 years in limbo, the 7th Pay Commission was executed smoothly, some direct tax reform was done for the lowest rung of tax payers. Then, the fiscal deficit and inflation have been admirably controlled, the benami and bankruptcy laws were passed. The vast millions of the unbanked were included, the Aadhar card was used extensively to identify and link the populace to a largely digital system. There is much greater provision of electricity and cooking gas to the masses. Government welfare programmes are being effectively implemented and administered. But petrol and diesel remains horribly over-taxed.
There is a feeling though, that much more reform is to come, and Modi must be given the chance to bring it about. But what can Modi do in the remaining time to effect a resounding encore in 2019?
Sorting out the Ram Mandir at Ayodhya, festering for 21 years, will be a proud moment, if it comes through. Removing J&K’s special status under Article 35A and 370 will be very well received, particularly after confronting the Hurriyat and eliminating nearly 200 terrorists this year. Modi has already warmed the cockles of patriotic Indian hearts by smacking Pakistan with the surgical strikes and by standing up to China over OBOR and Doklam. Still, the middle-classes, the traders, small to medium business in the unorganised sector, industry, real estate, all feel ignored and let down.
Can Modi urgently address these sections of the disaffected? Can he do something to elicit cheers from them too in the coming Union budget 2018? And he needs to do this as a self-starter, not after being mocked and goaded by Rahul Gandhi. Unfortunately, the reduction of GST duties happened after a prolonged period of Gandhi calling it the “Gabbar Singh Tax”. Modi’s lurch towards the poor also came about after Gandhi characterised the Modi government as a “Suit Boot Sarkar”.
No further David strikes should be allowed by Goliath, if he knows what’s good for him.