Why Rahul Gandhi's return will be disastrous for Congress

He might doze off in Parliament in the second half of the Budget Session or roll up his kurta sleeves at the kisan rally on April 19.

 |  7-minute read |   08-04-2015
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In Samuel Beckett's 1953 play Waiting for Godot, Vladmir and Estragon, the two scruffy principal characters, wait endlessly for Godot, unseen and unknown, to arrive. He never does.

Unlike Godot, Rahul Gandhi will arrive - in time to address a kisan rally scheduled for April 19. Congress faithful have mixed feelings about the return of the prodigal son. Veterans of Sonia Gandhi's old guard know that once Rahul is anointed party president, they will be sidelined. But the tension in the party isn't, as some naively believe, between Sonia and Rahul. The succession line is set - Rahul to take charge of the party, Priyanka to help administratively behind the scenes and Sonia herself to withdraw gradually into a mentor role while rallying the party on hot-button issues like the Land Acquisition Bill.  

So why are there so many glum faces around 24 Akbar Road, the Congress party's headquarters? Most Congressmen and women talk privately of three things that worry them about Rahul. One, that he is not accessible. Two, that he disappears at key moments when his presence is most required. And three, that he doesn't follow through on issues.

The "Return Of Rahul", they fear, is pregnant with all kinds of disastrous possibilities. He might doze off in the second half of Parliament's Budget session that begins next fortnight. Or he might roll up his kurta sleeves at the kisan rally on April 19, eyes ablaze, jaw squared, both hands gripping the mike, and make a blooper that the predatory media will feast on for days.  

The numbers back up these fears. In last week's India Today Group-Cicero Mood of the Nation opinion poll, only 7 per cent of the respondents wanted Rahul as prime minister. According to the poll, if the Lok Sabha election was held today, the Congress's national voteshare would be 20 per cent virtually the same as in the 2014 general election. That would translate into 53 seats compared to the 44 seats it won in 2014. In contrast, the BJP's national vote share would rise from 31 per cent to 32 per cent though its seats would decline to 255 from the current 282. (In both cases, the midpoint of the projected range has been taken.)

These are clearly worrying numbers for the BJP as well. The reduction of 27 seats from its tally of 282 in 2014 is largely due to a projected vote share decline in Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan where the BJP swept 97 out of 106 seats in 2014. It will clearly have to recalibrate its strategy around what can loosely be described, to use the party's fondness for acronyms, as the PIP principle: Policy, Implementation, Perception. While policies and implementation are moving in the right direction, perception is not. It needs immediate attention.

Rahul's return meanwhile could provide just the boost the BJP needs. A pleasant, middle-aged man (he'll be 45 in June), Rahul has acquired so much negative political equity in recent years that his presence actually helps his opponents.

The BJP is fortunate that its opposition is so feeble. The Congress is still finding its feet; AAP's Arvind Kejriwal is immersed in party infighting; the Janata Parivar merger of the SP, RJD, JD(U), JD(S) and others may end up being not quite equal to the sum of its individual parts. The Bihar assembly election later this year will tell us whether the merger of anti-BJP forces will in fact post a long-term threat to the BJP nationally.

The Congress, and specifically the Gandhi family, has not yet fully grasped how much India has changed in the past few years. The young have no time for dynasts whom they see as corrupt and entitled. This is what I wrote in my 2014 book, The New Clash of Civilizations: How the Contest Between America, China, India and Islam Will Shape our Century: "In India, according to Patrick French, 28 per cent of MPs across party lines in the Lok Sabha are hereditary. Worryingly, 38 per cent of the Congress's Lok Sabha MPs are dynasts (compared to 19 per cent of the BJP's). Worse, 88 per cent of Congress MPs under forty and 100 percent of Congress MPs under thirty are heirs. The problem will clearly get worse - as a new generation of dynastic politicians assumes its inheritance - before it can get better along with the evolution of Indian democracy."

Nearly 150 million people, currently aged between 14 and 17, will come of voting age in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. These are all children born between 1998 and 2001: the new millennium generation. It is this demographic that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the Gandhis, the Janata parivar and other parties will have to win over in 2019.

Caste and community will continue to play a part, especially in the Hindi heartland, but the focus will increasingly be on development and jobs. Religion though still matters enormously in India. That is why the snowballing controversy over "attacks" on Christians must be nipped in the bud. There is an insidious campaign to demonstrate that Christians are under threat in India. The recent outbursts of former police chief Julio Ribeiro, Admiral Sushil Kumar Isaac and Supreme Court Justice Kurien Joseph have played into these sectarian hands.

Former Supreme Court justice KT Thomas spoke up for the silent majority of Christians in India when he told The Telegraph last week: "On a previous occasion in 2007, the conference of chief justices was held (on a Good Friday), nobody even bothered. This is because today there are people who want to show that there is Christian persecution in India, to which I don't agree. There is no persecution of Christians in India. I am a church-going Christian. Millions of Christians live in Gulf countries (where the weekly holiday falls on Friday) but I have not heard any Christian raising any grievance (that Sunday is not a holiday). On the other hand, they agreed to adjust on a Friday for church worship."

The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), which the prime minister so effectively sidelined in Gujarat during his twelve-and-a-half-year tenure as chief minister, has meanwhile muddied matters with intemperate statements by its international president Dr Praveen Togadia. These must stop.

To become a modern, centre-right party, the BJP needs to place development firmly above deity. If it does not, bigots on all sides, some prodded from overseas, will seize the opportunity to weaken India's development agenda.

In 1893, at the World Parliament of Religions in Chicago, Swami Vivekananda said: "I am proud to belong to a religion which has taught the world both tolerance and universal acceptance. We believe not only in universal toleration, but we accept all religions as true. I am proud to belong to a nation which has sheltered the persecuted and the refugees of all religions and all nations of the earth. I am proud to tell you that we have gathered in our bosom the purest remnant of the Israelites, who came to Southern India and took refuge with us in the very year in which their holy temple was shattered to pieces by Roman tyranny. I am proud to belong to the religion which has sheltered and is still fostering the remnant of the Zoroastrian nation.

"If the Parliament of Religions has shown anything to the world it is this: it has proved to the world that holiness, purity and charity are not the exclusive possessions of any church in the world, and that every system has produced men and women of the most exalted character. In the face of this evidence, if anybody dreams of the exclusive survival of his own religion and the destruction of the others, I pity him from the bottom of my heart."

Indians of all faiths should absorb the wisdom of those words and not fall victim to the machinations of vested political and ecumenical interests who seek to divide and weaken the nation.                                            


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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