Main challenges for Rahul Gandhi as Congress president

His re-energised version now must help his party recover its lost cadre base and local-meets-national narrative.

 |  Angiography  |  10-minute read |   12-12-2017
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I keep reading about Rahul Gandhi often gifting his party men books that talk of subjects like wealth creation for the urban poor, such as the Peruvian informal economics specialist Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital. This is interesting because de Soto’s idea of a “popular capitalism” is much like the Gujarati entrepreneurial spirit – small and medium-scale, but gigantic when taken together – that Rahul Gandhi, the freshly anointed president of the 132-year-old Indian National Congress, has often mentioned in his campaign speeches. A capitalism for the masses, democratised enough and not handcuffed to a few behemoth sponsors of past and future elections is really the great ideal stymied by many governments in the past, including the one under Rahul Gandhi’s grandmother, the late Indira Gandhi, and certainly the current government in the Centre.

On December 16, 2017, president-elect Rahul Gandhi, picked “unopposed”, will formally take charge. His ascension, though a political given for long, was also eternally postponed, too often ridiculed. As the 47-year-old who wants to “change the political discourse”, being the sixth in the Nehru-Gandhi family to become the president of the grand old party is therefore as much a backlog as it’s a calling, as much a responsibility coming from within as it’s a crown of thorns.

What can we expect from Rahul Gandhi? Because our expectations speak as much of the Indian national politics as they mirror the connect or disconnect between the political class and the ordinary citizens of India. So the challenges that we expect Rahul Gandhi would face are also the path that we foresee must be trod to revive the Congress party, to secure much needed electoral triumphs at a time of debased electioneering strategies, to win not only by mere electoral math, but also by offering an alternative, either recovered from the archives of the Nehruvian past, or concocted in the social media laboratories of Indian politics, that would resonate among India’s staggeringly diverse people, an alternative that would give them back their plural, multicultural individuality from the Hindutva homogeneity imposed by the Narendra Modi regime.

However, Gandhi is taking charge at a time when Congress has seen too many setbacks electorally, with the lowest ever tally in the 16th Lok Sabha with 44 seats of the 543 total. Losing the popular mandate in states like Uttar Pradesh despite teaming up with Samajwadi Party led by Akhilesh Yadav, Maharashtra, Uttarakhand, Assam, Haryana, and even Kerala, among others, added to the continuing woes. The bogies of corruption and “policy paralysis” that stung the Congress-led UPA hard in 2014 have been somewhat offset by the non-performance and taints that have come to attach themselves to the Modi regime, but demographic dividend has eluded the grand old party under Rahul’s leadership, so far. The exceptions have been Bihar 2015, and the response so far – if crowd strength and retweets are anything to go by – in Gujarat.

Whatever may be the outcome of Gujarat Assembly polls, from here to May 2019 via the eight significant state Assembly elections of 2018, the key challenges before Rahul Gandhi would involve his transformation from the principled principle challenger to the political alternative of constitutional principles and inclusive economic growth. The 13 years of “interning” under his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi, while serving as the Youth Congress leader, the vice-president, will now give away to Gandhi bearing the sole stamp of Congress’ successes and failures. How should he do it, we can suggest. How would he do it, we can only speculate.

Rebuild Congress from grounds-up

As the BJP boasts of his grand objective of achieving "Congress-mukt Bharat", Rahul Gandhi’s primary task remains to keep India and the Congress party inseparable, by regaining Congress’ lost cadre base. This means strengthening local leaders, redistributing party responsibilities to everyone’s satisfaction, making more personal outreach and keeping the channels of communication open. While under the decade of UPA rule, the internecine wars among the second-tier Congress leaders and regional heavyweights intensified, the effect being the electoral loss of face in a number of states, Rahul Gandhi’s key challenge is to rebuild the grid of popular base, ensure extensive door-to-door campaigning by the party workers, have ear to the ground for local issues that can subsequently be woven together with the national imaginary, augmented by brilliant communicators like the professional Congress head Shashi Tharoor, and social media trailblazer Divyaspandana.

rahul-gandhi_121217064539.jpgPhoto: DailyO

During the six roughly decades of Congress rule, the government and the party often became synonymous with redtape which Modi exploited to great effect. The Congress party needs to be there for the people, listen to their smallest and saddest grievances, and instead of fanning the deep divisions, must offer a calming narrative that would merge problem solving at the neighbourhood/village-level to the vision of socioeconomic inclusivity at the national platform. For this, the local leader should feel included and part of the grand old party, and not just an ignored apparatchik begrudging neglect, like Assam’s Himanta Biswa Sarma, among others.

Empower local heavyweights

The eight state elections of 2018 offer Rahul Gandhi the definitive crucible of trying out his formula for revving his party’s fortunes and fusing it with that of India. From Chhattisgarh to Madhya Pradesh to Rajasthan, the BJP strongholds that have seen communal violence, economic stagnation, as well as resentment towards the incumbent regimes, the 2018 elections pose both a fantastic opportunity for Rahul to test his democratised, decentralised polity formula, with state Congress faces, potential CM candidates and heads of state units – all coming together to work coherently and diligently, without personal ambitions marring the collective achievements. Hence, the Sachin Pilots, the Jyotiraditya Scindhias, must work in sync with the Ashok Gehlots and the Kamal Naths and the Digvijay Singhs to maximize the popular outreach, of course with solid, socioeconomically inclusive manifestos and visions on every occasion.

Even in a Congress-ruled state like Karnataka, where the Hindutva groups have stirred politically and where gruesome murders, like that of journalist Gauri Lankesh in September this year, have happened, Gandhi must weave together the narrative of strong local leadership under incumbent CM Siddaramaiah married to a durable pan-India force in the Congress’ national leadership. Much like in Punjab, where CM Captain Amarinder Singh demonstrated his distinguished sway on the electorate, Rahul Gandhi needs to rely on the regional heavyweights to draw on their strengths, all the while being supportive and tying the individual state fortunes to that of the whole country.

Galvanise the 2019 coalition

The next Lok Sabha elections would be between Modi and his ideological opponents, with Rahul Gandhi as the face of the Opposition and the prime ministerial candidate. However, it’s absolutely important to ensure that the anti-Modi coalition is a strong guild of political parties and their leaders sharing a socioeconomic vision for the country. While the new crop of young leaders in Samajwadi Party’s Akhilesh Yadav, RJD’s Tejashwi Yadav, son of Lalu, DMK’s Stalin, as well as CPI(M)’s Sitaram Yechury, D Raja, have good equations with Rahul Gandhi, and are ready to rally behind him, it’s important to bring together the mercurial Mamata Banerjee of Trinamool Congress and Mayawati of the BSP, for their respective pulls in their own state as well as at the national level.

The grand coalition must redefine communalism in terms of its economic consequences, while expanding on the sociocultural costs of disharmony, with the help of his economic advisors in Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram. Rahul Gandhi must manage to convey how sociopolitical rifts translate into economic barriers and why the economics of tolerance, just like what Raghuram Rajan underlined, builds new cultural and social bridges, ties together communities, soothes the jangled nerves of jobless youths. There is ample scope for the grand coalition to present the secular economic alternative as the embodiment of the true Indian entrepreneurial spirit, in contrast to the economic price of bigotry, and if gains are made in Gujarat, that must be emphasised all the way till 2019. 

Nurse political discourse back to health

Rahul Gandhi has taken the first step by refusing to indulge in the dirty politics of ad hominem attacks against his political opponents, even as PM Modi displayed his credentials with the Pakistan jibes at former PM Manmohan Singh. By suspending Mani Shankar Aiyar, a Congress veteran whose staunch secular, socialist principles are much closer to Rahul’s heart than many of the zany spokespersons with formidable Twitter following, the Congress’ president-elect showed he’s capable of taking hard decisions quickly. This is the healing touch that Indian political discourse desperately needs.

Rahul Gandhi must be aware that in the current political climate, abuse and animosity towards the Nehru-Gandhis and the Congress, whether pent-up organically, or fomented and artificially manufactured in BJP’s social media labs, are here to stay, until his principled opposition begins to give electoral dividends. That inequality of the barometer, the much harsher measure for the Congress and the secular Opposition, are a bitter reality, which Rahul Gandhi and his friends in allied parties must negotiate deftly.

Whether it’s the mainstream media in nasty TV channels or the darbari experts singing praises of demonetisation and GST implementation, Gandhi and his team have a much tougher job cut out for them because a frankly unruly, majoritarian and economically insensitive media ecosystem would never assess Team Rahul as charitably as it would the ruling duopoly of PM Modi and BJP chief strategist Amit Shah. Gandhi must brace for that temporary inevitability and circumvent it by beating the unfair media at its own game.  

Beyond 2019 and countering RSS’ hold

Because just 18 months are left for the next Lok Sabha elections in May 2019, all these great expectations may not fructify for Rahul Gandhi just in time. But he mustn’t fight the contest only as an electoral game of thrones. Instead, the Congress must understand that the impact of RSS’ spread in every sphere of Indian life — whether it’s in the government and its various ministries, think-tanks, policy making, universities and schools, cultural organisations, research and analysis, intelligence gathering, judiciary, bureaucracy, scientific bodies, museums, libraries, archives — has been both incremental and exponential. This means that the Congress’ secular, inclusive economic alternative led by Rahul Gandhi must be prepared to fight much beyond 2019 in a battle for the soul of India.

Both a defeat and a chancy victory, cobbled together by stitching up a secular front, are not the denouement, when it comes to Rahul Gandhi. In fact, what he has before is a task that is greater than the challenge that his grandmother Indira or father Rajiv and even his mother Sonia faced when they assumed presidentship of the Indian National Congress, with the first two going on to become prime ministers. Even though the latest India Today cover compared Rahul’s ascension to that of his father 36 years back, the realities of 1981 and 2017 are quite different. The very idea of India is now at stake, and Rahul’s job, now that he has formally accepted it, is to recover the soul of the nation that has been lost to a Faustian bargain with majoritarianism.

Also read: What it was like knowing Shashi Kapoor


Angshukanta Chakraborty Angshukanta Chakraborty @angshukanta

Former assistant editor, DailyO

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