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വായന

22 January, 2013

Old party, young leader

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

Given the Congress party’s dynastic tradition, the formal installation of 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi, great-grandson of the first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, in the line of succession last weekend, signals nothing new. It merely confirms that he ranks next only to his mother and party president, Sonia Gandhi, in the party hierarchy.

There is, however, significance in the timing of the event. Until now Rahul Gandhi had resisted pleas by partymen to assume new responsibilities in the party and the government. By giving in ahead of next year’s parliamentary elections, he has become the party’s chief campaigner. He also becomes the natural choice for the Prime Minister’s post, replacing Dr Manmohan Singh, who is 80, if the party is in a position to lead a third successive coalition government.

Gandhi was made the party’s vice-president by the All India Congress Committee at a special meeting at Jaipur, which came immediately after a two-day brainstorming session where selected leaders discussed the current national situation and the strategies to be adopted in the parliamentary elections.

He has been in Congress politics since 2004, when he was elected to the Lok Sabha, where he has kept a low profile. Last year he oversaw the party’s Assembly election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, the original base of the Nehru-Gandhis, but failed to lift it up from the fourth position to which it had slid as the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party overtook it in the state, which sends 80 members to the 543-member Lok Sabha.  Since he has not made an impact on the poll front, the Opposition tends to underestimate his leadership qualities. The Congress’s main rival at the national level, the Bharatiya Janata Party, has written him off as a non-starter. BJP leaders who believe they have a winning prime ministerial candidate in Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi consider him no match for their man, who has three successive Assembly election victories to his credit.

Such assessments are coloured by wishful thinking. While personalities do matter, in a parliamentary set-up things do not work out in the same way as in the presidential system. Howsoever much the BJP may try, it cannot turn the elections into a Modi vs Gandhi contest.

Congressmen credit Gandhi, who, as general secretary, was in charge of the party’s youth and student wings, with having revitalised them by restoring a semblance of democracy by providing for direct election of state presidents, giving up the practice of nomination.

Addressing the AICC after taking over as vice-president, Rahul Gandhi made an emotional pitch, which evoked a favourable response. He said many good things about the party and the government it heads. He also had some not-so-good things to say about both.

He drew attention to the inherent weaknesses of the organisation and suggested that it still manages to win elections because it represents the DNA of India.

Some of his remarks have relevance not just for the Congress party but for the entire political spectrum. For instance, he spoke of corrupt people talking about eradicating corruption and people who disgraced women in daily life talking about women’s development.

He projected himself as a harbinger of change by denouncing the centralised and unaccountable system of government and calling for shifting decision-making from Delhi to towns and villages. Some party leaders immediately used these statements to cast him in the Obama mould. The fact is that system change is a slogan that has been heard in India since the days of Jawaharlal Nehru, who repeatedly dwelt on the need to transform the administrative system evolved by the colonial rulers to make it a fit instrument for a democratic society. However, neither Nehru nor his successors could accomplish the task.

The BJP spokeswoman was not far wrong in saying Rahul Gandhi spoke as an opposition leader.

His speech as well as the Jaipur declaration adopted by the AICC indicate that the party will strive to attract the growing urban middle class whose dissatisfaction with the party and the government have often found expression in social networks and erupted into street protests recently.

Ahead of the Lok Sabha poll, Rahul Gandhi’s leadership will be put to test in the Assembly elections in eight states this year. About half of them are states where the Congress and the BJP are the main contenders for power. The outcome of these elections will not tell us what 2014 holds in store. Who leads the next coalition government will be determined essentially by a host of regional parties. Rahul Gandhi’s ability to deal with them remains untested. -- Gulf Today, January 22, 2013.

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