Originally Published 2018-11-05 06:29:49 Published on Nov 05, 2018
Should Rahul step up or step back?

The Gandhi’s (Rahul, his mom and sister) face an existential crisis. At the heart of their problem is the stance they should adopt for the national elections coming up in May 2019.

Doing more of the same would mean upping the ante, matching Prime Minister Modi and Amit Shah taunt-for-taunt, continuing the script about corruption in the Rafale deal and generally projecting Rahul as the next “leader”. This is what the Congress party expects of them. After all, the cadres have not spent all these years in abject subjugation, to sit out in the cold forever. The minimum they expect from their “leaders” is to lead from the front.

This would be a mistake. Even if the Congress does well in the Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh elections, being held over the next two months that does not translate into nation-wide support for the grand old party. In Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Telengana, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Delhi, the Congress barely exists. These states account for 55 per cent of the Lok Sabha seats. Tall regional leaders have personal mandates in these states.

In contrast, the Congress has a presence in Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Maharashtra and rules in Punjab. But in two of these states, its presence is courtesy local tie-ups and all of them are directly contested by the BJP. The total seats in these states (excluding Maharashtra, where Sharad Pawar’s NCP is strong) account for 27 per cent of the seats in the Lok Sabha. Even if the Congress were to do well in these states, it does not get them a mandate to form the government.

This leads us to what the Congress should try and do for 2019. Rahul Gandhi currently has compulsions and needs to beat his drum loud in the context of the on-going state elections. But thereafter, irrespective of how well the Congress does, the prudent thing for the Gandhi’s to do would be to pull back into an organisational role aggregating the opposition, rather than be seen to be leading the charge, as is the attempt currently.

This also means highlighting the brands of strong regional leaders by playing second fiddle to them at the state level. The Congress cadres and the Gandhis have never done this before. That is why it is time Rahul stops playing at being good cop Manmohan Singh to Sonia Gandhi’s bad cop. He might take heart that even the mild Sardar (not to be confused with the Iron Man of India) drew red lines beyond which he would not be pushed by dissent from the Party (read Sonia Gandhi) in politico-economic decisions – as in the nuclear deal with the US.

Hard as it might be, prudence lies in focusing on doing well in states where the Congress has a residual presence; providing support to whomever the combined opposition throws up as the face of the Mahagathbandan and in being the glue that brings it all together. This exposure to political give and take could be an important training ground for Rahul, should he be interested.

He must not forget that he has a terrible legacy to live down – of a family of dynasts who plonk into place once a senior member of the family vacates the role of president of the Congress party. Of course there are several dynasts around in other parties. But none of them has as cushy and as shallow a trajectory during their “descent from heaven” as the Congress has offered the Gandhi’s. Like his dad, Rahul has held no executive position in government. Surely, even he realises that times have changed and prior experience in the State or in the Union government (Indira Gandhi became a minister for a short while before she became Prime Minister) is necessary to effectively shoulder the heavy burden at the top.

The advisors (and he still has several dinosaurs around him from his dads time and earlier) who counsel him against becoming a minister in a government led by some other party do him grave harm. Ego is an attribute you should leave at home in politics. Of course you will pick it back up once you ascend to the leader’s role. But carrying the burden of your heritage from the start is inefficient.

This writer is not a groupie of the Gandhi’s. But multi-party politics requires existing parties to be strengthened and new ones nurtured as we go along. We are woefully short of national parties. Today BJP is the only national party in play. The Congress has been progressively reduced to half a national party-to use Chetan Bhagat’s evocative phrase- albeit in a different context. But it is better to have one and one half national parties than to give a walk over to the BJP.

The index of opposition unity should become as strong as the Sardar (the Iron man of India) wanted it to be for the nation. No one enjoys a one sided match – not the players, nor the spectators, nor the media, whose TRPs hang on bitter contestation and wide choice.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

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Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev Ahluwalia

Sanjeev S. Ahluwalia has core skills in institutional analysis, energy and economic regulation and public financial management backed by eight years of project management experience ...

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