OPINION | Will 2019 Be the Year of Rahul Gandhi? 3 Things That Must Top Congress President's New Year Resolutions
If 2019 is to be a good year for the Congress, Rahul Gandhi must effectively articulate his position on the Ram Mandir issue, settle the role of sister Priyanka Gandhi and begin an earnest push to reduce the NDA to 200-225 Lok Sabha seats.
File photo of Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
A seemingly improbable scenario has started taking shape as 2018 ends. A contest for the all-important 2019 general elections has begun in earnest.
Exactly a year ago, a ‘Rahul Gandhi story’ was nowhere in sight. The young dynast had taken over as party president even as the Gujarat Assembly elections were underway. In spite of a spirited fight, the Congress failed to wrest Gujarat from the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo. The Congress, under Rahul, failed to win or retain Meghalaya, Nagaland and Tripura. It came second, way behind the BJP, in Karnataka, where some quick-thinking helped the party forge a post-poll alliance with the Janata Dal (Secular) and get into a collation.
In January 2018, Rahul Gandhi addressed the Global Organisation of People of India Origin (GOPIO) in Bahrain and met the country’s prime minister, Prince Salman bin Hamas Al-Khalifa.
Manama, with its strategic location and diverse population, has been an old friend, but absence of a high-level official Indian representation at the 13th edition of the Manana Dialogue was surprising. Manama Dialogue provides a vital forum for some of the most powerful policymakers to address pressing challenges of the world. Rahul made good use of the opportunity to make some friends and address NRIs too.
By July 2018, Rahul emerged lot more confident when in the Lok Sabha, he hugged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a rather non-consensual manner. Rahul’s gesture would not have won the approval of either his great grandfather Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru or his grandfather Feroz Gandhi; both men were great champions of parliamentary ethics and decorum.
While the gap between Rahul and Modi may still be unsurmountable, the outcome of Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh assembly elections is significant on numerous counts. The BJP had employed all weapons in its armoury. In Rajasthan, Modi kept campaigning belligerently, quite literally till the last moment of December 7. Other key campaigners like Yogi Adityanath and Amit Shah failed to make any impact.
The Congress had gone into these polls without projecting chief ministerial candidates. The voters still chose to go for a ‘question mark’ rather than Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh or Vasundhara Raje.
In the context of 2019 general elections, where Modi is pitched as a credible face, the entire premise of Indian parliamentary democracy moving towards personality-oriented US presidential style elections will be put to the test.
The results of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh are far from encouraging from the point of view of ruling NDA.
The best part of the ‘Rahul story’ so far has been re-emergence of regional satraps. Undoubtedly, Rahul is a fifth-generation head of the grand old party, but he fancies himself as a practitioner of decentralisation. His choice of new chief ministers — Ashok Gehlot in Rajasthan, Kamal Nath in Madhya Pradesh and Bhupesh Baghel in Chhattigarh — indicates that Rahul is looking for performing chief ministers who have a streak of independence in their style of functioning. The chief minister Punjab works with near full autonomy. Captain Amarinder Singh is not required to make weekly or fortnightly appearances in New Delhi or to pay a visit to Rahul’s ‘durbar’.
However, Rahul needs to fine-tune his party’s economic thinking. Loan waiver, by Rahul’s own admission, is a short-term strategy. Whether Rahul would go beyond relying on in-house economists like Dr Manmohan Singh and P Chidambaram and accord more importance to his political instincts and economic world-view is something that would be under watch. Rural-agrarian distress, job opportunities for youth are some of the complex issues that have no easy solution.
Rahul’s Brand of Secularism
Rahul’s idea of secularism is closer to Indira, Rajiv and Sanjay than to Jawaharlal Nehru or Sonia. However, he is yet to articulate effectively on the vexed Ram Janmabhoomi-Babri Masjid dispute.
Rahul is also conscious of the chequered history of the issue of cow slaughter that had remained in focus during 1950s and 1960s. In fact, the Right-wing dominance continued throughout 1960s till Indira flirted with socialism and secularism, albeit briefly.
Indira had returned to power in 1980 and sought to cultivate the majority community. The entire Narasimha Rao period between 1991 and 1996 saw Right-wing dominance. Sonia Gandhi's Working Committee, too, had declared: "Hinduism is the sole guarantor of secularism in India."
The Left-liberal lobby and a section of Muslims in Kerala and Bengal are concerned about Rahul’s “volte-face” on the issue of secularism.
The Priyanka Factor
Speculation is rife in the Congress that Rahul’s consolidation in national politics may result in sister Priyanka entering the electoral fray from Rae Bareli in 2019. If that happens, would Rahul reach out to cousin Varun Gandhi who is not having that great a time in the BJP?
These things are easier said than done. Priyanka Gandhi is Rahul’s closest confidant, well-wisher and advisor, a role she can continue to play behind the scenes. Any formal induction has the potential of renewing “twin power centre” system which may prove detrimental to Rahul. At present, Varun Gandhi is a BJP MP and his mother Maneka is a minister in the Narendra Modi government. Given the ambition-driven nature of politics, Varun’s role in Rahul-led Congress may do more harm than good. In both cases, it would be up to Rahul to take a call whenever the situation requires Gandhi cousins and siblings to come together.
No member of the Nehru-Gandhi family has failed in politics (in the sense of delivering power, winning elections) and Rahul has the task cut for him. Even if he succeeds in reducing the NDA’s strength to around 200-225 Lok Sabha seats, he would be considered a success and a legitimate claimant for 2019 to be a year of Rahul.
(The author is visiting fellow at the Observer Research Foundation and a journalist. Views are personal)
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