Under Pressure from Media & Party Colleagues, Is Rahul Gandhi Haunted by an Identity Crisis?
Despite giving up the Congress president’s post, rivals continue to lambaste him as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s primary political rival while many party colleagues appear uncertain about the extent of his authority
Rahul Gandhi, leader of India's main opposition Congress party, attends a Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting in New Delhi, India, August 10, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis
When Rahul Gandhi speaks, the world listens. And when he tweets – endorsement or not – the world RTs.
Sample his latest viral posts, in what is being viewed as a clarification of sorts following flak from the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) after Pakistani leaders used his recent remarks on Kashmir to stoke the issue on the international stage.
I disagree with this Govt. on many issues. But, let me make this absolutely clear: Kashmir is India’s internal issue & there is no room for Pakistan or any other foreign country to interfere in it.
— Rahul Gandhi (@RahulGandhi) August 28, 2019
But why? Why this obsession with Rahul Gandhi? Isn’t he supposed to be just another Congress MP now? Or was the abdication of the party president’s post following a humiliating defeat to the Narendra Modi-led BJP in this year’s Lok Sabha elections just a charade? His mother, Sonia Gandhi, took over the reins of the Congress in what has been conveyed as an “interim” arrangement on August 10 following about two months of uncertainty since Rahul stepping down on May 25. But interim to what? Is the party hoping to resurrect the 49-year-old heir-turned-gerent-turned-heir-again with another relaunch bid at a convenient time: Rahul 6.0, or whatever it may be? Or will sister Priyanka finally take the long-propounded political plunge, after merely testing the waters so far without making a major electoral impact? The country was treated to weeks of stodgy speculation and tantrum-throwing when leader after leader from the Congress kept imploring the fourth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to reconsider his resignation, as they believed the party needed a unifying figure from the family to avoid splintering, while he kept rebuffing them. He also suggested to the party’s top leadership that its next president be from outside his family. Days later, Sonia Gandhi took charge. It’s perhaps understandable for people from his parliamentary constituency to treat Rahul like this.
— ANI (@ANI) August 28, 2019
But why should senior Congress leaders and sections of the media follow suit, metaphorically or otherwise? Though there’s no protocol against it, why should the MP from Wayanad be leading a delegation of opposition lawmakers to restive Kashmir? Despite losing his family bastion Amethi to the BJP’s Smriti Irani in the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, why is he still treated with deference by sections of the media while other outlets continue to lambaste him as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s primary political rival?
Here’s the Congress’s Thiruvananthapuram MP Shashi Tharoor, renowned for his froufrou English and general gift of the gab, addressing Rahul with the term ‘chief’ while supporting his tweets on Kashmir and Pakistan. Surely the man who can summon up ‘floccinaucinihilipilification’ at the opportune moment could have thought of an alternative here.
Spot on, Chief! This is what @INCIndia has insisted all along: J&K is an integral part of India; we opposed the manner in which Art.370 was abrogated because the way it was done assaulted our Constitution& democratic values. No reason for Pak to draw any comfort from our stand https://t.co/iI8HZ6sopU
— Shashi Tharoor (@ShashiTharoor) August 28, 2019
The Congress’s dismal performance in the parliamentary polls inevitably led to questions about Rahul’s leadership, with many analysts calling for him to step down from his party’s top post. But after he did, the vacillation among Congress leaders made it amply clear – if it wasn’t already – that there could be no consensus over a non-Gandhi candidate for president and straying from the established norm could trigger an exodus or, worse, disintegration.
And yet, Rahul and Sonia alternately being at the helm hasn’t stopped a clutch of Congress leaders from jumping the ideological fence to join the BJP, while a rash of in-house squabbles (or “internal democracy”, as the party calls it publicly) has further demoralised the cadre.
The ruling party isn’t complaining, though. Since tapping into the social media revolution to clinch a stunning victory in the 2014 general elections, the BJP has repeatedly found ways to exploit virtually any remark made by Rahul, and many other opposition leaders, to its advantage by linking them to its nationalism narrative.
The grand old party’s intermittent and largely feeble attempts to counterattack as well as employ ill-conceived strategies like ‘soft Hindutva’ have failed to deliver results. Aside from a handful of assembly elections, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s rise in the last half a decade has been as spectacular as the Congress’s decline. The principal opposition party has also found that, with a voracious BJP at the Centre, forming a government in a state is easier than holding on to it: think Karnataka, Arunachal Pradesh, etc.
If the Congress harbours any hopes of putting up a creditable performance in the next parliamentary polls, it needs to dump the dilly-dallying and get its act together now, not in four more years. It can learn valuable lessons from the BJP’s indefatigable electoral machinery driven by Narendra Modi and Amit Shah that has been advancing like an unstoppable force, crushing opponents, and sometimes even allies, in its way.
Analysts will analyse and politicians will politicise, but in the end whether the Congress wants to keep its first family at the helm or infuse fresh blood is ultimately its prerogative. And then, it has to strive to convince the electorate about its ideology and identity. With Rahul or without him, the country needs a strong Opposition to hold the government accountable. The question is, is the Congress equal to the task?
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