Rahul Gandhi has finally said a yes to a more ‘proactive role’ - whether in the party or the government is not clear as of now - but not before a fair amount of goading, pushing, cajoling, pleading and beseeching by one and all including his mother Sonia Gandhi, who told reporters - “No one can take a decision on his behalf. He has to take the decision."
Yes, Rahul Gandhi has taken the all important decision but like a teaser or a trailer he stopped short of what role exactly would he be taking up. He just said – “The decision has been taken, the timing is up to the leadership.” Nonetheless, at least the curtains have been lifted from one part of the act and as everyone waits for the not so young leader’s willingness to finally stop playing a ‘cameo’ and take on a bigger responsibility, the announcement has triggered a major speculation as to what role the scion of the Gandhi family will finally zero in on.
There is talk of him either entering the government or taking up a bigger role in the organisation – working president, core group member or maybe the vice president of the Congress. The only vice president that the Congress has ever had was Arjun Singh who occupied the post for more than a year in 1986-87 during the Rajiv Gandhi era. It is also being said that Rahul may not after all enter the government even though Manmohan Singh has asked him to do so on several occasions as he is keen to work for the party.
The clamour for Rahul to shed the tag of a reluctant politician who had inherited the Gandhi tag but was not living up to it has been growing within the rank and file of the Congress for a while now. Senior leader of the party Digvijay Singh had recently said, “The time has come for Rahul to assume a larger role. He had been confining himself to youth Congress and the student wing of the party. He should come in the mainstream. This is the demand of all Congressmen.” External Affairs Minister SM Krishna had also suggested sometime back that Rahul Gandhi should join the government and the invitation of the PM still stands.
The desperation of the party cadres for Rahul to get active is understandable. They need him to lead a beleaguered Congress in the 2014 General Elections and they see in him as the only ray of hope of putting up a decent fight. Whether Rahul deserves this alleviation is not a matter of debate for them. As everyone knows – in the Congress party if you don’t have the Gandhi name you cannot aspire to occupy the top post. You can be asked to do the job – like Sonia asked Manmohan Singh to do so in 2004, but you cannot dream about it.
There may be others in the party who may be more meritorious and deserving than Rahul but they don’t stand a chance. You cannot blame the psyche of the leaders of the Congress for almost pleading with the so-called Prince to lead and guide them. The party just cannot do without the Gandhi name. It is in their DNA. In the past the Congress has fared badly when a Gandhi was not calling the shots. Remember, after the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi, Sonia had refused to take over the Congress in 1991 but was forced later to join the party in 1997 and become the party leader in 1998. This was after the Congress had been annihilated in the 1996 elections and there was an open revolt against incumbent president Sitaram Kesri. So whether Rahul will make a difference or not, whether he can deliver or not, whether he has it in him or not, the cadre needs him to rejuvenate and motivate them for the battle ahead.
The Congress-led UPA is going through its worst phase ever with corruption, scams, policy paralysis, high inflation, financial mess and diminishing foreign investment. In the midst of it all, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s image has taken a beating in the public perception of not doing enough and not taking a stand on important issues, which has not helped matters. In fact, it is said that a section of the Congress party were keen that the PM be shifted to Raisina Hills and Rahul take over from there as they considered Manmohan Singh as a liability going into the election mode. And don’t forget, before the 2014 elections, there is the Gujarat, Himachal Pradesh and Karnataka Assembly polls too, which will be another test for Rahul.
So when Salman Khurshid told a daily recently that the ruling party needed ‘ideological direction’ from Rahul and that “until now, we have only seen cameos of his thought and ideas like democratising elections to the Youth Congress, but he has not weaved all of this into a grand announcement and this is a period of waiting,” the Law Minister was actually speaking the truth – though it is another matter that his comments sparked a row forcing him to explain his stand.
After the 2012 Uttar Pradesh Assembly Elections, where Rahul was the face of the campaign and was personally calling the shots, the general secretary of the Congress party literally vanished. It was said that he was mostly abroad from then till now. Clearly, Rahul was not able to make up his mind as to what his next step should be. And mind you he had the luxury of taking this much time to take a decision just because his surname is Gandhi. After all Akhilesh Yadav, who is younger than him, is the chief minister of a state that is perhaps politically and administratively the most volatile state in the country- Uttar Pradesh. Whether Akhilesh has lived upto the expectations of the people or not is another debate.
The point is that if Rahul wants to be portrayed by his party as the prime ministerial candidate in 2014 and if he wants the common man to perceive him as a serious politician and not someone who makes a guest appearance once in a while, then he has to plunge into the grime and dust of Indian politics head on. Maybe he should take up a Cabinet berth and show that he can deliver. Also, he has to start talking to the media more often and let the country know as to where he stands on various issues like FDI in retail, NCTC, cross-border terrorism, corruption, price rise, economic crisis, foreign policy and numerous other issues plaguing the country. For example he cannot make a one off speech in the Lok Sabha on the Lokpal Bill and then keep mum on the matter later on. If he takes on an issue he should be seen pursuing it, like the farmers’ issue or the problem of the tribals. He cannot airdrop like he did in Bihar elections in 2010 and then not look back. He needs to project himself as a hands-down politician who is easily accessible to the public and not someone who lives in an ivory tower.
The defeat in the UP elections must have hit Rahul hard but instead of doing the vanishing act he should have been all the more visible and seen getting down to business. After all history is replete with examples of how defeat precedes victory and how without shedding a little blood and sweat you cannot achieve much, even though you may have a famous surname. After all there is a limit to power without accountability.
The more pertinent question is whether Rahul is willing to learn lessons from the past? Is he willing to strengthen the organisational structure at state and grass-root level and back a strong leader at the state level and not repeat the mistakes that he did in UP? Is he willing to not get swayed by his coterie of friends and not repeat the mistakes that his father did when he was the PM? (Rajiv Gandhi had to inevitably pay a heavy price for it, losing the next elections and a fair amount of his credibility in the process.) Can he take criticism in his stride and shed the tag of being someone who needs to be insulated when reality bites?
<i>Post Script:</i> Rahul Gandhi is within his rights to aspire to become what he wants to and the Congress is within its rights to portray him as their PM candidate as we live in a democracy. Because after all in a democracy, it is the people who decide who will be the king and who is not worthy of the crown. If Rahul Gandhi has the merit and the mettle in him, he will succeed. If he doesn’t, he will not. It is as simple as that. And if he can’t deliver, then he has to humbly accept the verdict of the people and try again or if necessary pack his bags and leave.