Rahul Gandhi’s biggest challenge is rebuilding the Congress organisation
It remains to be seen whether Rahul Gandhi’s leadership will make a difference to the Congress party which suffered its worst defeat in the 2014 elections, which reduced the party to a historic low of 44 seats in the Lok Sabhaanalysis Updated: Dec 05, 2017 18:01 IST
After a long time the Congress Party is all set to get a new president. The election of Rahul Gandhi this month will formalise his de facto position as the leader of India’s largest opposition party. Getting elected as the Congress president in his case is easy, but leading the party hands-on and getting accepted as a convincing challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a more difficult proposition.
Therefore it remains to be seen how much of a difference Rahul Gandhi’s leadership will make to the Congress party which suffered its worst defeat in the 2014 elections and which reduced the party to a historic low of 44 seats in the Lok Sabha. This was followed by a string of defeats in the subsequent state elections which reinforced the serious crisis facing the party. The present crisis is far worse than anything the Congress has confronted in its 132-year history.
As the transition to the Rahul era begins, he has two major challenges, one of a personal leadership makeover and the other of revamping the party structures and messaging in order to make it a significant political voice.
For a start, he will have to contend with the strong disapproval surrounding the question of dynasty. In the New India defined by democratic assertiveness and aspiration, a reliance solely on dynasty doesn’t work anymore. But for the Congress the inevitable succession from mother to son is related to the nature of the party which was transformed by Indira Gandhi into a centralised institution in the early 1970s. The party can’t do without the family as no one but a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family can hold its potentially fractious elements together. Even so, dynastic entitlement is out of place in a democracy. It’s even more problematic because the significance of the family was principally connected to its electoral success. But lately the dynasty has not delivered. This has ironically not lessened its influence or the dependence of the party on the family.
Rahul Gandhi’s biggest challenge is rebuilding the Congress organisation which is faltering in the states. Barring a few states like Kerala, the Congress virtually does not have an effective organisation anywhere else. Organisationally, it is in disarray, it is bereft of a dedicated cadre of grassroots workers who can fight the formidable Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)/ Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) election machine. The ruling party’s page pramukhs and booth management operations are its biggest strength and the Congress has nothing remotely similar dedicated to the task of election management.
To his credit, he has shown greater enthusiasm for structural changes in the party apparatus than his mother who didn’t make any perceptible effort to change the party’s centralised style of functioning during the ten years of United Progressive Alliance (UPA) rule. It is the persistence of this model which discouraged the emergence of strong and credible leadership capable of mounting effective state-wide mobilisation in the states. But so far, Rahul Gandhi has not had the chance to usher in the changes that he has often spoken about. Hardly anything has been done to rebuild the Congress organisation in the last three years when he has led the party as vice president. Democratising the organisation is essential, but to do this, the top leadership has to reorganise the party through internal elections which can throw up a new set of leaders and activists.
A distinctive characteristic of Rahul Gandhi’s politics is his spirited opposition to Modi despite the BJP’s political offensive against him; in fact, his sharp attacks on Modi have put the BJP on the defensive and have contributed to making him the principal Opposition leader in the country. He has successfully tapped into a rising discontent over the economic slowdown and growing job losses. The disenchantment with demonetisation and the Goods and Services Tax, and his aggressive campaign in Gujarat, seems to have infused new life into his political career. According to him, Modi has over-promised, and under-delivered. But drawing attention to the government’s economic failures is not enough; an Opposition party must shape it with a social and economic agenda of its own. Only a sound political vision will help Rahul Gandhi in the face-off with Modi. It is clear that in the present climate of discontent an alternative development agenda must be defined by a model of job-led growth as against jobless growth. Social welfare and economic rights should form the core of the counter-narrative to the NDA model, notwithstanding ‘expert’ advice to the contrary.
Rahul Gandhi will need to reach out to other parties to form alliances like his mother had done in the formation of the UPA in 2004. The Congress secured 19.3% of the vote while BJP got 31% in the last Lok Sabha polls, signifying that the Opposition can challenge the BJP if they can hold out seat adjustment, if not alliances, in the battle for 2019.
Zoya Hasan is Professor Emerita, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
The views expressed are personal