India’s two main national parties are facing distinctly contrarian leadership dilemmas: while the BJP is confronted with managing the vaulting ambitions of its multiple leaders, the Congress must deal with the reluctance of its ‘Chosen One’ to stake a claim for the top job. If the BJP’s leadership contenders seem to be in a tearing hurry to be anointed prime ministers in waiting, the Congress’s problem is of a prince who doesn’t want to be coronated.
Rahul Gandhi’s Hamletian response to any question on his future has confounded his friends and foes alike. So we are told that he doesn’t intend to marry. No problem. That is his personal choice and should hardly bother anyone except the page three chatterati. But that he has also indicated he isn’t keen on being prime minister should trouble the Congress party whose sycophantic culture is unable to look beyond a member of its first family as its leader.
In the 66 years since independence, only for nine years has anyone other than a Nehru-Gandhi family member presided over the Congress. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s prime ministerial tenure was short lived and, arguably, contemporary Congress history would have been very different but for his premature death. Narasimha Rao was always the ‘outsider’: he is the one Congress prime minister who has no memorial in his name in the national capital. Sitaram Kesri was an aberration and the shabby manner of his ouster in a de facto coup only confirms the Congress’s discomfort with those outside a charmed circle.
No surprise then that the Congress has been waiting for almost a decade since Rahul Gandhi entered politics for him to announce his ambition to follow the path of his father, grandmother and great grandfather. That moment hasn’t still quite arrived and now Congressmen are confronted with the real possibility of Rahul, like his mother, choosing to ‘outsource’ the prime ministership. Sonia Gandhi had reason to choose Dr Manmohan Singh in 2004. In many ways, it was a politically astute move because with one single decision she ended the intensely fractious debate over her foreign origins and acquired the halo of renunciation. Once the initial shock and ritualistic chanting was over, the Congress rank and file came to terms with the fact that a dual structure was in the best interests of its survival.
With Rahul Gandhi though, it is very different. He is, after all, the son of their leader, and the man who is expected to carry forward the dynastic principle which the Congress party has so totally institutionalised. If he were to say no to being projected as a prime ministerial candidate, the party could be thrown into disarray. It’s a bit like a family owned company where the heir apparent suddenly decides he would rather not be CEO-Chairman, thereby leaving a vacuum at the top.
It is not as if the outsourced model hasn’t worked in Indian politics before. Mahatma Gandhi, in a sense, outsourced the governance of independent India to Jawaharlal Nehru because he felt that Nehru had the age and idealism to take his vision forward. Jayaprakash Narayan did the same with the Janata experiment in 1977 when he chose not to get involved in the contentious leadership battle. At a state level, Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray ran his party by ‘remote control’ and refused to either contest elections or take up the chief ministership of Maharashtra. Except for the JP experiment, which was a singular disaster, the other attempts did work fairly effectively. Even the Sonia-Manmohan diarchy of power worked well in UPA 1 until fatigue and complacency took over.
The big question then: can Rahul find his Manmohan? Well, not quite. Firstly, Sonia was lucky in finding in a Manmohan Singh the ideal compromise candidate for a Congress prime minister in a coalition regime: someone who was no threat to anyone since he had no mass base, had strong administrative experience and a reputation for personal integrity, and who did not offend anyone with his quiet dignity. Part of the reason for his longevity has been the TINA (there is no alternative) principle.
Secondly, as UPA 2’s rather shambolic tenure has shown, there are limits to a division of power at the top. Between managing restive coalition partners and the demands from within the party, the leadership structure has begun to atrophy, creating a dissonance in policy making and implementation. Then, be it subsidy cuts, big ticket schemes like the food security Bill, or dealing with anti-corruption campaigners, the government has been pulled in different directions, adding to a sense of drift and indecision. In the circumstances, the country can ill afford another five years where the prime minister’s office is not the final arbiter for critical decisions.
Finally, while Sonia Gandhi could almost afford to be a mystery wrapped in an enigma because it added to her mystique, Rahul cannot enjoy the luxury of being similarly cocooned any longer. This is not the Congress party of the Indira-Rajiv years which had a monopoly on power. Indian politics has become intensely competitive, new social forces are demanding a greater slice of the power cake and are challenging the status quo. Moreover, in the 24x7 media age, staying away from public scrutiny and a measure of accountability is no longer an option. For a younger, merit-driven society, a family surname is no longer a guarantee of electoral success; people have a right to know just who their leader is and what he stands for. The Congress party today needs a general who leads from the front to enthuse the cadres, not a backroom manager making calculations on a computer.
Post-script: Rahul Gandhi has so far refused to give any interviews or do freewheeling press meetings. Here’s an open offer: we would be happy to host a Rahul versus Narendra Modi presidential-style debate. Isn’t it time to take Indian tele-democracy to the next level?
Rajdeep Sardesai is editor-in-chief, IBN 18 network
The views expressed by the author are personal