It is a more confident Rahul Gandhi who has returned after his 56-day ‘leave of absence’.
There were indications of this when he spoke in flawless Hindi, without using an English word during his speech at the farmers’ rally in Delhi on Sunday, without resorting to a prepared text, launching a blistering attack against the Narendra Modi government, and positioning his party as a protagonist of the poor and marginalised, as opposed to the ‘pro-corporate BJP’.
He also seemed to hint that he would be more ready now to lead the party from the front in Parliament when he took the bull by the horns to intervene in the debate on the agrarian crisis in the Lok Sabha.
He kept up his offensive against the government, with tongue-in-cheek quips like the “suit-boot” Modi government, more comprehensible to the person on the street (reviving memories of Modi’s mongrammed suit auctioned for Rs 10 lakh) than his earlier esoteric references such as India being a ‘beehive’.
But one swallow does not make a summer.
With Rahul, whose record is not one of consistency, we will just have to wait and watch. By all accounts, he is set to take over from Sonia Gandhi as party president and she may well effect controversial changes in the party setup, which he may want, before he takes over.
More significant, however, are signs that Rahul may now be willing to make peace with the old guard, and be more amenable to take them along even as he puts in place his own team. (For example, barring Sachin Pilot, it was senior leaders who ensured the success of the farmers’ rally, which ‘relaunched’ Rahul)
The Congress has perked up suddenly because of the opportunity the land acquisition ordinance has provided the party and a disparate Opposition to come together.
The government has made the mistake of making the land Bill such a prestige issue, particularly so given its lack of majority in the Rajya Sabha, the growing agrarian unrest compounded by the recent freaky rain and hailstorm destroying crops, and the nature of our competitive politics.
Even if the government makes changes in the present Bill — the issue is not the provisions of the Bill but the politics around it — it will be difficult for the Opposition parties that have opposed it to back down, lest they be accused of a ‘sellout’.
If the Congress is able to block the Bill, the party and Rahul, who had pushed for it in the first place in 2013, will get a new impetus. Conversely, it will make Modi look more vulnerable.
In the last few months, the Congress has been buffeted around by the ‘young versus old’ pulls and pressures. Speculation was rife when Rahul suddenly took off for ‘introspection’ that he left because he was not being given a free hand to change the old guard.
They found a comfort level with Sonia Gandhi, he reportedly felt, because conscious as she was of her foreign origin, she did not want to come down on them with a heavy hand. This had pressed panic in the old guard that they faced marginalisation in the Congress under Rahul.
The empire struck back.
When Amarinder Singh — it would be foolish to antagonise him, given the party’s high stakes in the Punjab polls two years later — and Sheila Dikshit and her son Sandeep openly made a pitch for Sonia Gandhi to continue as Congress chief, it constituted only the tip of the iceberg.
In May 2014, Digvijaya Singh had spoken about the need for all those groups who had broken away from the parent Congress at one time or another — the Trinamool Congress, the NCP and the YSR Congress — to come together to take on the Modi dispensation.
Recently he gave voice to the idea again. It is well known that some of those who left the party would want the ‘Congress parivar’ to reunite without the leadership of the Gandhi family.
For the Congress leaders to close ranks is a sine qua non for India’s grand old party to play the role of the main Opposition. The target of its leaders has to be the Narendra Modi government, not each other, no matter how much Rahul may want to shed the ‘baggage’.
Given the way the Congress is structured, as a conglomerate of various interests — and a party of patronage — it is not possible to introduce changes overnight.
Every party has its internal dynamics. LK Advani ran aground when he tried to moderate the BJP, with his comments on Muhammad Ali Jinnah, when the party was not ready for it.
Sometimes changes have to be effected slowly and incrementally. The Aam Aadmi Party broke up so soon after such a historic victory in Delhi because of the failure of its leaders to navigate the ‘idealism versus power’ conundrum.
No matter how desirable, it would be foolish of Rahul to attempt fundamental changes in the party when both he and the Congress are at their weakest. Radical measures and new experiments can be tried from a position of strength. Not when the party’s Lok Sabha strength is at an all-time low of a measly 44 seats, fighting for its existence and needs every hand on the deck.
Good, bad, indifferent, likes and dislikes apart, the Congress can hardly afford, at this stage of the game, to sideline those leaders, old or young, who still command a mass following.
How the Congress fares in the coming months will depend on how the new Rahul, in evidence in the last few days, demonstrates a consistency of functioning and infuses new blood in the organisation, which he obviously wants to do, while creating a sense of confidence in the old guard that he wants to take them along as much as anyone else.
Neerja Chowdhury is a senior journalist and political commentator
The views expressed by the author are personal