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Donning the Gandhi cap

The Congress wants to cash in on the advantage of projecting a youthful leader in order to both attract and galvanise young voters, writes Pankaj Vohra.

india Updated: Oct 01, 2007 00:43 IST
Pankaj Vohra

The much awaited induction of Rahul Gandhi as general secretary of the Congress has paved the way for a complete change of power equations within the party. For the first time in many years there is a clear No. 2 in the organisation and the party has someone who is likely to emerge as the new power centre. Significantly, the new No.2 has the full backing of the No. 1 and the transition within the party to generation next will be both smooth and easy.

Important functionaries like Ahmed Patel, Oscar Fernandes, Ambika Soni, Janardhan Dwivedi and others will all facilitate this transition before slowly fading away to the periphery from the centre-stage in order to make way for Rahul and his team. The Congress obviously wants to cash in on the advantage of projecting a youthful leader in order to both attract and galvanise young voters. Rajiv Gandhi had lowered the voting age from 21 to 18 but before he could channelise young voters towards the Congress, several controversies created by his own associates broke out, hampering his efforts. He would have still got the youth on his party’s side but for his untimely assassination.

Rahul, therefore, inherits a rich political legacy as he steps into the national political arena where most parties do not have young leadership that has nationwide appeal. At best, youth leaders have either a regional or a constituency-limited appeal. Rahul has to make his own assessment as to who out of the younger ones can be trusted in a long-term relationship.

Rahul’s baptism into big-league politics should ideally have happened at least one and a half years ago, soon after the Hyderabad plenary. At one stage, there had been speculation that he would be pushed on to the centre-stage in end May last year. But an unnecessary controversy generated on the OBC reservations delayed matters. Rahul was then moved into the UP election exercise and though the party was unable to improve on its performance in terms of seats, his participation helped in inspiring party workers. His resolve that he was not giving up on UP is likely to help the party re-organise itself in the state.

A similar initiative on his part at the national level may serve to galvanise the youth in the rest of the country. He is, perhaps, the only one who can help in improving the party’s fortunes other than his mother in the event of a mid-term poll. But he faces several challenges. Many comparisons have been made between him and his father. Rajiv Gandhi came into national politics as a general secretary when his mother Indira Gandhi was Prime Minister and Congress president. The Congress was in power in most places. Rahul has come into politics when his party is part of an alliance and its presence has diminished in virtually all major states.

For Rahul, the main challenge will also be to view politics from a coalition perspective in addition to improving his party’s numbers everywhere. He may have to campaign for the allies as well. In this context, it may be a good idea for him to interact with most of the allies from now itself.

There are cynics who feel that his ascendancy maybe challenged by some within the party. It is pointed out that the announcement on the appointment should have been made a day before the India-Pakistan Twenty20 match and not on the same day, since cricket hogged all the limelight. Another way of looking at it could be that his appointment brought the cricket team good luck and youthful India was at its best in the forefront. But if there was some sort of sabotage involved then the guilty should be taken to task. Rahul, once he gains in stature, should also look into who among his colleagues were engaged in politics for their own narrow ends, and who were the ones who kept the party and the country in mind. The common perception is that most Congress leaders were playing their own petty games to settle scores with each other rather than working collectively for the party. All that has to change.

It is also felt that his name should have been announced from Anand Bhawan, the headquarters of the freedom struggle or from Sabarmati, Champaran or Munshiganj for the historic significance of these places in the context of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi. But it is for the party to see what it should be doing.

Differences also exist on the timing of his entry into the organisational fold. Again, it is a matter of debate. In fact, Rahul has been inducted three months before his mother completes ten years in active politics. She has brought the party a long way given that it was on the brink of decimation in 1997 and there was no charismatic leader to lead it from the front. The BJP was gaining strength and secular forces were virtually on the run or were providing a divided challenge to the saffron brigade. She changed it all and succeeded in getting the Congress and its allies back in the saddle after ensuring that the Congress was in power in as many as 15 states at one point.

The baton has been passed to the younger generation. It does not mean that the seniors have no role to play any longer. It simply means that under the watchful eyes of the seniors, Generation Next will get groomed to finally take over when the time comes. For someone who said that the national flag is his religion, there are going to be a lot of expectations. And needless to say, it will also require a lot of hard work. Between us.