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In the making: Rahul Gandhi's Congress

The ruling party's new vice president, Rahul Gandhi, is raring to push for changes, but there may be considerable obstacles in the way of his leading a Congress revival. Varghese K George writes. Rahul's 'core committee' | Nehru-Gandhi politics and the pangs of power transition

india Updated: Jan 27, 2013 09:11 IST
Varghese K George

Always preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once,' is one of the 48 laws of power by Robert Greene and Rahul Gandhi knows this instinctively from the experience of his father Rajiv Gandhi who was cornered by the old guard and failed by cronies in his attempts to abruptly reboot a 100-year old party.

Change under Rahul will come in doses, he reiterated several times in the first speech as the Congress vice president in Jaipur last Sunday.

"Change is necessary, but we cannot change in haste. It has to be carefully thought-through."

But the Congress can't wait much longer to change itself as a middle class revolution - for which Rahul Gandhi claimed credit - threatens to devour its creator.

"The pace of change in Congress has not been matching the pace of social change," points out Mridula Mukherjee, historian and co-editor of Congress and the Making of the Indian Nation.

"The society and the country have changed. Congress can't remain static," admits Kamal Nath, union minister.

While the pace of the change in Congress is going to be carefully calibrated with the help of mother Sonia Gandhi, Rahul has outlined the direction of that change.

'Voice, Inclusion, Openness'
The focus of the Congress politics will remain the poor, but Rahul has changed the vocabulary of engagement. He's attempting a discourse around empowerment. His future politics will hinge on three codes: voice to all sections of society, inclusive politics and development, openness in governmental systems.

These three replace the traditional categories that politicians used to analyse inequality: caste, class and region. Rahul's vocabulary is predicated on the emergence of a new middle class in India and assumes the possibility of creating a national discourse as opposed to conflicting sectarian demands.

"While the focus of our politics will have to remain at the bottom of the pyramid, we have to address the concerns of the people higher up in the pyramid too. The middle class wants instant gratification. Rahul's speech accounts for this new reality too," says technocrat Sam Pitroda, a close associate.

Both Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi talked about the impatient youth and the alienated middle class in their speeches in Jaipur.

But the Gujarati middle class politics also shows the dangers involved - susceptible to sectarian politics and unsympathetic to Congress.

"Unless deftly handled, middle class can be the fertile ground for Hindutva, right wing politics," concedes a Congress functionary who works closely with Rahul.

The New Middle Class...
The middle class that Rahul is targetting is not the traditional, privileged middle class who may not welcome social changes that threaten their entrenched positions.

"By middle class, we mean ex-poor. Over recent decades, around 300-400 million people moved above poverty. They have concerns about employment, education, development. That is the class that the new Congress will address," says a party leader.

Holding this middle class to the middle ground of politics is no easy task as they are easily swayed by extremism - for instance, the widely held antipathy towards Pakistan. But the idea is to pursue "larger social good," says Pitroda.

"Not everyone needs to be made happy on each issue. It's a complex, diverse country." "Rahul offers not only voice, but secular, developmental solutions to their material problems," says a party functionary who did not want to be named.

... as middle caste
Unless the politics of caste identity is muted, chances of a Congress revival are dim. Rahul's new politics has an underlying strategy to deal with caste. The Jaipur declaration of the Congress party reiterates its commitment to quotas, but the attempt is evidently to make it Quota Plus, as a huge majority of the ex-poor, new middle class is middle or lower castes too.

"The middle class among the middle castes are not swayed by the Lalu-type of identity politics. They are extremely conscious of their disempowerment and exclusion from power, but will seek it through a modern idiom," points out Chandan Yadav, a former youth Congress functionary.

"Rahul has asked all sections to raise their voices and promised to be a fair judge rather than an advocate of a particular group," points out a Congress leader.

"This is an all or none game. We could do extremely well if the backward castes respond to it. If the appeal of the sectarian politics continues, we will lose."

The middle class politics of the Congress is "in a sense, a battle for the backward caste votes."

Tech to fight poverty
Congress under Sonia had rewritten its social contract with the people by routing large revenues generated through economic growth into anti-poverty programmes.

"All these radical innovations (in social sector) have been possible only because of the growth provided by the Congress and the UPA," said Rahul.

The Congress under Rahul is set to add technology as a new component in anti-poverty battle. Tools such as Aadhar and Direct Benefits Transfer are emphasised and Rahul hopes that an unfinished agenda of his father could be fulfilled by latest technological innovations - cutting off middle men in delivery system.

Return of the regional satraps?
While the assumption of a national middle class is implicit in Rahul's politics, he has noted that creating regional leadership is necessary. It was his grandmother Indira Gandhi who vanquished all regional leadership and the Congress party has since then been wary of strong leaders.

"We must develop leaders at all levels. Five-six years from now, every state must have several people who can be chief minister," Rahul said.

This attempt is certainly going to be resisted by the entrenched clique - most recently, Harish Rawat, evidently a popular leader, was edged out of the race for Uttarakhand chief ministership.

The Bumpy Road Ahead
Despite the caution exercised by Sonia-Rahul, the resistance to change will be strong in the party. Rahul's efforts to increase the representation of middle and lower castes as he did in the Uttar Pradesh election will be resented.

His technology-driven politics will make many redundant. These challenges will be compounded by his inability or unwillingness to communicate with the people on issues - something Indira mastered to outsmart her rivals.