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The leader who won't lead: Congress' Rahul Gandhi problem

Rahul Gandhi wants to take apart the Congress’ structure and put his own architecture in place. But where are even the first signs of that process? Barkha Dutt writes.

columns Updated: Aug 02, 2014 10:25 IST
Rahul Gandhi,Congress,Sonia Gandhi

Political obituaries generally have the opposite impact. More often than not, they end up resurrecting the protagonists whose death has been prophesised. The unpredictability of politics in India and the restlessness of her citizens mean that there is usually no guaranteed permanence for either the winners or losers.

Yet, there comes a time in the life of a political party when denial combines with self-destruction to ensure a descent into irrevocable chaos. The Indian National Congress is staring at that moment; only, no one is ready to say it out loud. The truth is that the Gandhi family has — in public perception — become part of the problem instead of the solution. Rahul Gandhi, in particular, is someone, who neither seems interested nor involved in the long term re-building of the Congress. Or if he is, his interventions remain abstract and academic. He is oblivious to the growing resentment in his own party over his unwillingness to be a leader. Simply put, he is neither ready to step up to the plate nor willing to get out of the way. That paradox has now spelt peril for the party. How long can a party whose original greats built modern, independent India depend on a single family to script its future, especially when the family member designated to do so comes across as disinterested and desultory?

There have been plenty of small needles available to prick the new government with. Among them — loose talk by new ministers; communal muscle-flexing by allies like the Shiv Sena; hopelessly unformed and somewhat bizarre recommendations for textbooks by some party sympathisers; certainly enough for an Opposition to make enough noise in Parliament. The Congress has attempted this but do you remember even a single instance in which Gandhi was at the helm of such a parliamentary debate?

For a political leader whose election speeches spoke of restoring authority to law-makers, Rahul Gandhi himself has shown little interest in the parliamentary process. The data analysed by PRS Legislative Research shows that while his attendance record has improved over the last year, in this session he did not take part in a single debate or ask a single question — pretty much mirroring his engagement with Parliament before the new government was elected. Even if the Leader of Opposition post is granted by the Speaker — which seems unlikely now — it’s not as if he will embrace the role or the responsibility.

If the Congress was truly willing to shake up the system after its ignominious defeat, it could have appointed a young non-Gandhi — let’s say someone like Jyotiraditya Scindia — as leader of the party in the House. But clearly that would have drawn too many comparisons to Rahul Gandhi’s own persona and hence the Congress president settled for the relatively non-threatening Mallikarjun Kharge instead.

Once upon a time, no one in the Congress would dare to openly criticise the Gandhis — not even off camera or off record. Today, the whispers in the party are getting more and more voluble. Party leaders may not want to be quoted but they freely share their frustration with the lack of direction and leadership in the party. Former ministers have personally confirmed to me that Rahul Gandhi has not met with any of them individually or even in small groups to assess and learn from the defeat of 2014. Notwithstanding the initial assaults on the “advisors” who kept Gandhi at an untenable distance from his party colleagues, most Congressmen confirm that nothing has changed. It’s still as impossible for them to meet him or talk with him directly.

The dismay at Gandhi’s refusal to either become the boss or vacate the top slot is now palpable among hard core Congress supporters as well. In my own family, my 91-year-old uncle — the son of a freedom fighter and one who still wears khadi as a testimony to the pre-Independence Gandhian principle — has whispered to me on more than one occasion that the party he always supported is “dying”.

Sometime last year, right after AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal had stumped everyone with his successful performance in Delhi (and still before his own journey to self-destruction), I met Gandhi for an informal conversation. This was part of the series of meetings that he had only begun to have — clearly reluctantly — with journalists. At this time it was not clear whether he would be formally declared as a prime ministerial candidate or not — the All India Congress Committee meeting was still a few weeks away.

I argued with him that there was an inherent contradiction in his talk of empowerment and his own automatic and dynastic control over the party. He agreed but said it would take time to change that from within. When I persisted with my argument that in the interests of being imaginative and disruptive — why would he not consider ruling himself out as the PM candidate and holding an internal election for whom else should be tasked with the job, he wasn’t convinced. He admitted that he (and his team) disagreed with many of the decisions of his party’s old guard but said that he could only address structural issues once the party was in Opposition. He still believed that the family was necessary to bind the party together.

Even if the latter is true — and that doesn’t speak very well for a party so steeped in a rich history of leadership — where is the evidence of this re-building? If Gandhi wanted to bring the whole building down so that he could put his own architecture into place, where are even the first signs of that process? In a fortnight when Manmohan Singh — pilloried for being silent as PM — has shown more spunk and sound than Gandhi, surely that says it all.

Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Aug 01, 2014 23:12 IST