By Kalyani Shankar
So, at last Rahul Gandhi is ready to take over the 132-year-old Congress Party next month. There is a sigh of relief in the party that at last the suspense will be over. This might end the “will he, won’t he” suspense and open a new chapter for the party. Though he chose the US to announce that he was ready to be a challenger to the Prime Minister Narendra Modi in the 2019 polls, the young Gandhi has his task cut out to build the organization in the next 18 months and keep it poll ready. The party has been on a steady decline since 2014.
The timing is advantageous to Rahul as the ruling NDA is under attack on account of the growth decline, inflation, job losses and problems arising out of the implementation of the GST and the demonetization. For the first time after three and a half years, Prime Minister Modi is on the defensive about the slowdown of the economy.
There are many in the party who would still bet on his mother and the Congress President Sonia Gandhi to take on Modi, particularly the old guard who feel quite comfortable with her. One senior leader remarked that at least now the dual power Centre will end and Rahul can lead the party from the front. Sonia led the party for a record 19 years, of which ten years the Congress-led UPA ruled the country. Rahul has been in politics since 2004 and there has been speculation about his elevation since he became the vice-president in 2013. With Sonia Gandhi’s health problems and the party facing a leadership crisis, it has become necessary for Rahul to take the plunge.
What does Rahul’s elevation mean? He will be the fifth generation Nehru-Gandhi family member to head the Congress party¬– a very long time indeed to play the dynastic politics! It is clear that there are no challengers to the Gandhi family and his elevation would be smooth. The important thing is how will he project himself as an alternative to Prime Minister Modi? It is not an easy task and he has to be a 24/7 politician to produce results and ready his foot soldiers. The immediate test will be in the Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh Assembly elections. While the Congress is ruling in Himachal, the party is poised as an alternative to the BJP in Gujarat. The BJP is facing an acute anti-incumbency in Gujarat where it has been ruling since1995 except a brief 18 months of President’s rule. Next year, there are elections to at least eight state Assemblies including Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Karnataka and in most of these states the BJP and the Congress have been in direct contest for decades. Then there will be the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
Secondly, Rahul’s elevation might end the leadership confusion as there is no single command with the mother and son duo taking most of the decisions and the two have their own coteries. Many in the party feel that it is better late than never and the elevation might give him both confidence and the authority, which might help him to function better even if he makes mistakes. While Sonia will continue to be a mentor of the party, Rahul will be have to take the credit or the discredit of the party’s performance henceforth.
Thirdly, Rahul will have to build his own team. It is not as if he did not have a say earlier but in the past few months, he has put his men in important positions and also chosen young Congress leaders as Pradesh Congress Presidents and the AICC General Secretaries. He has mostly shown the door to the old timers who were apprehensive of their positions in the new regime.
Fourthly, will he be able to provide leadership to the coalition?
The UPA allies have been disappointed with his hide-and-seek politics. He is junior to leaders like Sharad Pawar of the NCP or Mamata Banerjee of the Trinamool Congress or LaluYadav of the RJD. While they had no problem in functioning under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, will they accept him as the UPA prime ministerial candidate? A win in the coming Assembly elections might establish his leadership even among the allies.
But the most important thing is how to change the narrative. It is clear that the communal/secular theme has not worked so far. Merely criticizing Modi government will not help the party to get votes. The Congress has to come out with clear-cut agenda of what it stands for and what it wants to do to win over the people. Pro-poor policies and a viable caste combination are sure shots for winning elections as has been proved by the Modi-led BJP. The Congress also has to come out with an economic agenda, which will appeal to the voters.
The last but not the least is the communication. Up till now his efforts to connect with the people had failed. His efforts to concentrate on the social media have given some results as he has added two million followers on his twitter account in the past two months.
No one expects Rahul to wave a magic wand, as the horse can only be taken to the pond but many will watch him closely. It is for him to prove his mettle in the next 18 months.