The Congress has several reasons, stated and unstated, for refusing to name Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate despite the clamour in his favour by his acolytes.
These include the party’s ‘tradition’, as Sonia Gandhi reminded the working committee, of letting legislators choose their leader after the election, and the probable disinclination to convert the forthcoming general election into a presidential-style contest between Rahul and Narendra Modi.
A Congress Party worker wears a Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi mask as he shouts slogans during the All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in New Delhi on January 17. Pic/AFP
Even then, the suspicion will remain that the party refrained from naming the heir-apparent because of its belief that he is not yet ready for the plunge, especially against a doughty opponent like Modi. The fear apparently is that in a head-on confrontation, Rahul will come off second best.
True, his speech to the All India Congress Committee (AICC), delivered occasionally in a rasping voice to show grit and determination, was his most combative till now. But, it lacked substance.
A plea to the prime minister to raise the number of subsidised cooking gas cylinders from nine to 12, or the promise to let grassroot workers choose candidates in 15 constituencies, are unlikely to have a dramatic impact on the Congress’s fortunes.
Incidentally, if the dauphin’s gift to women in the kitchen, taken together with his praise for bank nationalisation, is seen as a hint of his economic vision, then it is farewell to reforms and a continuing emphasis on wasteful subsidies and a public sector-dominated economy.
What was missing in the speech, therefore, was a blueprint for a future in sync with the changing times — something on the lines of what the heir-apparent had promised after the recent election defeats that could not even be imagined. But, neither Rahul nor Sonia Gandhi said anything out of the ordinary.
While the Congress president made the familiar pitch for secularism, Rahul, too, warned against those who fanned communal fires. Even if large sections of people, especially the minorities, are aware of the threat posed to their lives and livelihood by sectarian violence, as the Muzaffarnagar riots show, the Congress can hardly expect to offload the heavy burden of incumbency by reiterating its old line.
Rahul’s reference in this context to the 3,000-year-old ‘idea’ of India stretching from Asoka to Guru Nanak to Akbar to Gandhi may have had a Nehruvian touch. But, the first prime minister’s civilisational discourses were made when the Congress was at the peak of its power. But, when the party is floundering in a morass of political despair, a greater need is to focus on immediate problems.
Since corruption is one of them, Rahul did well to emphasise the urgency of passing the anti-corruption legislations pending in parliament. But, his castigation of the opposition’s obstructionism was a reminder of the possible roadblocks, which could absolve the government of any lapse if the bills fail to become law.
He did take credit for the enactment of the Lokpal law. But, the fact that it had been pending since 1968 was a reminder that the Congress hadn’t been too eager earlier to get it passed. It was undoubtedly the Aam Admi Party’s successful exploitation of the issue which persuaded the Congress and the other established parties to push it through. It was somewhat disingenuous, therefore, to flaunt it as an achievement.
The long and short of the jamborees — the working committee meeting and the AICC — was that the Congress had been left pretty much where it was, still uncertain whether it can win. No one can say what might have been happened if Rahul was named as the prime ministerial candidate. It is possible that the rank and file would have been sufficiently enthused to make an impact on the election scene.
But, in the long run, it isn’t so much the person who matters as what he stands for, if the people in general are to be influenced. And, for this to happen, Rahul, as the Congress’s most effective speaker at present, has to spell out his vision beyond the utility of the Aadhar cards in eliminating middlemen or involving a large number of people in the preparation of the party manifesto.
For instance, if the Congress seriously believes that the Manmohan Singh government hasn’t fared too badly except in failing to communicate its achievements to the people, it could have asked Rahul to devote a good part of his speech to enumerating the plus points.
That would have had a major impact unlike their dreary listing by the prime minister in his unemotional voice.
In view of the prime minister’s assertion that there has been a significant reduction in the number of people below the poverty line, this attainment is obviously something which Rahul could have highlighted with great effect, especially when he was talking about ameliorating the condition of those stuck between the middle class status and the poverty line.
But, it is possible that he is less comfortable with statistics than with soaring ideas as when he said that he was ready to do whatever the party workers asked him to do. But, for the aam admi (common people), figures are easier to grasp than ideas.
(Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)