G R O U N D   Z E R O

What Rahul must now campaign for
Rahul needs to push for a strong, secular India to counter Modi’s USP. He must spell out an agenda to uplift the poor and promote young untainted Congress leaders to address the Aam Aadmi Party’s appeal for clean politics.
Raj Chengappa

Raj ChengappaIt is customary for the Prime Minister to address the media travelling on board his special flight on the final leg of a foreign trip. On Manmohan Singh’s return journey from the USA via Frankfurt on October 1, that briefing took on a new import. It was the first time the Prime Minister was to speak to the media after Rahul Gandhi’s outburst over the ordinance protecting convicted politicians from immediate disqualification. The intemperate language used by the Congress vice-president while calling for the ordinance’s withdrawal and the timing had clearly undermined the Prime Minister’s authority.

When the press interaction began, I asked Manmohan Singh whether he was considering withdrawing the ordinance or would he resign as Prime Minister? Without any hesitation he said, “There is no question of resigning. I will put all these issues before my Cabinet colleagues. These are all matters which are discussed before the highest body, the core group of the Congress party. The Cabinet discussed the matter twice, not once. But it is always possible to change one’s mind and I will consult my colleagues on all these issues. We will see which way the wind blows.”

We all knew that the wind had already blown in Rahul Gandhi’s favour. Whether spontaneous or planned, Rahul had got his political arithmetic spot on. Had the ordinance been promulgated it would have been disastrous for the ruling Congress party in the 2014 General Election. The electorate would have been convinced that the party was out to protect the corrupt and hang on to power at any cost. Having cleared the ordinance, Manmohan Singh was in a bind. If he resigned because his authority had been questioned over an ordinance to protect corrupt politicians he would go down fighting for a stupid cause. If he stood his ground and insisted on the ordinance going through it would have irreparably damaged his clean image. Checkmate, Manmohan Singh.

More importantly, Rahul’s outburst and Manmohan Singh’s meek compliance signalled both a power shift in the Congress and a generational change in the party. It’s taken a while for Rahul to come of age. In May 2014, when the General Election is due, Rahul would have completed 10 years as an MP, having been first elected from Amethi in 2004. Rajiv Gandhi, his father, had been an MP for three years when he was anointed Prime Minister after Mrs Indira Gandhi, his mother, was assassinated in October 1984. He was then just 40 years old. Rahul is 43, and he he still appears reluctant to take on the mantle of leadership of the Congress.

To Rahul’s credit, despite the Congress being in power for nine out of the 10 years that he has been in politics, he has kept away from joining the government and instead focused on building the party. He toured the country extensively, broke bread with the poor, and like his mother, Sonia Gandhi, pushed for policies that gave jobs to the needy and food for the hungry. During this period, he may have also holidayed abroad and been spotted dining in Delhi’s up-market restaurants but few would grudge him his leisure.

In the past, he appeared distant, even bemused, but of late he has shed that image. I saw signs of that when he addressed a gathering of top businessmen organised by the Confederation of Indian Industry in April in New Delhi. Discarding his prepared text, Rahul spoke from the heart, at first jerkily and then with growing confidence. Essentially Rahul told us: “This is who I am and what I truly feel. Accept me or reject me.”

In his recent election speeches Rahul has spoken with much passion about the need to fulfil “the dreams of the poor”. There is a resonance in what he says. The middle-class in the past two decades has already enjoyed living the Indian dream of a decent house, a good job, education for their children and security for the family. Now it is the turn of the downtrodden, and Rahul has wisely championed their cause.

After having asserted his authority recently, Rahul must now boldly go forth and take charge of the Congress campaign for re-election in 2014. With Narendra Modi being anointed the BJP’s prime-ministerial candidate, the Hindutva brigade’s chances have never looked so good and the Congress faces an uphill task.

Rahul needs to evolve a campaign that would push for a strong, secular India to counter Modi’s USP. He must spell out an agenda to uplift the poor and put the economy back on the growth path. And he must promote a new generation of young, untainted Congress leaders that would address the Aam Aadmi Party’s appeal for cleaning up public life. A tall order for any leader, but then running India is no easy task and Rahul still has to prove himself.

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