G R O U N D   Z E R O

Rahul and the importance of being earnest
Raj Chengappa

Rahul is finally developing a more cohesive political discourse that is beginning to gain traction across the country. But given the anti-incumbency mood of the electorate he and the Congress face an uphill task.

Raj ChengappaIf you had written off Rahul Gandhi after his halting interview to a TV channel in January, then it may be wise to revise your assessment. For over the past fortnight, the Congress vice-president and the partyís unofficial prime-ministerial aspirant for the 2014 General Election has clawed his way back to centre-stage.

Helped on by a government on its last legs, Rahul is being projected as the force behind the decision to grant the long-standing demand of the armed forces veterans to introduce the one-rank-one-pension policy. The governmentís move to build comprehensive legal architecture to fight corruption, though belated, is also being ascribed to the young Congress heir apparent.

The election campaign of the prime-ministerial hopefuls of the two main national parties, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Congress, is a study in contrast. While Narendra Modi of the BJP focuses on addressing huge rallies as a show of strength (as he did in Jagraon recently), Rahul prefers the adage of small is beautiful. So he concentrates on addressing smaller groups such as rickshaw-pullers in Varanasi (as he did yesterday), coolies in Delhi, women NGOs in Assam or Haryana farmers in Ganaur. These are interactive sessions in which Rahul devotes time earnestly listening to their woes before presenting his view of development.

Rahul Gandhi with aanganwadi workers at Chinhat in Lucknow on Friday.
Rahul Gandhi with aanganwadi workers at Chinhat in Lucknow on Friday. PTI

The approach fits with the theme the Congress and Rahulís strategists have adopted to fight the elections. Rahulís apparent reluctance to wear the crown is juxtaposed with Modiís ambition to occupy the PMís gaddi. So the Congress slogan "Main Nahi, Hum" (Not I but We) is designed to both project inclusiveness as a vision for the party and to hammer home the point that Modi is pushing for an individualistic, exclusionist agenda. While Modi remains largely inaccessible for press interviews, Rahul, shedding his earlier reclusiveness, takes time out to meet editors or correspondents covering the beat and brief them on his world view.

In these gatherings, when Rahul is asked about his perception of the Congress vision for the coming election, he prefers to present it as a clash of two central ideas ó the one propounded by his party, which is empowerment of the people through decentralisation of power, and the other by the BJP, which he says believes in centralising and concentrating power in the hands of an individual. He then goes on enumerate what the Congress has done in the distant past Ė the historic Salt March Ė and more recently under the UPA government by enacting a series of legislation, including the Right to Information (RTI), Right to Education, the Food Security Act and the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), apart from launching the Unique Identification number programme, or Aadhaar.

While building on his narrative, Rahul alludes to Modi when he states that the BJP believes "one man can solve all the problems", adding that the Congress believes India succeeds only when we give power to the people, as was done by the Panchayati Raj Act. Itís a variation of his theme that he first spoke about at a CII gathering in April last year where he famously said, "One man riding a horse cannot solve the countryís problems, only a collective effort of a billion people can."

Rahul also chides Modi for being an exclusionist and says that he doesnít believe the countryís woes can be tackled by simply "hiving off half of the population or treating them as outsiders." The outsider bit is a dig at Modi for not stopping the Gujarat government from evicting Punjabi farmers who had migrated to the state. About the need for inner-party democracy, Rahul asserts that he is pushing the Congress to decentralise decision-making by allowing grassroots workers to choose their leaders rather than the high-command approach.

As to what the Congress (meaning him) would do if the party is voted back to power (however remote that may seem right now), Rahul propounds a vision for each of the major interest groups. For the youth, he talks of ensuring that the right to education is implemented and proposes a fundamental restructuring of the current system. On the lack of jobs, he focuses on the 70 crore people who in the past decade have risen above the poverty line but are still below the middle class and talks of completing infrastructure corridors across the country to provide employment opportunities for them and others.

For women, Rahul is pushing for reservations in not only legislative bodies but also government jobs. Apart from a better deal for veterans, on national security the Congress is assuring the country that resources would continue to be set aside for modernising the armed forces. And for efficient governance, Rahulís anti-corruption plank is being rolled out that includes a law for time-bound delivery of services.

Rahul is finally developing a more cohesive political discourse that is beginning to gain traction across the country. But given the anti-incumbency mood of the electorate he and the Congress face an uphill task.






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