As Rahul Gandhi gets ready to take over as the Congress party president, everyone agrees that he faces a formidable challenge. He has to establish his authority within the party, revive the party organisation, and weave an alternate narrative to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The last couple of months have gone reasonably well for the Congress party – even being in the reckoning in Gujarat is an achievement in these times. The tide is turning, as the Bharatiya Janata Party’s aura of being nationalistic, incorruptible and unbeatable disintegrates slowly, but surely. The mainstream media may be ready to drop stories of dead judges, of nepotism, or of inscrutable purchases of military equipment, but questions are beginning to be asked and a whisper campaign seems to be spreading. In a federal democracy such as ours, these whispers can be devastating. Yesterday, a BJP spokesperson equated Rahul Gandhi to medieval-era kings Alauddin Khilji and Aurangzeb – an indication as sure as any that all the talk of vikas is a smokescreen. It is also increasingly clear that the BJP has become a high-command party, resembling the heydays of the old Congress party.
This is a great opportunity for the Congress party. One, this is the time to capitalise on the failures of the ruling party. The BJP’s misadventures (as is the case with its achievements) rest almost solely on the shoulders of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The twin shocks of an unnecessary demonetisation exercise and a faulty GST-roll out have affected business, going well beyond ‘sentiments’. Being in power, the BJP has the power to effect course-corrections, but it looks ever so likely that a hubris-driven government will double down on its blunders – too proud to admit its own failures. They have also shown a complete disregard for institutional propriety, as demonstrated by the latest decision to side-line Parliament.
Second, this is Rahul Gandhi’s opportunity to chart a new course for the Congress party, leaving its past behind. He has been willing to admit that the party has made mistakes, going even so far as to say that the 44 seat drubbing was a blessing in disguise. A stint in the Opposition may not be enough to wipe off memories of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, or the party’s track record of politically opportunistic communal polarisation, but it will certainly put its track record in perspective. He has the opportunity to separate himself from this history, and pursue a new path on both social and cultural outlook, and economic policy. He must keep communicating, and establish himself as a change from the old guard. Rahul Gandhi belongs to a political dynasty – there is no way he can disown his legacy. But can he promise to be the last dynast in the Congress party?
Third, Rahul Gandhi’s political career is being retold, and he must aid the narrative. His political innings started in 2004 and coincided with a decade of Congress rule at the Centre. The same media that portrayed him as the ‘reluctant prince’ would have accused him of taking his role for granted had he joined the government during any time in that decade. Since none of us can claim to read Mr. Gandhi’s mind, we need to suspend judgement on whether his not taking a formal role in government was a manifestation of his diffidence, or a desire to control affairs from the backseat. Surely, Rahul Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi would have realised soon enough that not assuming a formal role in the government was not going to protect them from the Opposition’s criticism – that suggests to me that whatever else might have been the motivators, it wasn’t an attempt to evade public accountability. The social media campaign that he is currently benefiting from will help change this somewhat, but his own speeches and conversations – both on the ground as well as at high-level platforms – must set the tone.
Finally, Rahul Gandhi’s articulation of the complexity of India needs better packaging, and as his criticism of the Prime Minister’s policies need to be followed up with concrete policy alternatives. This will ultimately matter – the ability to go beyond clever sound bytes and offer a well-thought out alternative. Two months back, reflecting on Rahul Gandhi’s successful trip to the United States of America, I had argued that his political narrative needs three strong pillars: a robust SME story; a promise to revive local governments; and an unhesitating commitment to individual liberty. The details need to worked out and packaged better, and the message drummed into the psyche of the voting public.
This is Rahul Gandhi’s chance to break away from his past. He knows that India needs a credible political opposition, and he knows what he needs to do. We are watching.
This first appeared on The Quint