Rahul's time is not now, only Sonia Gandhi can lead the Congress into the 2014 final, says Saisuresh Sivaswamy.
The script has a seen-before feel about it. Elections are held to five state assemblies a year before the general election. The BJP sweeps the elections, and the Congress ends up as a poor loser.
The winner naturally crows, the media is agog about the Congress's rout and the assembly election results being a precursor to what is to come in the Lok Sabha election.
Even the Congress buys into this dirge, and mounts a lack-lustre campaign, going into the general election expecting to lose. But surprise, surprise, it actually ends up winning an election even it did not believe it would.
That, of course, was in 2003-2004, when no one expected the National Democratic Alliance to lose the general election, not even the Congress party.
The Atal Bihari Vajpayee-led NDA seemed unstoppable after the assembly election triumphs in 2003, and cocksure of its chance it even advanced the Lok Sabha elections by six months, hoping to capitalise on its luck.
It is deja vu time for Indian politics.
Ten years hence, the script is similar, except that instead of the NDA in power at the Centre it is the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in power.
The Bharatiya Janata Party has once again routed the Congress party in the states, the latter resembles a deer caught in the headlights and if there is any unanimity among commentators of all hues it is that the summer of 2014 can only get worse for it.
But should it? Can the Congress turn 2014 into 2004? How can it seize the momentum once again?
There are still five months left for the Lok Sabha election to come around and if we accept that a week is a long time in politics, then there is more than adequate time left for the Congress to gets its act together and mount a counter-offensive against the Narendra Modi-led BJP.
It may not still be enough to halt the swing in sentiment in favour of the BJP, which seems set to capitalise on the pervasive anti-Congress mood in the country, but it will at least show the Congress has some fight left in it and is not playing possum, its favourite position over the last few months.
Ten years ago I, like everyone else, was sure the Congress stood no chance of winning with Sonia Gandhi in charge. In fact, to my eternal mortification, in the run-up to the 2004 election I even wrote a piece with 12 questions addressed to Sonia Gandhi.
If anyone had told me then that 10 years later I will be writing something dissimilar, I would have recommended he have his head examined, or be certified, or get confined to an asylum, or all of them.
But such is the unpredictability of India's elections, with mercurial factors like caste and charisma, dynasty and dogma being the imponderables, that no pundit can claim to know the outcome, even though our talking heads on television will have you believe otherwise.
So, here is my list of 12 things for the Congress president to do ahead of the Lok Sabha election.
- Take charge of the Congress campaign, lead from the front. The first thing to do is for Sonia Gandhi to take charge of the party right away. She is still the Congress president, yes, but over the last few months, as ill-health has dogged her, she has slowly ceded control to her son. Rahul Gandhi's time is yet to come, maybe it will in 2019. For now, 2014 has to be Sonia's grand finale. The BJP's Narendra Modi is itching for a presidential election campaign, and rather than running away the Congress should take him head-on. Within the party there is no one but Sonia who can do this.
- Hit the campaign trail for 2014 right away. So the Lok Sabha election is months away, but Sonia Gandhi needs to get moving. Physically. Within the week she should draw up a plan to cover ALL the 543 Lok Sabha constituencies before the election. Democracy is synonymous with mass contact, and the time to play Greta Garbo is over, there is no keeping away from the people who elect you. That is what the original Mrs Gandhi would have done.
- Firm up alliances. The BJP bested the Congress in 1998 and 1999 thanks to its alliances, and the Congress showed in 2004 and 2009 that it can play the game better. That was then; today the Congress seems to have few friends left. That the Nationalist Congress Party is today its steadfast ally should tell you something about the state of affairs. If at all the Congress needs friends, it is in 2014. That election cannot be won without allies beside you.
- Revive the appeal to the scheduled castes/scheduled tribes and minorities. Rahul Gandhi has spoken so much about his grandmother. Maybe Sonia should ask herself: Why have the Dalits and the minorities, who formed the bulwark of the Congress's support based till Indira Gandhi's time, migrated to other parties? How did the Congress let them down? If anyone can get them to return, it is Sonia Gandhi.
- Governance first. Everyone is unanimous that UPA II has ground to a halt, there is policy paralysis. And the reason for this is the disconnect perceived between the party (Sonia Gandhi) and the government. Even if it is only perception, get it corrected by having the government get going in the last few months of its tenure.
- Family in government. The last time a Nehru-Gandhi was in the Union Council of Ministers without holding the top job was in Indira Gandhi's time. Since 2004 we have had this spectacle of the Family remaining aloof from the government, even refusing to be part of it, strengthening perception that either it is the PMship or nothing other for them. Jawaharlal Nehru saw to it that his daughter spent time in government; there is no reason why Rahul Gandhi should not join the Union Council as a junior minister and learn the ropes of governance, before criticising its actions.
- Name the PM candidate. It is clear that Manmohan Singh will not be the Congress's PM candidate for 2014. But there is no clarity on who it will be either. The time to hide behind the Congress Parliamentary Party decision is long gone; not telling 1.2 billion Indians who will be their PM ahead of the election is an insult to their intelligence.
- Zero tolerance for corruption. That the UPA is splattered with allegations of corruption is not entirely a media creation, nor is it the handiwork of the BJP. The common perception is that the Congress has always been soft on corruption, something that Arvind Kejriwal has been able to exploit so successfully. If Sonia Gandhi believes the UPA is not corrupt, then she has to convince the voters through credible action, not words.
- No shield for family. Talking of which, you can't give homilies on your government being non-corrupt and also have your state government hound the bureaucrat who redlighted questionable land deals involving your extended family. The reluctance to come clean on Robert Vadra's business transactions will boomerang once the no-holds-barred campaign unfolds next year. Limit the damage, come clean. Make it clear that no one will be shielded.
- Reservation for women. The days of over-arching Family charisma and sacrifice carrying the day is long gone. What matters today is the choice of candidates, their electability. Make sure you pick right the right men and women, and take a leaf out of 1984. And, since the Congress president has always advocated the jinxed Women's Reservation Bill, it will be a good thing to walk the talk by nominating one-third women candidates in 2014. You don't need a law to do what you believe is right, do you?
- Open up, speak out. You can google to see what the First Family of India's politics thinks of various issues confronting the nation. Barring some zany utterances by Rahul Gandhi, you will find very little. Why do the Gandhis shy away from engaging with the media, being open about themselves, speaking up on burning topics, and instead leave it to family retainers to convey what they think? Do they realise the damage this has done? Contrast this with its arch-rival's media overkill.
- Revive economic reforms. If welfare schemes alone could win the election, then Ashok Gehlot won't be making way for Vasundhara Raje in Rajasthan. The point is, the Congress brass seems to believe that batting for the aam-aadmi is antithetical to economic reforms, without realising that without robust economic growth, funding for welfare schemes would be hard to find. By all means swear by the aam-aadmi, but get the stalled reforms engine chugging again!
Would doing the above ensure that the Congress stave off the stiff challenge from Narendra Modi in 2014? That is for the future to reveal; but these will at least show the voter that the Congress still has fight left in it.
Sonia Gandhi can either step up to the plate, or watch the Family legacy unravel right before her eyes. The choice is hers.