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What Rahul Gandhi as VP means for the Congress

January 22, 2013 19:25 IST

In all likelihood he is going to rely on senior party leadership for political management, using the Youth Congress and the young brigade to mobilise the ‘aam admi’, which the Congress redefined in Jaipur as the poor and middle-classes, says Neerja Chowdhury.

Jaipur was clearly designed to be a Rahul show, and that was the way it turned out to be. From the start, the large contingent of Youth Congress workers -- 130 of them deliberating in five committees, on an equal footing, with CWC members, Cabinet ministers, chief ministers, PCC chiefs, CLP leaders -- had carried the Rahul stamp.

That he would be formally anointed had been decided ten days earlier but it was kept a closely guarded secret, to which only a handful of people were privy. And besides the Gandhi family, they reportedly included the prime minister, Ahmed Patel, Janardan Dwivedi, Motilal Vora, and A K Antony.

From moment one, the young brigade started to clamour for Rahul to lead from the front. The speed with which crackers greeted the announcement of his being made the party’s vice president and fireworks lit the skies, both in Jaipur and Delhi, showed that some people knew it was in the works.

The discussion on whether he should be working president or vice president went on till the last minute, and the extended CWC which was to endorse the decision on the second day of the Chintan Shivir had to be postponed for this reason. Working presidentship was ruled out because it would have signalled that Sonia Gandhi would be reduced to being a titular head, and before long would call it quits.

But Jaipur signified something more than a formal take-over by Rahul Gandhi in a role he had anyway been playing. It was hardly a secret that he had been involved in all the major decisions of the party. But the frequent complaint by his partymen was that he was present when he wanted to be and could disappear when he felt like it -- and that he was aloof and inaccessible.

His well crafted speech -- which could have had inputs only from family members like sister Priyanka, who was present in Jaipur, or close friends who have been like family -- was a mix of emotion, politics and a vision for the Congress party. Above all, it signalled a commitment by him that his life would now be given to  his party -- and the country -- something he had so far not been willing to make.

Rahul Gandhi had finally come out of the shadows.

When he talked about waking up at 4 am that morning to think of the huge responsibility he had undertaken, he was obviously thinking about what this commitment would entail in terms of an abridgement of his private life. For Rahul Gandhi has not been a 24x7 politician, and the success of what he had promised will depend on how much time he is able to give to the tasks he has undertaken.

The second important aspect of the shivir was that he managed to connect with the Congressmen and women present. Its highpoint was the electrified atmosphere that his speech created in the Birla Auditorium and the standing ovation that the 2,000 AICC delegates gathered there gave him, which was so obviously not orchestrated, moving many hardened Congressmen to tears.  

In recent months questions about his ability to lead were privately being raised within the party -- and more openly outside it. When Congress delegates went into the Birla Auditorium   to hear him, many were only expecting a “fait accompli”. When they came out, they were seeing him with new eyes. Enthusing his party -- the Congress has become a blunt instrument -- and Congressmen have forgotten how to go to the people -- is the first task he is going to have to address.  

As he started to speak, it was as if a new Rahul was coming to the fore, taking his audience on an emotional roller coaster, as  he spoke with candour about the failings of the party, about himself and the trauma of his early years as he lived through the assassination of his grandmother at the hands of her guards, who had taught him  badminton, and then of his father, and the tears of his mother soon after his decision to become vice president, for she was aware of the darker side of power.

There was something appealing in the way he shared his uncertainties and unspoken fears  with the ‘Congress family’ -- but it also went to went to underscore the point that there is another, harsher, side to ‘dynastic rule’ for those in it.

When he criticised the party, lampooning the absence of any rule or discipline, or the concentration of power in decision making, or the parachuting in and out of ‘outsiders’, at the cost of the loyal party workers, or the go by to meritocracy, implicit in it was a criticism of his grandmother, father, mother -- and of himself -- who had steered the party for so many years.  

After all, it was Rahul himself who had given tickets to outsiders in UP and Bihar. And yet  by holding out a vision of where he wanted to take the Congress -- this is easier said than done, given the entrenched vested interest that our entire political system has come to represent, dependent on patronage -- he was also attempting to break from the past, which would be essential to counter anti-incumbency of UPA’s two terms, which Rahul Gandhi will have to do when he leads his party into elections next year.

And what now?

A transition of power is taking place in the Congress today and, unlike in the BJP, it is happening smoothly given the position that the Nehru-Gandhi family enjoys, holding the party together. When Rahul spoke reassuringly to the old guard in the party -- senior leaders have been unsure and anxious about what his elevation would mean for them, given that more youth could now find a place in the party’s position-making bodies -- he was indicating that it would be continuity with change.

In all likelihood he is going to rely on senior party leadership for political management, using the Youth Congress and the young brigade to mobilise the ‘aam admi’, which the Congress redefined in Jaipur as the poor and middle-classes. 

Neerja Chowdhury