'It is too late for Priyanka to pull the Congress out of the mess'
Rahul gets a helping hand for 2014: Priyanka steps in to boost her brother’s prospects for the prime minister’s post. Saroj Nagi explains
A new trimurti is being set-up by the Congress, as the party pulls out all stops in its bid to give a leg up to Rahul Gandhi ahead of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections.
Of the trimurti of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and vice president Rahul Gandhi that steered the 2009 general elections, Singh is out -- becoming the favourite punching bag of the people and the party which, in particular, blames him for pushing the Congress back into the morass from which Sonia had extricated it when she took control of the party in 1998.
Amid this gloom have come reports of Priyanka Gandhi assuming control, taking feedback and guiding the party’s strategy and tactics for 2014 which has suddenly given demoralised Congress workers hope of a three-in-one package of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka for Mission 2014 while pushing Rahul as PM.
It is now up to Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka to try and repeat the feat and turn the tide that appears to have turned against the Congress, especially over price rise, inflation, corruption and policy paralysis in the Manmohan Singh-led coalition at the Centre.
At the core of all this are four major questions:
1. Is 2014 an achievable dream for the Congress?
2. Will Rahul make it to the top?
3. Will he make a good PM?
4. Can Priyanka counter the negativities surrounding the Congress?
While politics like any competitive game remains an uncertain business, the chances of all four happening aren't quite bright.
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Image: Congress President Sonia Gandhi with son Rahul and daughter Priyanka
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters
2014: A distant dream from the Congress?
To use Rahul’s own terminology, from current indications it would seem that the Congress might need the escape velocity of Jupiter to win 2014, with corruption and price rise acting as a huge drag and eroding the party’s moral and political authority and credibility.
There are two major differences between 1998/ 2004 and 2009 when the Congress clawed back from political wilderness to secure two victories and the fire test that lies barely three months ahead in 2014.
One, it was Sonia who overcame all personal and political odds and single handedly performed the herculean task of changing the party’s image, appeal and prospects between 1998 to 2004 when she delivered a stunning victory by exposing the BJP’s claim of ‘India Shining’ as hollow. She showed a combination of determination and flexibility to achieve her goal.
Although the Congress fared poorly in the 1999 elections, touching rock bottom with 114 seats,the party knows that without Sonia at the helm the tally would have slipped even further. She led a vigorous campaign, shed the party’s ekla chalo (go it alone) policy, stitched up alliances even with those who had split the party on her foreign origin, rejected the PM’s post and set up the first Congress led coalition at the Centre in 2004.
In 2009, the Congress benefited from the support of the middle-class and the youth that came with the positive impact of Singh’s first tenure as prime minister in UPA-1 and the entry of Rahul as a leader trying to change the context and contours of politics. With Sonia herself emerging as the champion of the poor, the trimurti managed to cut across class and caste and build regional affiliations and linkages.
Rahul is no match
He cannot single handedly deliver the party -- that is for sure, with the assembly elections a tell tale sign of the difficult days that may lie ahead.
Indeed, in the first general election he will be leading from the front, Rahul finds himself in a position where he needs all the help he can get and all the charisma that the Gandhi name can pool in for him if the Congress has to make a fight of 2014 and meet the challenge posed not only by BJP’s prime ministerial nominee Narendra Modi but also by the latest political star Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal besides a number of PM-hopeful chief ministers and regional leaders.
The second major difference is that if Sonia remains the mascot of the poor, the middle-class has deserted the Congress because of the acts of omission and commission of the Singh government. Rahul, too, on his part, has failed to hold on to the youth who have shifted allegiance either to Modi or Kejriwal.
In a way, history is being replayed. The Congress had lost its traditional base of Brahmins, Dalits and Muslims to the BJP, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party and other regional outfits in the 1980s and 1990s and did not have any solid vote bank to call its own. It managed to circumvent this problem by reaching across to the heads of these segmented groups by winning the support of the poor, the middle class and the youth.
It is now back to square one. It neither has a solid vote of a caste or identity group nor does it have the solid support of any class category. With AAP in Delhi also making inroads the poorer sections whose cause Sonia has been championing under the Congress-led coalition at the Centre.
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Image: Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi.
Will Rahul make it to the top as PM?
In the backdrop of these challenges, the Congress will have a tough time to make this possible.
Rahul’s path to prime minister-ship is strewn with problems. Foremost among these are three critical ones. One, the Congress needs to revive and revitalise itself in key states of UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu which together account for 201 of the 543 elective Lok Sabha seats. If Rahul failed to work the magic in 10 years -- barring the stray exception of 21 parliamentary seats in UP in 2009 -- he has just four months left to work the impossible for 2014.
Second, he has to win enough seats for the party to lure allies to support a Congress-led coalition. This looks a difficult task at the moment.
And three, even if the Congress gets around 150 seats to be in a position to pull in allies, the potential partners have to accept Rahul as the leader of the coalition government. Senior leaders like Sharad Pawar of the Nationalist Congress Party threw in their lot with the Congress once Sonia conveyed that she would not be the PM candidate. Pawar has already made his reservations about Rahul public. Other alliance leaders would also find it difficult to function under Rahul who has no government or administrative experience having rejected all offers from Singh to join his cabinet.
But then, at the heart of this problem is not just the Congress tally but also the number of seats that potential allies win on their own. Whether they are able to dictate terms or not would rest on the reality of numbers. Also, most potential allies, with some exceptions like the Rashtriya Janata Dal or the Samajwadi Party, have partnered with the BJP-led NDA at one point or the other.
Unlike Modi who first had to fight it within the BJP to be declared as a PM nominee, Rahul faces no such problem of acceptability within his party even though after 10 years of failure to connect with the people -- as evidenced in a series of assembly elections, including the four crucial ones recently. This has made a section within the party yearn for Priyanka as the name they could bandy about in their speeches and posters.
Indeed, even ahead of the 2004 general elections, party leaders had made a beeline to Sonia’s residence at 10 Janpath to urge her to bring Priyanka into the fray. They returned with the information that the Congress president was intent on fielding Rahul from Amethi.
For a party that has built its future on the Nehru Gandhi name for the major chunk of its 128 years, Rahul remains their best bet yet if Sonia has decided to retreat because of her advancing age and declining health, and if Priyanka is not available as the key figure for the elections. The best they have may not be good enough to meet the myriad challenges posed by other parties and leaders but Congressmen know that without their fate could be worse without a Gandhi name alongside theirs in elections.
In a situation in which Singh has no option but to rule himself out of the PM’s post after the 2014 elections and leave the field for Rahul, the clamour for declaring the Amethi MP as the prime ministerial nominee is likely to reverberate at the party’s conclave this month. But there would also be a loud demand for a more meaningful role for Priyanka so that the party can go into the elections with the three-in-one package of Sonia, Rahul and Priyanka.
So, exactly to the date when in 2013 his elevation as vice president has boosted the sagging morale of the workers, Rahul is slated for an even bigger role when the AICC meets on January 17 despite his failure to meet the expectations of his workers to take the party to newer heights.
Following the recent electoral debacle, Modi’s challenge, AAP’s stunning victory, Rahul has, in a way, been forced to change his attitude, behaviour, reaction and media response and re-tune the party’s strategy, tactics, approach and appeal to make a fight of the 2014 elections.
He has stepped out to talk on the Lokpal Bill, the judicial ruling re-criminalising homosexuality and a broader framework to weed out corruption, visited riot relief camps in Muzaffarnagar, presided over a meeting of Congress chief ministers to chalk out an action plan for curbing inflation and rolling out the right to food programmes, trashed the Maharashtra cabinet’s decision to reject the judicial commission’s report on the Adarsh housing stand and tried to blend the party’s pro-poor stance with a pro-corporate commitment while addressing FICCI.
Whether all this is merely a temporary adjustment to meet the challenge or 2014 or geared for a long time transformation remains an open question, though given their track record, the present day Gandhis seem to open up before key Lok Sabha polls and then withdraw from public and media interactions.
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Image: Congress supporters sit next flags of party's logo as they attend an election campaign rally addressed by Rahul Gandhi in Gorakhpur
Photographs: Pawan Kumar/Reuters
Will Rahul make a good prime minister?
It is much too premature and early to even assess the possibility of whether or not Rahul would make a good prime minister even though Singh hailed Rahul’s ‘outstanding credentials’ for the post and predicted that Modi’s elevation would be ‘disastrous’ for the country.
But Rahul’s track record on performance has so far not been anything much to write home about.
His decision to democratice and broadbase the Youth Congress remains an unfinished and controversial task. His interventions with the government have been few and far between as he did in calling for a Bundelkhand package or seeking the extension of the rural employment act or calling on opponents to support the Lokpal bill in Parliament.
And when he tried to change the course of the government’s decision on the ordinance providing a cover to convicted lawmakers, he did it in a boorish manner that stripped showed him as immature, stripped the PM of whatever little authority he had been left with and belittled the cabinet, the allies and the core committee (of which Sonia is a part) which had decided on it. Rahul later claimed that he had learned that it was ‘not polite’ to say that the ordinance is nonsense and should be chucked into the dustbin.
Unlike other contenders for the PM’s post, ranging from Modi to J Jayalalithaa and even rookie Kejriwal who is now Delhi chief minister, Rahul’s lacks administrative experience of any kind. There have been prime ministers like his own father, late Rajiv Gandhi who also did not have any experience in government when he was anointed prime minister. But the circumstances were exceptional then, with the country in turmoil following Indira Gandhi’s assassination.
“He does not get his timing right,” said one opposition leader about Rahul as he tried to encapsulate the Amethi MP’s main failing during his decade long parliamentary career.
Rahul failed to identify himself with the youngsters and the middle-class who had come out in support of Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption movement and thronged the streets to express their anger and anguish over the brutal gangrape of a young paramedic. He refused to join the cabinet which would have given him the opportunity to learn the ropes of managing a coalition, interacting with allies and running a government. Even when there was a clamour that he occupy the PM’s chair, he did not respond, his failure to seize the moment seen as an attempt to enjoy power without any responsibility.
Unlike Sonia’s renunciation which raised her several notches above her contemporaries, Rahul’s failure to take on the responsibilities of power were seen as his intent to play the vigilante or opposition within his own party at best and of playing the shirker at worst.
Will Rahul be able to change himself and get his timing right if he is elevated to the PM’s post?
Until now, he has been a perpetual learner, discovering the villages, the problems o f the country and now learning from the experience of AAP’s spectacular victory in Delhi.
Even if he builds a team of advisers who are quick to respond to the challenge of an emerging situation without being foolhardy, the buck ultimately stops with the man at the top, the prime minister, in whom rests the final decision. The string of allegations that presently surround the prime minister’s office on 2G spectrum allocation or coalgate have much to do with whether the PM exerted his authority or not when it came to a crunch -- and how he did it.
That is where Rahul’s challenge would lie. Rahul has a long way to go in that regard and going on the learning curve while occupying the PM’s chair is too costly a price to pay for that even if he has a trusted and helping hand in Priyanka to help him out .
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Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress Vice president Rahul Gandhi at a public meeting in the Bundelkhand region of UP
Can Priyanka counter the negativities surrounding the Congress?
With Priyanka expected to virtually become the Congress’s war room for 2014, many Congressmen believe that the bleak future that they thought was upon them may now be diluted, though not completely eliminated.
The freshness, glamour and charisma and the people’s connect that Priyanka is expected to bring if she expands her field of campaigning beyond Amethi and Rae Bareli to the rest of UP or across the country is seen to be an asset.
But Priyanka would also bring the baggage of her husband Robert Vadra’s contentious and controversial land deals that certain sections of the opposition have been making an issue of. Modi and the BJP are bound to raise it. AAP, in particular, is expected to go hammer and tongs on it not just in Haryana but in other parts of the country as well notwithstanding the fact that the Congress is supporting their government in Delhi.
Here too, the Congress seems to have lost a chance. “It is too late in the day for even Priyanka to take the party out of the mess,” said a Congressman urging anonymity. Her failure to stem the party’s decline in Sonia and Rahul’s home turf in Rae Bareli and Amethi in the UP assembly polls in 2012 was a signal that India in the new millennium is very different from the pre-2000 days. The negativities surrounding the Congress are far too many for a single person to act as an antidote, specially when the opposition sees a controversy around her spouse’s land deals.
Saroj Nagi is a senior journalist based in New Delhi.
Image: Priyanka Gandhi meets supporters in Rae Bareli
Photographs: Adnan Abidi/Reuters