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When the Gandhi family played too safe

By Sheela Bhatt
March 26, 2014 22:27 IST
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Rahul Gandhi

'The Congress is unsure of emerging as the single largest party or group on May 16. In such a scenario, they do not wish to accord a loser tag to the young Gandhi...'

'The Congress also feels Rahul's projection as a prime ministerial nominee in 2014 would come in the way of the formation of an alternative, non-BJP government...''s Sheela Bhatt explains how the transition of power within the Congress is making the party vulnerable.

On expected lines, the Congress party's Election 2014 manifesto, which was released on Wednesday, leans Left-of-Centre.

"The focus of the Congress is inclusive growth. The manifesto is pro-poor, pro-labour and migrants," says political commentator Achyut Yagnik. "The Congress is narrowing down its focus on the class that remains outside the Bharatiya Janata Party and Narendra Modi's direct political and economic appeal."

Since Modi is trying to woo urban educated youth and the ever-growing middle class, the Congress under Rahul Gandhi is repeatedly focusing on "inclusive growth that includes marginal sections and minorities."

But election manifestos have lost their credibility in India.

The Congress manifesto says if the party comes back to power it will ensure it will invest $1 trillion in infrastructure projects. Few voters would believe this claim.

The manifesto also says if the Congress returns to power, all gram panchayats will be connected with broadband Internet connections within 18 months. Also, a special envoy on black money will be appointed.

There are some 20 items in the manifesto that makes one wonder why they were not implemented in the last 10 years. Many promises have been repeated from the Election 2009 manifesto, like the plan for growth and a new job agenda in the first 100 days of government formation.

Rasheed Kidwai, author of the book on Sonia Gandhi and the Congress, 24, Akbar Road, says, "Manifestos tend to make a bigger point and have a greater impact for Opposition parties. The ruling party can always be asked why it did not come up with schemes and programmes in the previous tenure. Moreover, in a coalition era, the manifesto of a political party tends to get blurred due to coalition compulsions and the common minimum programme which takes precedence."

"The Congress has taken a rights-based approach to achieve its goals," feels Yagnik. "Like the Right To Education which was promised the last time, this time they are talking about health, pension and housing. To fulfill this promise will be a great challenge."

"The controversial part in the manifesto is the promises for the economically weaker sections," Yagnik adds. "It says it will introduce reservations in education and employment for the economically weaker sections of all communities without in any way affecting the existing reservations for Scheduled Castes, Scheduled Tribes and Other Backward Classes. I fail to understand how they will do it in view of the Supreme Court ruling that puts the cap on reservations at 50 percent."

More than what the manifesto says, Wednesday's event to release the election statement was more about the political dilemma faced by the Congress which finds itself entering a phase where it does not have a strong hand to guide it through tough times.

As Rahul Gandhi is the leader-in-the-making and Sonia Gandhi is shifting more and more away from being the centre of focus, the Congress's propaganda material reveals that the transition of power within the party is making it vulnerable.

Wednesday's event showed how the party is not able to discuss the issue of corruption convincingly because the Adarsh-scam tainted Ashok Chavan has been given a ticket to fight the election from Maharashtra. Even Sonia Gandhi was short of words in answering a question on Chavan. Her intervention could only save Rahul Gandhi blushes from answering the embarrassing question.

The event sent out the message, although muted, that the ruling party with a pan-Indian presence does not have a prime ministerial candidate or, more correctly, that it finds the circumstances hostile to declare Rahul Gandhi as its prime ministerial candidate.

Before the manifesto's release a six-minute film, Making of the Manifesto, was screened.

Now we know why Rahul Gandhi was meeting the poor, women, Dalits and marginal people over the last couple of months. The makers of the propaganda film were also traveling with Rahul around the country to shoot him along with the marginal people in the best possible manner, to get politically correct shots.

It is a sleek film showing how Rahul Gandhi is different from Narendra Modi, how he listens to other people's views, talks about inclusive growth and insists on empowering women and the poor.

But well-made films can launch brands and products, not political leaders.

The event fell short in ambition and self-confidence. No well-made film can answer or overshadow the question why Rahul Gandhi was not declared the Congress's prime ministerial candidate.

The film showed Rahul Gandhi, in contrast to Modi, with dhobis, coolies, machchimars and salt pan workers, but in the end he looked like a gentleman in the political battlefield, too cautious to take the plunge.

"I feel there is a two-fold strategy behind not projecting Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate," says Kidwai. "The Congress, in its assessment, is unsure of emerging as the single largest party or group on May 16. In such a scenario, they do not wish to accord a 'loser' tag to the young Gandhi."

"In more pragmatic terms," Kidwai adds, "the Congress feels Rahul's projection as a prime ministerial nominee in 2014 would come in the way of the formation of an alternative, non-BJP government."

"In the event of a fractured mandate, both the Third and Fourth Front protagonists like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Naveen Patnaik, Mamata Banerjee or J Jayalalithaa would never back Rahul nor would the Congress be in a position to dump its leader (Rahul as prime ministerial candidate," says Kidwai.

"If Rahul is not the prime ministerial candidate, the Congress has the option of extending outside support or join after bargaining for key portfolios like finance, home and foreign affairs," Kidwai points out.

Congress managers did everything to not name Rahul Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate at the manifesto release, but at the same time did everything to also re-emphasise that only Rahul matters for the party and its future.

The manifesto film-maker kept the camera firmly on Rahul. Even the latter admitted shyly later that other Congress leaders were present at these meetings with the marginal people. The cover of the manifesto gives prominence to Rahul who spoke more than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or his mother.

The event remained a formality that had to be performed and wound up safely. Any more exposure to the question of the Congress's prime ministerial candidate would expose the limitations of both the Gandhi-Nehru family and the party.

A similar event on March 24, 2009, at the same venue was more newsworthy. Then, at the launch of the Congress manifesto, Sonia Gandhi had given her full backing to the incumbent prime minister. To the utter shock of the BJP's then PM candidate L K Advani, Dr Manmohan Singh won urban India's endorsement in the general election.

Today, when asked who the Congress's prime ministerial candidate would be, Sonia Gandhi was not emphatic in her response. "The prime minister will be chosen by the Congress Parliamentary Party after the elections," she said. Previously, she had said the Congress's PM candidate would be declared at an appropriate time.

These days, the Congress high command -- that is, Rahul Gandhi and his sister Priyanka Vadra -- are showing confidence and killer instinct in asking senior leaders to fight the election and leave the air-conditioned ambience of New Delhi to rough it out in the villages and cities.

But, on Wednesday, the family played safe. In fact, too safe.

Image: Rahul Gandhi at the event to release the Congress manifesto.

Yesterday, Sheela said: Priyanka is chief of staff in Rahul's office

On Monday, Sheela said: Why Modi had to get rid of Harin Pathak

Should the Congress have declared Rahul Gandhi as its PM candidate? Vote below!


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Sheela Bhatt