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Return of the Rahul Congress

By Shiv Visvanathan
March 16, 2015 17:32 IST
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The Queen has retired, the bosses have left, long live the prince as king, says Shiv Visvanathan.

Often, as Narendra Modi turns predictable and his economics sounds as if it appears from a common canonical stable and AAP quarrels relentlessly with itself, the citizen, in desperation, sometimes wishes the Congress party would revive and return.

He knows that the Congress that could return will not be a part of history. It might invoke a geology of continuity only to paper over the deep disruptions in its psyche. The party needs to exorcise itself from the very history that made it what it was.

Every Indian knows that the legacy of the party has shrunk to a system of family entitlements, which the new generations refuse to accept. The new Indian middle class wants a Congress that can reinvent itself or legitimise a Congress that stops mouthing old shibboleths as messages to its former self.

One has to ask, how does one invent the possibility of the “new” Congress? What does its newness consist of? Eventually, hope has to focus on the one available candidate -- Rahul. One has to create the transition from the dimpled Prince Charming via the idiot hamlet to a sense of assertive leadership. That needs a new style, a new set of strategies, the invocation of a new era no matter how modest the beginning.

One has to go back to Rahul Gandhi’s idea of reform and change, to his erratic efforts to balance competing possibilities.

The tension begins when a dynast introduces inner-party democracy. Worse, Rahul spoke a managerial language of progressive decentralisation which made little sense to the old bosses. He sounded naïve in front of them, projecting an uncontaminated innocence in front of old stalwarts who reacted like mafia dons being challenged by a boy scout. His feeling of ineptness and alienation increased as Modi portrayed him as a dynast feeding on party entitlements in an age of aspiration.

Yet, many observers have felt his project had possibility. Only, he was caught in the double bind between family and party, between old guard and new guard. Sonia Gandhi for all her foreignness sounded rooted and organic while he sounded alien, even juvenile. When she drags him away in a meeting, or he stands daydreaming in a rally or asleep in Parliament, he evokes the stuff of comic books.

To revive the fortunes of such a man requires both miracle and strategy. The current Congress is not well known for either. A man caught in the trappings of the past is difficult to present as a fragment of the future.

The Congress and Sonia know that despite all this Rahul is the only alternative. Priyanka attracts but the attraction is for reasons other than political. To counter her advantages, there is Robert Vadra as counterpoint. This gym bird and real estate magician does not quite sound Nehru material. Instead of the akhadas which supplied material to the party, he is redesigned as a creature of the gymnasium, a six-pack obsessive whose morals suffer from muscular dystrophy.

The options are not many. All one can do is choose from different variants of Rahul. One has to revive him, resuscitate him, re-initiate him into the fierce logic of politics which threatens the Congress as a way of life. When the Congress polls zero seats in the Delhi election, one is confronting an epic tragedy. It was a disaster that must have made the most inane and inactive member of the Congress sit up. It was as if the Congress was being abandoned, literally dumped by the country.

The Congress sages must have sat and brewed a strategy. Some sense of transition, some sense of succession, some sense of history, even minimally, had to be created. Firstly, the mother has to stand down. The baton has to move across generations. But Sonia stepping down cannot be an “all in the family” narrative. There has to be a slice of party politics to add substance to the event.

Close to Sonia and creating a quiet legend around himself is party secretary, treasurer and party boss, the man who can be presented as a foil to Rahul, Ahmed Patel. He has to go as a symbolic statement. Only then does the rise of Rahul work. Only then does he wrest power. The Sonia-Ahmed Patel exit creates space, creates a sense of void which he can be asked to fill.

While all this is being planned, Rahul cannot play bumbler. He cannot seem absentminded. A sabbatical as absence creates a sense of mini-exile before he is reinitiated to power. Internal changes are not enough. It has the need for mass approval an Aeneas-like return is the result. The news of the announcing of election or appointment of Rahul Gandhi has to sound or at least appear like a mass acclaimed event. The kisan rally could provide this ritual drama.

Once this is guaranteed, and once Manmohan fades away carrying with him the burden of incompetence and scam, a new beginning can be signalled. As scapegoat, the Congress can inflict the burden of UPA on Singh. Three quick transitions -- Manmohan, Sonia and Ahmed Patel -- and a new star is reborn or at least the bird has flown its nest or the egg has left the decade-long incubator.

The timing is credible. Modi seems at a low, AAP looks like a party eating its own tail and the Congress this week sounds belatedly respectable. A whitewash as an anticipation of spring cleaning. History re-launched modestly. Given the blatant inadequacies of other parties, one can still expect a little something from the Congress. The Queen has retired, the bosses have left, long live the prince as king.

One has to now leave that to PROS and news commentators to squeeze out the implications of this to the last drop. One can see little possibilities.

The Congress has a younger leadership of Shashi Tharoor, Sachin Pilot, Jairam Ramesh, Milind Deora who are not short of intelligence or ambition, who have remained within the fold of the party waiting to play a more historic role. With the exit of the party bosses, they can smell their time has come. They no longer need to be self-effacing on the sidelines. Rahul can be first among equals realising that he can be first, only then there are equals.

Rahul may lack charisma but as a team these Congressmen are capable of attracting attention, of triggering possibilities. Such a scenario must have been played out as thought experiment innumerable times. It is now reality.

What does it mean in terms of scenarios, speculation, for the future, in fact even for the immediacy of the present? Firstly, however small, the Congress has something to crow about. Its representatives on TV can now look less apologetic. With a clarity about leadership, they can play at being the opposition, raising issues, returning creativity to Parliament to maintain the dignity of a concerted opposition. By playing on the internal democracy theme more vigorously, Rahul can send subliminal messages to those who now see politics as an opportunity.

New faces and new ideas can change politics and political debate. Unlike the BJP which has to scramble around to create a team of intellectuals, the Congress drawing on its experience can create a set of think-tanks which can provide more creative ideas of agriculture, science, urbanism networking old ideologies in new and plural ways. Inevitably, it has to return to the streets, renew its links with movements and unions creating a “Congress” idea of change.

One has seen AAP and BJP talk change but there are many who already feel shortchanged by it. Whether it is the Arab world or Africa, the Congress’s ideas of foreign policy have a resonance. Finally, Rahul’s experiments of listening to academics, mixing with social movements, can rework some of those ideas.

There is still a nostalgia for the idea of Congress even if it is not for the party as it currently exists. Rahul as quieter leader could initiate a process of reflection and repair and not the blame or innocence game that the Congress played after every recent election. It can rebuild constituencies, recreate an advisory council as a network of debates rather than a coterie of consultants.

A formal NAC damaged both party and civil society. A sense of repair can create the healing touch to the old pretentiousness of the Congress. This new blending of ideas and interests can create constituencies for the future. The Congress must learn from the RSS to wait and play strategies for the future. It can afford now to see the BJP bumble around culture and governance and let voters feel it needs another chance.

Consider a simple example. Two Congress MPs, Rajeev Gowda and Jairam Ramesh, published books on ecology, one on risk, and the other reflecting on the fate of environmental policy. Both are first rate and the BJP would be hard put to match them. Yet, no effort was made to capture and emphasise this heaven-sent opportunity.

At a time when Prakash Javdekar plays autistic over bio-technology and seeds, the Congress could have made a quiet point to the academy and policy groups. Its failure itself is a pointer to the tasks of the future.

Of course, on a personal note, Rahul has to change his body language. Pretending to be a gum-chewing adolescent does not add to stature. He has to pay attention to attire. Most critically, he has to articulate a more lively discourse which combines politics and policy, management and change in more transformative forms.

To clean up a house you have to own up to the house and its inhabitants. The Congress might be creating that welcome move.

Image: Rahul Gandhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

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