Though there was an inevitability about Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as Congress president last December, there were niggling doubts in the party cadre about his leadership capabilities and commitment to his new assignment. This disbelief was based on the popular impression that Gandhi was a reluctant politician and a poor orator who was unable to establish a connection with people.
A year later, these initial worries have almost completely disappeared as a more confident and aggressive Gandhi has taken control of the party organisation and is seen to be leading from the front. His acceptability in the party is complete. If there are any dissenting voices, these are, at best, muted.
However, the year-old Congress president has a long way to go before he is accepted by the people as an effective and credible leader. Gandhi has to deliver electoral victories – which he has not had much success with – to demonstrate that he is no lightweight and that he deserves to be taken seriously.
He redeemed himself to some extent in Gujarat, where the Congress vastly improved its tally in the December 2017 elections, and in Karnataka, where it outwitted the Bharatiya Janata Party to form the government by joining hands with the Janata Dal (Secular) earlier this year. Success for the Congress in the elections in Rajasthan and Telangana on Friday – as well as in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Mizoram, which voted in November – will give his image a big boost.
However, it is unlikely to translate into chants of “Rahul for prime minister”. Congress leaders admit that despite the improvement, Gandhi has not acquired the gravitas that goes with the prime minister’s post. Recalling how he famously hugged Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Parliament in July, following it up with that equally famous wink, they say he behaved like a Youth Congress leader. Clearly, the Congress president is still a poor second to Modi.
But as far as the party organisation is concerned, Gandhi has grown into his job in the one year he has been Congress chief. Party leaders, cutting across generations, believe he has emerged a more robust politician and, more importantly, shed the “Pappu” tag that the BJP had foisted him with in an attempt to suggest that he was inept and incapable of provising decisive leadership. Many now say that Gandhi is more articulate and can hold the attention of his audience. Congress leaders never tire of pointing to Gandhi’s relentless election campaigns first in Gujarat and Karnataka and now in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Telangana, where his speeches drew an enthusiastic response from the crowds.
“There is no doubt that Rahul Gandhi has matured as a politician,” said former Maharashtra chief minister Prithviraj Chavan. “He is fighting from the front with the right amount of aggression in his articulation. His initial social media portraiture has been completely washed away.”
Senior Congress leader and former Union minister Kishore Chandra Deo agreed. “There is a vast improvement in Rahul Gandhi… he has certainly gained from experience,” he said. “Today, he is the only Opposition leader who is taking on the BJP so aggressively and this has really energised party workers.”
Besides gaining in confidence and becoming more articulate, party workers and leaders say Gandhi has begun the process of rejuvenating the party and giving fresh direction to the rank and file, whose morale had plummeted after the Congress was reduced to a mere 44 Lok Sabha seats in the 2014 general elections, which was followed by a series of losses in Assembly polls. Often accused of taking advice from “non-political” managers, Gandhi is now consulting more people and getting feedback from various sources, they said.
“Things are changing and changing for the better,” said Kumari Selja, former Union minister and a member of the Congress Working Committee, the party’s highest decision-making body. “There is greater energy in the organisation since he took over. There is more involvement of youth and this was evident in the recent set of Assembly elections. A conscious effort was made to look for younger faces as also more women to field as candidates.”
Young Congress leaders RPN Singh and Jitin Prasada, known for their proximity to Gandhi, are expectedly all praise for their party chief. They say the party now functions with greater transparency and democracy and point to how more people were involved in ticket distribution for the recent Assembly polls. Gandhi has also inducted a far larger number of functionaries as office-bearers, said Singh. While critics say mass-scale appointments are an easy way out to avoid disaffection in the ranks, loyalists maintain this means greater accountability in the party.
“Earlier, one party general secretary was given the responsibility of several states,” Singh said. “Obviously, he was unable to give sufficient time to all. In the new system under Rahul Gandhi, each office-bearer has been given charge of only one state. This means each state gets focused attention. Party office-bearers can no longer escape responsibility on the plea that they are overburdened.”
Youth and experience
If the old and young in the Congress are on the same page in their assessment of Rahul Gandhi’s first year as party chief, it is primarily because he has taken a conscious decision to strike a balance between the two. Gandhi has obviously learned a bitter lesson from the generational clash in the past, which was largely responsible for pulling down the party and weakening the organisation. He admitted as much in an interaction with students in London in August. Consequently, he has avoided large-scale changes and, instead, staggered appointments in the party organisation to avoid rocking the boat.
Realising that he cannot forsake the party veterans, Gandhi has ensured a blend of experience and youth. Seniors party leaders such as Ahmed Patel, Motilal Vora, Ashok Gehlot, Kamal Nath, Mallikarjun Kharge, Ghulam Nabi Azad and Ambika Soni have been given weighty assignments. At the same time, there is a fair sprinkling of young faces – Deepak Babaria, Avinash Pande, KC Venugopal, RPN Singh and Rajiv Satav to name a few.
In fact, Gandhi has had to fall back on the veterans each time the party has faced a crisis as the younger leaders do not have the skills or experience to handle such situations. When the elections in Karnataka ended in a hung Assembly, the Congress chief rushed Azad and Gehlot to the state to negotiate with the Janata Dal (Secular). Again, he turned to senior colleagues like Ahmed Patel and Digvijaya Singh to deal with rebels in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh.
Show of religiosity
However, some dismiss Gandhi’s focus on maintaining a balance between youth and experience as him taking the path of least resistance. “He is not taking bold decisions,” said Aslam Sher Khan, a former Congress leader and hockey champion. “He failed to project chief ministerial candidates in the recent elections. He promised big changes in the organisation but nothing happened. It took him over a year to appoint Kamal Nath as Madhya Pradesh Congress chief.”
Many Congress leaders also say Gandhi has failed to provide intellectual leadership or ideological clarity to the party. Simply attacking Modi is not enough, they maintain, adding that Gandhi should unveil the party’s vision and agenda not through sound bytes but with a reasoned, well-argued speech, preferably in Parliament.
There is also concern that he has strayed from the Nehruvian concept of secularism and that his public display of religiosity and his temple-hopping ahead of elections has reduced the Congress to a B-team of the BJP. “Do you think he can get votes in Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu by declaring himself a janeudhari [sacred thread-wearing] Brahmin?” asked a senior Congress leader who did not want to be identified.
However, party leader Kishore Chandra Deo disagreed on this count, saying Gandhi’s temple visits must be seen in a particular context. “Times have changed,” he explained. “The BJP had succeeded in convincing people that the Congress only took care of the interests of minorities It was, therefore, necessary for the party and Rahul Gandhi to send out the message that the Congress is for all religions and communities and that Hindus are also part it.”
Kumari Selja was just as unequivocal in defending the Congress’ secular credentials. “The Congress has never been divorced from India’s cultural roots,” she said. “It is a mass-based party, an umbrella organisation that has provided space to all sections of society.”