State of Play: There's a new Gandhi in the house

He's clearly thumbing his nose at all the critics who've turned the Pappu story into a minor cottage industry.

I don’t know… Would you actually take charge of a major political party – even if it’s no more than a formality – 48 hours before poll results are announced in two states, neither of which can be considered a cakewalk? But that’s exactly what Rahul Gandhi has done. He’s clearly thumbing his nose at all the critics who’ve turned the Pappu story into a minor cottage industry.

Fact is, it doesn’t matter whether he wins or loses Gujarat, or for that matter, Himachal. Either way, whatever the critics say, it is not the end of the road for the Congress party. It will live to fight another day. You win some, you lose some.

How many remember that the Congress party that Sonia Gandhi took over, eight years after her husband’s assassination was actually in a complete shambles? As she herself said in her speech at the Congress party office – from which, word is, they could soon be evicted – the Congress, in 1999 only ruled three state governments. “We were far from a government at the Centre,” she said in her stilted Hindi while giving her farewell speech.

But that wasn’t even the half of it. What she didn’t spell out was that every single Congress leader of repute had quit the party. Gone were all the stalwarts starting from P. Chidambaram and G.K. Moopanar and Madhavrao Scindia and Rajesh Pilot to Arjun Singh and a host of others. The man holding the prime minister’s office, Narasimha Rao, cut everybody out of the equation and left the running of the actual party – or what was left of it – in the hands of the inept and inebriated Sitaram Kesri, who on any given day had longer confabulations with his canine companions – who reduced his official residence to a piddle riddled mess - than he did with his Congress party colleagues!

Once Sonia Gandhi took charge of the party, and one wonders who initiated the move, many of the men and women who had been part of Indira and Rajiv’s inner circle trickled back in. But until the Congress stormed back to power in 2004 under her pennant, it was this ‘videshi bahu’ who went through a remarkable transformation - from rank outsider and political greenhorn to the ultimate insider in Indian politics. Her political naivete, most demonstrable when she stood from a safe seat in Bellary here in Karnataka in ’99, because her advisers said the BJP would ensure her defeat, in the even safer seat of Amethi, from where her husband stood and had never lost! She hasn’t lost in Amethi since.

In Bellary, Sushma Swaraj, the BJP’s poster girl, resplendent in her bindi and mangalsutra and saris in colours that screamed Bharatiya Nari, was everywhere. But ultimately, Sonia’s cavalcade with her daughter as the star attraction did turn the tide. She won by 56,000 votes.

But Sonia’s inability to read the political tea-leaves – announcing ‘we have 272’ – when Mulayam Singh Yadav did the dirty on her, and helping to usher in the Atal Behari Vajpayee government, was a case in point. The attacks on her foreign origin that became part of the BJP’s armoury saw Sharad Pawar too cry off from offering open political support. But the five years that she spent in the opposition benches were a huge learning curve. Lessons, that she put to good use as she stitched together a coalition that included Muthuvel Karunanidhi and the DMK, the party that was long seen as soft on the men who killed her husband.

Her masterstroke, one must stress was the manner in which she adeptly turned the tables on the BJP. Here was the saffron sanyasin Uma Bharti and bête noire Sushma Swaraj saying they would shave their heads and eat only gram and live like Hindu widows if ‘the foreigner’ became prime minister, when Sonia came out and enacted a renunciation that silenced every one of her critics.

In retrospect, her choice of Dr. Manmohan Singh for two consecutive terms as prime minister may have not been politic. The first Singh stint was glorious. The second? Not so much. Her position as the real power and the force, the person who called the shots in the party were inescapable.

Foreign dignitaries visited her at home. That everyone in the party deferred to her, undermining the prime minister’s position and standing in the party, making her the parallel power centre that made cabinet meetings irrelevant and her own confabulations with a select group of advisers, were used by the BJP as part of a campaign to make Dr. Singh look effete and powerless. The murmurs over Dr. Singh wanting to be President and hand over charge to Pranab Mukherjee were scotched when she decided against going the Narasimha Rao way.

As all eyes turn to the new Gandhi in the house, the lessons from Sonia Gandhi’s stint as the de facto power behind the Singh government must be learned. And it is this. He may have given the BJP the shivers in Gujarat by tapping into the anger of the Patidars, the BJP’s core voter, but Rahul’s transformation isn’t complete. In September 2013, hours before Dr. Singh was to meet then US President Barack Obama, the young Gandhi tore up an ordinance that Dr Singh had just approved that would save convicted legislators from being disqualified. Youthful exuberance or not, Rahul’s public rebuke undermined Dr. Singh’s authority. Countering hate with love and wit may make you popular on social media.

What Rahul Gandhi needs is a shadow cabinet that crafts a counter to the present government’s shambolic economic policy, and that sheds the Congress’ poorly conceived anti-corporate, anti-industry, pro-left leaning stance borrowed from an Indira Gandhi who lived in a pre-liberalisation era. It lost the Congress the backing of the industrialists, while the faulty implementation of pro-poor schemes so close to Sonia’s heart – and Rahul’s - did the same with the poor and the upwardly mobile.

With a mere five states in the bag as opposed to the BJP’s 14, the Congress is a very long way from doing a Sonia 2004. Assembly elections are due in some 16 states, including Karnataka where the BJP will step up its anti-Congress tirade, before parliamentary polls in 2019. Everything that the Congress does or doesn’t do from here forward will be fodder for the BJP cannon. To the hammer, everything looks like a nail.

( Source : Deccan Chronicle. )
Next Story