With Rahul Gandhi’s imminent elevation as president of the Indian National Congress, India’s grand old party is all set to write a new chapter, whose content is yet unknown. There is much jubilation within the rank and file of Congress workers; restrained hopes and scepticism among political observers; and downright sniggers and slurs by the ruling party’s top leaders and minions. Contrary to the constant barbs of his opponents calling him “prince” and “shehzada”, Rahul Gandhi’s life can’t exactly be described as a bed of roses. Losing his grandmother and father within a short span of seven years, both victims of terrorist assassinations, would be an exceptionally hard and shocking blow for anyone to come to terms with. A vicious political atmosphere in which one’s family members, including those long dead and gone, are constantly being subjected to mud-slinging, and in which he himself been subjected to malicious but carefully planned and executed campaigns of personal attacks, are enough to test the limits of a person’s emotional strength and endurance. Even the worst enemies of Rahul Gandhi should admit that despite all the turbulence and provocation, he has emerged clean, dignified and strong. The man can face challenges thrown at him by fate or by the nastiest of his opponents. He is definitely a fighter.
After 2014, a persistent refrain had been that the Congress is directionless and that it needs a new narrative. While there was some truth in the first assertion, at least in the initial years, the “directionless-ness” was perhaps more in terms of a political strategy, rather than ideology. People who blame the Congress’s lack of a coherent ideology perhaps do not have any idea either about the Congress’ history or its character. Unlike the BJP’s Hindutva, or the Left parties’ class war, the Congress never had a set of regimented doctrines. The greatest strength of the Congress has been its ability to accommodate multiple, and sometimes mutually contradictory voices. Even during the struggle for Independence, the Congress provided platforms to varied ideological factions like the constitutionalists, “extremists” and moderates, and brought them together under one umbrella to fight for independence. The Congress under Mahatma Gandhi was able to accommodate the interests of both zamindars and farmers, capitalists and labourers. The Congress doesn’t reflect a faction, it represents all. The Congress is like India. And like India, the Congress has the innate ability to change with times while being rooted in its fundamental values. After Independence, the Congress government under Pandit Jawahar-lal Nehru introduced a planned, mixed-economy model with strict state control over private enterprises.
It’s the same Congress that ushered in the economic reforms in the 1990s to address the challenges of an entirely different era. Despite being in power with a majority of its own for many decades, the Congress successfully adopted to the coalition form of government, realising the need of the time. The Congress’ core values like democracy and civil liberties, pluralism, inclusive growth, and adherence to the Constitution are non-negotiable. Within the broad framework of its ideology, the Congress’ journey has been a saga of continuity and change.
In this context, it will be interesting to see what changes Rahul Gandhi brings to the table. Fundamental values like inclusivity and pluralism cannot and should not be discarded in the search for a “new narrative”. Mr Gandhi, like every former Congress president, will of course create his own team — that process is already on. There will perhaps be a generational change, giving more responsibilities to a younger generation of leaders. But there is no indication that the old guard will be put in cold storage, as the BJP did with its “Margdarshak Mandal”. Mr Gandhi, on more than one occasion, has stated the Congress has a treasure trove of leaders with years of political and administrative experience. The Congress under him will perhaps see a perfect blend of maturity and experience, with the fresh ideas and energy of youth.
But what is his personal vision for the Congress and the people of this country? From his speeches, and from discussions with people who are seen as close to him politically, if I had to coin his vision in one word, it would be “empowerment”. That’s how I see it. During the UPA period, all the major government initiatives that were said to have his stamp were about empowerment. MGNREGA, Right to Information, Right to Education — all are about empowering people. Even his pet scheme Aadhaar, that is now being distorted and used by the present government as a discriminatory tool, was about empowering every citizen with a national identity. In his speech at the PHD Chamber of Commerce last month where he spelt out his economic vision, he talked about strengthening the micro, small and medium enterprises, employing and benefitting a huge number of people. His emphasis on strengthening the rural economy, particularly agriculture; his political programmes identifying the causes of farmers and landless labourers in rural India and street-vendors in urban India, among others, all indicate a vision of empowering the marginalised. In my opinion, his vision is to create a strong base of economically, socially and politically empowered citizens consisting of the majority of Indians. Within the organisation, the same vision is reflected. The democratisation of front organisations like the NSUI and Youth Congress created opportunities for a large number of youth from non-political background to enter politics. Primaries, done on a pilot basis in a few constituencies before the 2014 elections, might not have borne electoral benefits, but were genuine attempts to accommodate the workers’ voice in the decision-making process.
Front outfits like the Mahila Congress will definitely get a boost under Mr Gandhi’s stewardship, and one definitely hopes to see more women leaders at all levels of the organisation. The immediate challenge before Mr Gandhi is of course to win elections. All those predicting doom for the Congress could only be silenced through electoral victories. But a greater challenge lies before him — that only the Congress has the ability to perform — to heal a wounded society torn apart by hatred and bridge the ever-widening faultlines created by a divisive political ideology.