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Rahul’s sabbatical and Delhi lessons

Shivam Vij of Scroll has got a cute solution to the existential crisis facing the Congress: Get Rahul Gandhi married: “What would have been Rahul Gandhi’s fate if he had been an ‘aam aadmi’ instead of the Gandhi scion? At 44, his family would have forced him to get married, or get out of the house and stop being a no-good dependent. Marriage will at least turn around his public image. He will be seen as someone who is ‘settling down’, that favourite phrase of South Asian parents.”

Sensible, if gratuitous, piece of advice! Seriously though what could the grand old party do to arrest its fall? The crisis of credibility that it battles today is perhaps the gravest since its immaculate conception in 1888 by an English bureaucrat. And if it does not act and act soon to reinvent itself, it risks painting itself into complete irrelevance in the not too distant future.

The humiliating debacle that the grand old party suffered at the hands of an upstart like the AAP in the recent Delhi polls, being reduced to zero, is easily the worst in its history. What is more, the worse may be yet to come as the party battles an all-consuming BJP and aggressive AAP on the one hand and dissent and complete demoralisation in its ranks on the other.

So Rahul Gandhi couldn’t have chosen a worse time to go on leave. To do what? To “reflect on recent events and future course of the party,” as a press statement put it. Poor Rahul! He exerts and works himself up so much for the party that he needs a break abroad every few months. And after all the painstaking effort and dedication that he has invested in taking the party of Gandhi, Nehru and Azad to the stage where it finds itself today, he does deserve a break!

Can the Congress afford such leadership breaks though – right when it is passing through an acute identity crisis and dejection at every level? Leadership is a full-time job and responsibility. Leaders do not take breaks or run away to the hills in the middle of critical battles. There are exceptions of course. Some can lead and guide even when they are not physically present. Not the Congress’ heir apparent though who has been unwilling or unable to lead even when he’s present in flesh and blood.

For all his years of leadership in parliament, he spoke only twice. Most of the time, it’s been as if he was there as an observer or as a guest who didn’t want to be there in the first place. Bored, disinterested and totally lost! Once he was even caught napping in the august house. Outside parliament, his contribution has been even less discernible.

He is engaging enough when he does speak though. In his views about India’s future and his concern for its ethos of pluralism and marginalised multitudes, he comes across as more human and humane than the 56-inch chested formidable opposition that he faced. He is not lacking in that famous Gandhi charisma either although it is yet to reflect itself in terms of electoral successes.

What’s lacking is a fighting spirit and the hunger to win and succeed in the face of great odds. Clearly, his heart is not just in it. Neither in politics, nor in power and all its trappings. As he told Arnab Goswami of Times Now in that disastrous interview ahead of the general elections, he’s not enamoured of power or the idea of leading the nation. And he wasn’t lying or being pretentious as most politicians do.

Indeed, he repeatedly spurned the top job when a besieged Manmohan Singh wanted to step aside. Why, Rahul wasn’t even prepared to be nominated as the party’s prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 polls.

While this aversion for power is rare and refreshing in politicians, it doesn’t really do any good to the poll prospects of a party. This may be why the Congress lost so comprehensively last year.

Pitted against the ubiquitous and unabashed promotion of Brand Modi with the candidate constantly traversing the length and breadth of the country, delivering thousands of carefully crafted speeches, the Congress did not even offer a name or face for the most important job. The party that ruled India for more than five decades today cannot even claim the leader of opposition’s role in parliament.

The endless pageantry of scams and paralysis of the UPA government in the last years of Dr Singh of course did not help. But if there’s a single factor that defines the Congress’s woes, it is the ‘leadership’ – or lack of it.

Of course, defeat and victory are part of the game. There are plenty of examples when political parties after being routed have made impressive comebacks. They did so by analysing their failings and taking bold steps to address them.

Notwithstanding Churchill’s charisma and the difficult victory that Britain won under him in the World War II, the Conservatives suffered a most humiliating debacle in 1945 elections. The defeat sent the party and the war hero into hibernation, to endlessly wallow in self-pity.

It took a mediocre apparatchik like R A Butler to revive the party by giving it a new direction and sense of purpose. After months of introspection, Butler came to the conclusion that the Conservatives had a powerful organisation and well-oiled party machinery in place. Although Churchill still commanded respect, the voters had rejected his policies and governance agenda.

So Butler went back to the drawing board, with an aide, to evolve new policies and strategies for the party. Urging the Conservatives to go back to the people with a new agenda, he managed to revive a dispirited party with his hard work and determination. The Tories stormed back into power in 1951 elections.

The Congress’s own history could prove equally instructive. After the decline and split of the party in 1969 and near complete rout in 1977 polls, Indira Gandhi scripted most impressive comebacks. But she had to work hard for those victories.

She went back to the people, seeking their forgiveness – and by making necessary course corrections. She rejuvenated the Congress to return to power when both she and her party had been totally written off. Although I am not a huge fan, it must be acknowledged that Indira Gandhi never gave up or gave in, even when she was in her advanced years.

The Congress can repeat that history all over again. It has an illustrious past and impressive, grassroots level support base that reflects and represents the colourful diversity of the nation. What it needs is the leadership with a vision and willingness to lead. And if Rahul Gandhi is unwilling and unable to offer it, he should just step aside and make way for others.

In the interest of Indian democracy and the grave, unprecedented challenges facing the republic, the Congress must get its act together. In the face of rising right-wing extremism that threatens the very identity and character of the republic and its constitution, India more than ever needs a responsible political force and movement that stands up for the nation’s diversity, pluralism and tolerance.

If the Congress fails to provide this leadership, people are willing to go with alternatives like the AAP. Indeed, with its all-embracing approach and a narrative that champions the interests of the marginalised and dispossessed, the AAP is already seen as the new Congress. The stunning Delhi vote suggests that the idea of India as an inclusive and secular democracy is very much alive and those who stand up for it are rewarded. The BJP and the Congress would ignore the message from Delhi, truly a microcosm of India, at their own peril.

The writer is a Middle East based columnist.

Email: aijaz.syed@hotmail.com

Aijaz Zaka Syed, "Rahul’s sabbatical and Delhi lessons," The News. 2015-02-27.
Keywords: Political science , Political issues , Political system , Political change , Political reforms , Politics-India , Delhi elections , Election defeat , Rahul Gandhi , Political leaders , AAP , India