Will Rahul’s ‘son’ rise be sunset for Congress?

Rahul Gandhi started his career as Congress party chief in a bad way on Saturday by launching a blistering attack on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) instead of spelling out an economic vision for youth.

His inaugural speech sounded more like the ones he delivers at election rallies. Such personal attacks only boomeranged on him and his party in crucial elections like the one in India’s largest state Uttar Pradesh early this year. He repeated that mistake in Gujarat where he was campaigning for assembly elections last week. There too, the results may go against Congress as exit polls indicate BJP will win with a comfortable majority.

It seems Rajiv has not learned from mistakes. Now that he is in a great position, he is another man and should prove it. During his brief speech, he could have talked about how he is going to revamp an old party which is plagued by factionalism, corruption and cronyism.

This is important because Rahul’s own election for the post of president unopposed has created rumblings of discontent among senior Congress leaders like Mani Shankar Iyer, Jairam Ramesh and P Chidambaram. Even a young and ambitious Congress leader like Shehzad Poonawalla openly opposed the dynastic politics of the Nehru-Gandhi family and expressed his readiness to contest the election if it was conducted in a “genuine” manner. But he did not as he found it more a “selection” than an election.

Rahul’s main challenge as party leader will be tackling malcontents. Many of them do not take him seriously. They accept him as leader just because he happens to be son of Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi, grandson of Indira Gandhi and great grandson of Jawaharlal Nehru. Some of them may be thinking that if Congress wins the 2019 general elections, they can occupy key positions in government and party and make some fast bucks.

This is where Rahul has to show his guts. Will he revamp the party by removing or side-lining such elements and picking individuals with integrity, courage and energy to lead the party at state and provincial levels? If he can do that, Congress will have a better chance of winning elections. The earlier he does this, the better for the party.
To ensure a smooth transition and avert revolt in Congress, Rahul may strike a balance between experience and youthful energy. Picking clean local leaders and cobbling up alliances with regional parties can help the party perform better in elections.

Another formidable challenge he faces is how to win over majority Hindus without being seen as a supporter of the tough Hindutwa line and admonish them, where they deserve it, without alienating them. At the same time, Congress has to shed its image as a party that blindly appeases minorities to win their votes.

As a leader, instead of being apologetic about his dynastic roots, Rahul should turn it into an advantage. During his interaction with university students in the US in September this year, they asked him about dynastic politics. He told them India has been led by dynasties. “That’s how the country runs,” he said. Such a frank approach is needed if critics try to corner him.

Rahul has indeed matured as a politician. He was spontaneous and persuasive in his speeches and interactions with voters in Gujarat, Modi’s home turf,  where he drew large crowds.

As a comparatively young politician, Rahul has many years ahead in his career.  Gujarat elections may go the BJP way. But there important state elections in Karnataka and Rajasthan next year. Right now, he is the “darling of the Congress,” as former prime minister Dr Manmohan Singh put it while announcing his nomination for the post of party president. The question is will Rahul be able to become the darling of all Indians?

E. Jayakumar