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Look ma, new job
The veil lifted but briefly when Rahul Gandhi acknowledged to a television channel recently that he was ready to play a "more pro-active" role. Government? Party? Both? The questions hovered in the air as the Congress went into a frenzy of speculation about Rahul's next steps after his revelation that a decision had been taken. Efforts at expectation management by party handlers, who insisted that nothing was final yet, did little to quell the buzz that a new succession plan had been readied to replace the one that bombed in UP.
Ever since Rahul vanished from public gaze for six weeks after the UP assembly poll debacle, the Congress has been in a blue funk about his intentions. Many thought the party was over, that the reluctant prince would call it a day and refuse to accept the leadership mantle most Congressmen and women believe is his birthright. An aide who spoke in confidence admitted that in retrospect, it was a mistake perhaps to disappear the way he did. But Rahul needed quiet time away from the hurly-burly of politics. His surprise declaration about his future role was part image-correction and part announcement that he was back, this time for good.
The Gandhis are wont to keep their plans shrouded in mystery. Consequently, Rahul offered only a peep into the future. But it is evident that something is brewing. Those who know are reluctant to talk details but they admit privately that various blueprints are being finalised to relaunch Rahul and dispel the sense of impending doom that has gripped the Congress in the wake of a series of election defeats and the non-performance of the Manmohan Singh government amid mounting corruption scandals and sagging economic indicators.
One plan, according to these sources who spoke on condition of confidentiality, envisages him as an important cabinet minister in the government. Portfolio options include rural development, human resource development and yes, even finance which would see him sound the bugle for a general election with a populist budget next year. Another plan is to elevate him as party vice president, or working president, and give him a free hand to revamp the Congress and focus on the forthcoming assembly elections. In all six states, the Congress goes head to head with the BJP and the results will determine which party gets to lead or be part of the next government. There are other blueprints too, which are still being drawn up.
The political mood will colour the choice of plan, which is why timing is crucial. NCP chief Sharad Pawar has already given the Congress a foretaste of the risks ahead if it tinkers too much with current power equations in the government and the UPA. Yet, many believe that come September, once the monsoon session of Parliament is out of the way, the chosen succession plan will be put into motion. "The Lok Sabha elections are less than two years away. Rahul can't delay the decision beyond September if he wants to make a mark, " says a Congress leader close to the Gandhi scion. Those who are privy to some of Rahul's thoughts and feelings say that the UP loss was a watershed in his political career. "He has emerged humbler and less dogmatic about his views, " says one of his aides. According to another, Rahul is beginning to come to terms with India's shambolic political culture, understanding that it cannot be straitjacketed into modern management systems and fixed office hours as he wanted. Late night confabulations will happen and deals will be struck in the wee hours of the morning. Rahul has had to stop his nightly gym routine for the past couple of weeks because he's been forced to keep the odd hours most politicians are accustomed to.
This is not to say that he has abandoned his desire to modernise and professionalise the Grand Old Party of Indian politics. At his behest, Sam Pitroda recently got the American consultancy giant Deloitte to prepare a report on revamping the Congress to give it a 21st century look and feel. The report is lying with Rahul.
Those who work with him have observed several changes in the months since he came back with the intention of putting the UP debacle behind him. For instance, he has started reaching out to GenEx leaders to understand what makes the Congress tick. It is interesting that even those who were sidelined by his mother, like yesteryear aides M L Fotehdar and R K Dhawan, were invited by Rahul for a chat. He spent considerable time listening to their recollections from the Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi eras.
With UP on his mind, Mohsina Kidwai was another party elder Rahul tapped recently. He wanted to get a fix on her 1978 Lok Sabah bye-election victory from Azamgarh. She won the seat just one year after the Congress post-Emergency wipeout in UP. He has also had several meetings with Delhi chief minister Sheila Dikshit, a veteran of three successive Congress victories in the capital, and health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad whose political skills were once much in demand.
The really big change though is his decision to maintain regular contact with his mother's aides who he once shunned. The truce with Sonia's political secretary Ahmed Patel is particularly significant as they are collaborating on the upcoming Gujarat state assembly elections with the aim of reducing Narendra Modi's victory margin and erasing his sheen as Gujarat's iron man. Patel, pointed out a Rahul confidante, can play a crucial role in persuading parties like Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and Pawar's NCP to desist from contesting so that all the anti-Modi votes accrue to the Congress in a straight fight with the BJP. "These parties cut into our votes, " he said.
"Rahul has realised that he cannot bypass the main party as he was doing, " explained a senior Congress leader. "We all got the impression that his Youth Congress was just waiting to throw us out and take over. And it had created a great sense of insecurity. Rahul will have to work through consensus and take everyone along. "
In fact, it seems Rahul is quite disillusioned with his experiments with democracy in the Youth Congress. The election process he crafted to democratise the YC with the intention of opening it up to a wide spectrum of aspiring young political workers proved disastrous. The elections became a contest of money power and influence peddling and a large number of those who ended up being elected as officebearers were either relatives of Congress leaders or their sycophants.
The effort turned the Youth Congress into a corporate entity and destroyed its usefulness as a frontal organisation at the cutting edge of Congress street politics, which Indira Gandhi used effectively against the RSS in UP and the Left Front in West Bengal and Sanjay Gandhi unleashed on the Janata government from 1977 to 1979. "The Youth Congress should have been out on the streets at the height of the Anna Hazare agitation with counter hunger strikes and rallies, " grumbled an old timer.
At the same time, Rahul's team is hopeful that part of the operation can be salvaged. "Some of the young faces Rahul inducted are good and now that they have been put into the Congress system, they can be part of his future team as he crafts a party in his own image, " said one aide. "But, " he added somberly, "there will be no more elections to the Youth Congress. I believe it has been decided to go back to the old system of appointments. "
The UP election debacle was a huge learning curve not only for Rahul, but for Sonia too. According to one leader who had several interactions with mother and son during the assembly poll, Sonia now regrets that she held Rahul back the way she did, possibly contributing to the humiliation. She overruled his desire to pitch himself as a chief minister probable. So the Congress had no face to counter Akhilesh Yadav's growing popularity. She also insisted that he confine himself to the dais at election rallies for security reasons instead of mingling with the crowd. Akhilesh, on the other hand, was making waves with roadside stops and tea stall chats. And while she did not interfere in his ticket distribution plan, she allowed her aides to monitor the process discreetly which often created confusion.
"Mothers tend to be over-protective of their sons, " said one leader with a wry smile. "Sonia Gandhi's concerns for Rahul are understandable but they tied him down. "
After much introspection and frank talk, say their aides, mother and son have decided to meet halfway. While Sonia has agreed to allow Rahul the functional freedom he craves, he has bowed to her desire to consult party elders and evolve a consensual style that will help to bridge generational gaps.
None of this mitigates the challenges ahead as the Congress strives to prepare for the 2014 Lok Sabha election. Rahul's extended political internship and a flawed succession plan cost both party and government dearly. And the new blueprints are not inspiring. Still, a party that has got used to operating on dynastic levers cannot think beyond the Gandhi family and is desperately keen for Rahul to take charge in whatever capacity he deems fit.
The mood is so down that expectations are low. "Maybe a stint in the opposition after 2014 will be good for us and for Rahul, " says a member of the party's youth brigade in Parliament which hangs out with the Gandhi scion. "We are not looking to win elections at the moment. What we want is hope and inspiration. We want to believe that we as a party have a future. We want the gloom enveloping us to go away. If Rahul can do that, he will have done us a great service. "
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