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Rahul Gandhi and the goblet of ire
The Congress prince's new job brings with it a great many challenges. To face them he needs to recognise a few vital home truths first, says Gautam Siddharth
Change is in the heir. The princeling has become the prince, a few short steps away from holding the poisoned chalice. Rahul Gandhi as the new leader of the Indian National Congress spells a significant inflection point in both his personal history, and in the history of his party and the country. In Jaipur last week, Rahul began by reminding many of his father Rajiv Gandhi's famous speech at the Congress centenary in Bombay in 1985, where Rajiv as PM, barely a year older than Rahul today, heaped scorn on the party's power-brokers who kept pelf for themselves and left crumbs for the people. Making a not-toodissimilar debut, Rahul called power a poison, citing the rectitude of his mother, Sonia Gandhi. He isn't seeking power for himself, he hinted, but for the people.
Of course, Rahul, like his father, shall soon run into the same brick wall. Most of those who seek his proximity today do not seek power for the people, and neither do they consider power a poison. They seek power for themselves;the Gandhi name is the stolen password;the people can wait. Today, Rahul's party can't even think of winning its own electoral majority, from where ostensibly true power in a democratic country flows. So how is he calling power poison when the question of power itself is a non sequitur - where much of his party's energies, in the event it does get 170-odd Lok Sabha seats in 2014, shall remain directed towards keeping itself afloat?
Congress prompter Manish Tewari sounded us out about his party's coming theme: stability. The Congress, in 15 months, will go to the people telling them to vote for stability and hope that they will oblige. Along with "bold" policy decisions, the party will dangle schemes laced with a predictable morality of pity, from MNREGA to 'Aapka paisa aapke haath', and hope the verdict gives it the power to chart the nation's course.
Of course this is not about to happen and the new leader will have to understand why. Power for the Congress historically meant 100 out of the 138 Lok Sabha seats from the most populous states of the country, Uttar Pradesh and then undivided Bihar - the two regions where the party has faded away in the last 25 years.
In assembly elections in both the states, Rahul failed to win back the Congress's core voters: Muslims, backwards and dalits. Post-Mandal and post-liberalisation, the Congress has lost its vast body of supporters. This is because for decades, those wining elections on Congress tickets from UP and Bihar never considered power a poison;to them power was elixir. It's to these brute political forces that power would go to if the Congress were to win its own majority. And it is this that the youthful leader must recognise: the people, dislluisoned with the party's failures, would rather live with their hopeless infatuation with identity politics than return to a Congress party that broke their enormous trust.
And the Congress played identity politics long before the SP and BSP and RJD came along. As a matter of fact, these parties were the unintended consequences of the self-aggrandising politics of Congress. The party, therefore, must go to the people with the message that it lost the plot when it held power and now it knows why. For this, it must follow the course of progressive new nationalism which strikes at the roots of identity politics that has divided the country's energies wastefully.
The Congress's failed politics of yesterday and its even more spectacular economic failure unfolding today is a result of the party's growing remoteness from the people. The party's historically left-of-centre ideology gave it a certain nearness to the people. It is far from it today, helping along a sort of backward, crony capitalism. Rahul must realise that the country needs an economic system that is subservient to the people, not the other way around. Consider how the free market's sloppiness is America, while its regulation and success is China.
Chipping away at identity politics will require the most sophisticated idiomatic and economic tools. Rahul gives no indication of what he understands of the complex necessities in economics that will help the party achieve the twin objectives of ending identity politics and rediscovering the common touch, which is not gained through "pro-poor" schemes, but from bold decisions like nationalisation of defined national resources. The people trust and expect the government to deliver social and economic justice, not crony capitalists. Instead of power for politics of entitlement and largesse, searching for deeper truths and the greater common good must guide Congress's actions and attitudes.
Rahul is on the verge of inheriting India's muddling, error-prone economic system, which is failing the people. What he does with this 'inheritance' will decide whether he will make a difference. And that difference will have to be made in the heartland states that for 25 years have banished the Congress. As for a reality check, all that Rahul has to do is recall how his father got overwhelmed by unreformed powerbrokers. That will be his cup of poison.
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