The drama around Rahul Gandhi’s resignation hides a central fact: The Congress party became a slow, lumbering elephant quite a while ago, and the failure of 2019 shows it’s a very slow learner indeed.
Looked at objectively, none of the Gandhis after Indira wanted to be in politics with the sole exception of Sanjay (had he lived, he would have out-Modied Narendra Modi, but that’s another matter). Rajiv Gandhi was content being an airline pilot, Sonia being a home maker, Priyanka being a mother and Rahul drifting along doing a bit of everything. All of them answered a “higher call” and became reluctant politicians because the Nehru-Gandhi name was conjoined to the Congress party.
If Rajiv had said no when he was air-dropped into the PM’s post, the political trajectory of India would have been different, but that’s one of the ifs and buts of history. At the same time, it is easy to forget that after the 1998 elections were won by
Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s NDA, Congress was in dire straits, and Sonia’s entry rejuvenated the party. She refused the prime ministership, which was admirable; she didn’t let go the levers of power, which was not.
The ambivalence to a full-fledged career in politics has resulted in a vacillating reluctance to plunge headlong into the hurly-burly of politics. Look at the dates: Rahul’s elevation to Congress President was talked about for years but he took up the position only on December 16, 2017, less than 18 months before the 2019 elections. Similarly, the will-she-won’t-she question about Priyanka’s political entry was a matter of speculation for months, but she was made general secretary of UP East only in February 2019, a mere three months before the general elections.
This Hamletesque equivocation doesn’t work in politics. In fact, it induces a soporific attitude to fast-changing circumstances, rather than the pro-active, dynamic action which changing situations demand. Consider the central theme of the recent elections. Narendra Modi — fully aware of the multiple economic failures of his government — made his campaign a presidential-style one and happily positioned it as a Modi versus Rahul Gandhi contest.
The absurdity of this was obvious: Here was a leader of a party which had won 282 seats in 2014 against someone whose party had just 44. This was a David-Goliath story with a twist — Goliath had all the ammunition. It was necessary to change this narrative as quickly as possible, yet Sonia Gandhi got in touch with leaders of Opposition parties to make the point that Rahul wasn’t necessarily the PM candidate as late as May 15. By then, six of the seven voting phases in the country were already over.
Even the perennial Rahul bashers would have to admit that Rahul Gandhi fought the unequal battle against Modi valiantly and courageously, and that each passing day saw him grow in stature. However, to add to his handicap, he wasn’t just battling an outsized Modi; he was also battling the “Pappu” image, created and viciously propagated by the BJP’s trolling factory. He needed to fight that first, yet his revelatory television interview with NDTV’s Ravish Kumar took place only on May 11, when five of seven polling phases were over. A spate of other interviews followed — all open and unscripted — in which Rahul impressed with his frank and thoughtful answers to often difficult questions. But what use were these when they came so very late?
People like Narendra Modi and Amit Shah have no interests outside politics. Whether such a single-minded focus, which excludes all other aspects of human existence, is good for the country is another matter. What their attitude does show is that this 24×7 commitment is essential for electoral success: Politics is not for the dilettante. You can’t work for a few months and hope that miracles will happen. “Miracles” are nothing but the result of a long hard slog put in over years and years.
The Modi wave is so strong that it will engulf all in its way unless the other parties get together and form pre-poll alliances. Even thoughtful supporters of the BJP (yes, there are a few) agree that the kind of massive mandate given to Modi is not good for the country: Democracy needs a unified and coherent Opposition to apply the occasional brake and prevent the government in power from going out of control. For this cohesion to happen, the Mayawatis of the world have to give up unrealistic ambitions, the Sheila Dikshits have to go into retirement and the Mamata Banerjees have to dampen their fire with reason and logic. It’s a herculean and almost impossible task but it’s the leader of the Congress Party (still the biggest Opposition party in parliament), who has to play the facilitator. For the Congress, and for non-BJP parties, 2024 starts now.
Dharkar is a writer and columnist