Rahul, step in now and don't step out

By Rajdeep Sardesai
13 July 2012 12:05 IST

Salman Khurshid is easily among the brightest politicians in the country: a former Oxford don, he became a Union minister at 38. When he speaks, it is with a certain elegance and intellect that is all too rare in public life today. Which is why when Mr Khurshid suggests that "Rahul Gandhi has only been seen in cameos of his thoughts and ideas, but he has not woven it into a grand announcement. This is a period of waiting," his remarks must be taken seriously. Mr Khurshid has since been forced to clarify his statement, claiming he was only urging the Congress's younger leadership to play a more central role but his reflections lie truly at the heart of the UPA's present dilemma.

A fortnight ago, in these very columns, I had written on the NDA's leadership crisis: who will be their leader in the next general elections in 2014? What is true of the NDA is equally applicable to the UPA. If the battle between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar threatens to open a chasm within the Opposition, Rahul Gandhi's seeming reluctance to take greater responsibility within the Congress has left the ruling alliance in a state of growing uncertainty.

What are the options if Rahul were to decline to take up the challenge of being the UPA's prime ministerial nominee? Manmohan Singh will be 82 in 2014, and while being an octogenarian is no disqualification in the ageing world of Indian politics, there is a general belief that after two full terms as Prime Minister, Dr Singh may finally be ready for voluntary retirement. Of the other Congress leaders, AK Antony is an option in a period where the search is on for an 'incorruptible' politician but doubts persist over his ability to take charge of a Union government. P Chidambaram has the skill to lead but the 2G case has shadowed him and whether he can be a consensual politician in the age of coalition politics is still an open question. Of the rest, the most logical choice, Pranab Mukherjee is set to be safely ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan while none of the so-called 'dark horses' (Sheila Dikshit, Meira Kumar, Sushil Shinde) really have the stature to be readily accepted by their peers.

Which brings us back to Rahul who remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. At 42 years, Rahul is no longer a 'youth' leader. In a young India, 40 signals the age of arrival. Across the world, leaders are getting younger. David Cameron became prime minister of Britain at 44 while Barack Obama could soon become a two-time US president. Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister soon after his 40th birthday, arguably in even more challenging circumstances.

In 1984, the Congress was still the pre-eminent force in Indian politics, blessed with an array of powerful regional satraps and Union ministers who had spent decades in public life. There was as a result a competitive edge to the leadership issue and Rajiv's acceptability to the older guard nurtured in the Indira era took a while. By contrast, today the Congress is a party that has been reduced to a marginal player in several parts of the country with very few mass leaders who can claim to have an independent power base. Its tallest leader by some distance remains Sonia Gandhi and she has made it amply clear that her 'inner voice' will not let her become Prime Minister.

That leaves, frankly, Rahul Gandhi as the only mascot available to a party in crisis. Unfortunately, rather than see opportunity in adversity, Rahul has chosen to play it safe. He has barely spoken within or outside Parliament on matters of urgent public importance, has stayed away from sustained media interaction, and preferred to focus on the Youth Congress elections when the crying need is for the entire party to be given an organisational overhaul.

The closest Rahul has come to taking a leadership role was in this year's Uttar Pradesh election. Perhaps guided by his core team of advisers, he initially pitched the elections as a barometer of the Congress's revival in the crucial Hindi heartland. But after a robust campaign, when it came to the crunch of defining his future role in Uttar Pradesh, he pulled back. By then, the rising expectations that had been set off by his initial enthusiasm appeared to stand in sharp contrast to the reality on the ground. In defeat, he was gracious, even taking responsibility for the Congress debacle and promising to stay the course. But then, instead of re-igniting the challenge to the new ruling arrangement in UP, he once again did a bit of a disappearing act.

This is where Salman Khurshid's reference to a 'cameo' role being played by Rahul becomes relevant. A cameo in itself is not always undesirable. But when your party is pitching you as the superstar in waiting, you can't afford to make a special appearance. To take the Bollywood analogy further, Rahul cannot afford to be an Amitabh Bachchan in a film like Anand when his audience wants to see him as a Rajesh Khanna-like lead artiste in the same film.

Rahul, of course, may well believe that he has time on his side and that he can wait for a more propitious time before making his move. But as the UP elections confirmed, the new political forces that have changed the national map will wait for no one and there is no sense of entitlement left in Indian politics. The time for waiting for Rahul to make up his mind is slowly ending. Either he must make the effort to fill the leadership vacuum in his party or risk being seen as a reluctant politician. As a start, how about becoming the party leader in the Lok Sabha, a post lying vacant with Pranabda's exit?

Disclaimer: Views expressed above are the author's own.

Blogger's Profile

Rajdeep Sardesai

One of India’s most respected journalists, Rajdeep Sardesai, has nearly three decades of journalistic experience in print and tv. He has been the founder- editor of chief of IBN 18 network, which included CNN IBN. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the managing editor of NDTV 24 x 7 and NDTV India. Rajdeep has won more than 100 national and international awards for journalism, including the Padma Shri in 2008. He is currently consulting editor at the India Today group.

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--He has played safe? or he cannot play at all!

- Jagan Kamat, Canada | 18 th July 2012 00:32


Today as a part of IYC National Team i received the following message from Rahul Gandhi;

"Yesterday we finished elections in Andhra Pradesh. I want to congratulate the entire IYC family for delivering elections in the entire country.It is a proud moment for the IYC. We have done something fundamental and done it well.We have achieved what no other political organization in this country has been able to do. Well done. I am feeling very proud of the future generation of congress leaders.

Rahul Gandhi."

As on today IYC has 1,31,62,942 (One Crore Thirty One Lakh Sixty Two Thousand Nine Hundred and Forty Two) actual real members of age group between 18 to 35. Out of which 1,05,66,237 male and 25,96,705 female. IYC as on date has 5,10,918 office bearers, all elected out of which 4,08,786 male and 1,02,132 females. Goa has about 25000 members out of which 10,319 voted in Goa State Youth Congress elections electing 1337 office bearers for 1333 polling booths of both the north goa and south goa lok sabha constituencies.

All these are real people whom you can meet on the National IYC Web site and talk to them. The elections were most free and fair conducted by an independent election agency, a NGO by J M Lingdoh and K J Rao fromer election commissioners of India.

As on today there is no internal democracy in any political party of India except Congress, Left, DMK and MGP. Rest of the political parties including BJP are just dictatorship of some or other caste groups. Rahul Gandhi has changed future of India.

For past 5 years we worked very hard for this. I myself have been to remotest corners of Mizoram, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam, Meghalaya, West Bengal, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, Goa, Maharashtra, Karnataka and Orissa.

We just made one appeal to the people, If you love India raise your hand. We dont ask you what your religion is, what your caste is, whether you are rich or poor, nothing, we just ask you, Do you love India, if yes, join us. And 2 crore youths of India and 20 crore people alongwith them joined us.

Jai Hind

- Shriniwas Khalap, New Delhi | 17 th July 2012 18:48


Mr. Sardessai, do you mortgage your sensibilities before you write about a retard?

- Girish Sardessai, Goa | 15 th July 2012 11:28


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