Grand Old Party's Brand New Prince

By Ashwin Tombat
01 January 2018 11:55 IST

Rahul Gandhi formally took over as President of the Congress party on Saturday. His mother Sonia has led the country's oldest party for 19 years. She announced on Friday that she would 'retire', but the party quickly clarified that she is retiring only from the post of party chief, and not from politics.

This means 47-year-old Rahul Gandhi — who has been party Vice President for over four years since 2013 — formally takes the reins of India's Grand Old Party just two days before the counting of votes for the Gujarat and Himachal assembly elections.

Exit polls say the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will sweep Himachal and win Gujarat for the sixth consecutive time. But exit polls have gone wrong, sometimes completely wrong.

If the BJP does win again, even with a reduced tally of around 110 out of a total of 182 seats, it will be only because of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Mr Modi’s speeches derided the Congress as an “anti-Gujarat” party, and depicted the Nehru-Gandhi family as an enemy of Gujaratis. 

He also calculatedly incited anti-Muslim and anti-Pakistan sentiments by concocting a condemnable fairytale about former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and former Vice President Hamid Ansari entering into a "conspiracy" with Pakistan's High Commissioner to India to topple the BJP in the Gujarat election. This story was patently false, but was delivered in Goebbelsian style to polarise the electorate on religious lines.

The BJP has a strong statewide organisational structure in Gujarat. It has a tightly-functioning committee at the booth level, and dedicated grassroots cadres that are well-connected with the voters. The machinery of the Congress falls woefully short; slogans or ideas, however attractive and powerful, cannot transport voters to the polling stations.

But throughout the Gujarat campaign, Rahul has seemed confident and articulate. His youth is now an asset, and his obvious new hard-working persona is coming across to the voters. He punctured the BJP’s claim to be the sole guardian of Hindu culture by his temple visits, but did not let this undercut the Congress party’s essential commitment to secularism. His humility and simplicity has impressed large sections of the Gujarati public. Modi may retain Gujarat, but Rahul has won over very many of his former critics.

As in nature, change is the only constant in politics. Newton’s law — what goes up must come down — applies in electoral democracy. No party or dynasty can remain all-powerful all the time.

Gujarat will mark the end of the BJP's dream of a 'Congress-mukt Bharat'.

India today is looking for an alternative. Even when no clear alternative is in sight, people’s desire for change creates its own alternative.

How many of us believed that Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s government would taste defeat in the Lok Sabha elections in 2004? To a Congress led by Sonia Gandhi; a 'foreigner' who spoke broken Hindi with a European accent, and awkwardly read out her speeches in halting prose...?

When the people want change, even a 'Pappu' can start to look like a 'Pehelwan'.

India is looking for an alternative to Narendra Modi’s government. The Congress, whether under the leadership of Rahul Gandhi or anyone else, can and will pose a challenge to the ruling party. Former BJP ideologue Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was Atal Bihari Vajpayee's speech writer, has predicted that it may do so in 2019 itself. Or, if not, almost certainly in 2024, Rahul Gandhi has a chance to be India’s next Prime Minister.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government are failing to meet people’s high expectations. ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ has almost completely failed to materialise, even though Mr Modi’s personal popularity remains high.

The economic slowdown from Demonetisation and GST is hurting common people. Growing unemployment has alienated the young. Neglect of Agriculture has angered the farmers. This has  increased inequality, giving short shrift to 'Sabka Vikas'.

The constant abandonment of the Development plank to consolidate the Hindu votebank by pursuing a ‘Hindutva’ agenda has made a mockery of ‘Sabka Saath’. As Kulkarni has pointed out, many who supported the BJP now feel that the central government is more ‘prachar’ than performance.

The Congress has its own problems. Rahul’s efforts as Vice President to re-build the organisation bottom-up have failed so far. The party is still dominated by old, tired and corrupt leaders.

This is both a challenge and an opportunity for Rahul Gandhi. Will he promote new talent that can bring new ideas, new vision and a new credibility to the Congress party?

If he can, India is waiting for him. If not, it's the dustbin of history.

First published on Sunday 17 December 2017

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

Blogger's Profile

Ashwin Tombat

Ashwin Tombat has been the Editor of Gomantak Times and Herald. Worked as an Associate Editor of national magazine Gentleman in Mumbai, before shifting to Goa. Loves sailing, also participates in Marathons. Has worked as an activist in students's union and trade unions in Maharashtra. Also an artist of Street Theatre during student days.

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