Will he? Won’t he? Once, that million-dollar question used to be aimed at Prince Charles, heir-in-waiting to the British throne for the last 65 years. But with many more heirs now in line for what is largely a titular position, the old question has become largely academic. The more crucial question that begs an answer concerns India’s erstwhile ‘first family’, the Gandhis. What the nation really wants to know is when the 46-year-old Rahul Gandhi will formally take over the reins of the 132-year-old Congress party from his ailing mother Sonia.
Rahul’s uninformed spin doctors try and routinely spoon-feed the media with some titbits about his imminent coronation. But seeing is believing, and with the young Gandhi more conspicuous by his absence than his accomplishments, it’s difficult to take those pronouncements seriously. Because, truth be told, neither the active nor inactive members of the country’s second-largest political party know when they will get a fully functional chief. Only the occupants of 10, Janpath are privy to that secret.
It’s been seven years since the Congress last held formal elections to choose office-bearers at the central and state levels. Sonia took over as AICC president in 1998 after unceremoniously booting out Sita Ram Kesari in a mid-day coup. She was re-elected in 2001 and 2005. She became party president for the fourth time in 2010, and has remained boss since. Fresh elections were due in 2015, but didn’t happen. Last week, the Election Commission served the Congress a final warning to hold organisational elections by July 15, 2017, or face the possibility of losing recognition.
Since the Congress has survived under a Gandhi banner for over four decades, this is perhaps the last opportunity for the family to prove its political utility and acceptability. Many fair-weather leaders are already hopping off the sinking ship, and the family is under tremendous pressure to stop the party spinning out of its control. Survival lies in forcing Rahul to pull it out of the dangerously choppy sea. But the question being asked by both old and new Congress leaders and elitist opinion makers is this: Forget capturing power from the Mighty Modi within the next decade, can a Gandhi (Rahul) even drum up a credible opposition to him?
Sonia pushed Rahul into politics and asked him to contest Lok Sabha elections in 2004. He has won from Amethi thrice since then. But the inheritor-in-waiting still needs to erase the public impression of him as a part-time, reluctant leader who performs more vanishing acts than Houdini. As the target of a powerful section of the ‘liberal and secular’ media who hold him responsible for the rise of Hindutva and its icons in India, Rahul also needs to prove that the Congress is not an ideology whose time has gone but, instead, an idea that can never die.
Rahul was appointed party vice-president in 2013 so that he could lead the party during the 2014 Lok Sabha elections and eventually replace his ailing mother. He was billed as the youngest challenger to Narendra Modi’s bid for power, but the truth is his road shows and rallies delivered fewer seats than the public meetings that he addressed with his mother.
And that could be one of the reasons for delaying the transition from one Gandhi to another. If Sonia could be credited for bringing Congress back into power twice, Rahul has been held responsible for the party’s plummeting acceptability in various parts of the country. During the past decade, the Congress has shrunk from controlling two-thirds of the country to less than one-fourth. Even if Rahul does take charge of the organisation, it is going to be a daunting task to put life into an outfit that’s gasping for breath.
Consider, for one, the average age of the party office-bearers and other functionaries. They could be competing with the Congress itself. Rahul is the only office-bearer who is under 50. And he’s expected to work with a team that’s almost double his age. The average age of the 35-member Congress Working Committee, including special invitees, is 73. While 23 (over 50 per cent) are above 70, eight are between the age of 60 and 70. The average age of the six Congress chief Ministers is 72-plus. It is the vice-like group of this generation that prevents GenNext from taking an active part in running the party affairs.
The old brigade’s loyalty to Sonia wins them her protection but the truth is they aren’t capable of winning any election or ensuring the party’s victory even in their own states.
At the moment the Congress without a Gandhi is a film without a macho hero. To win at the box office, it has to reinvent and repackage Rahul as a hero who can attract and retain audiences. For that, the young man needs to create his own Congress, much as his grandmother and uncle Sanjay Gandhi did in the early ’70s, and his father did in the ’80s. Most of the infirmities affecting the Congress today stem from the fact that Sonia didn’t create her own Congress, one that would work with her for the success of the dynastic succession.
In India, elections are won if a party has the lethal combination of an appealing Neta (leader) and Nara (slogan). At the moment, the Congress has neither. Instead, it’s like an Ambassador car that had to be put to sleep because it couldn’t reconstruct its contours or engine to keep up with the competition. Rahul needs to redesign his vehicle of growth and to rebuild it with his team, from the chassis up. But, first, he needs to replace his ‘Just Visiting’ hat with an ‘On Duty’ one.