Way ahead for Rahul

The Congress will not regain its heritage or win back confidence so long as it is content with the shoddy PR gimmicks of opportunistic courtiers

Since William Pitt was only 24 when he became Britain’s Prime Minister, I can’t get all excited about a bunch of middle-aged politicians masquerading as the Congress Party’s youth brigade. In any case, the challenge Rahul Gandhi faces as the new vice-president of the Congress has nothing to do with age.

He must find a way of reconciling the octogenarian Prime Minister’s pragmatism with the populism that the 66-year-old party president apparently represents.
If reports be true, the Indo-American nuclear agreement highlighted the divide. Manmohan Singh made no secret of his conviction that there was no way India could meet future energy needs without generating nuclear power with US cooperation. Reports had it that Sonia Gandhi hesitated not because she had any doubts about his logic but because as a tactician, she had doubts about the political fall-out of closer ties with George W. Bush.
It wasn’t age but perception and priorities that accounted for the division. What Mrs Gandhi called “the tools of the modern world — television, social media, mobile phones and the Internet” at the Jaipur Chintan Shivir are not necessarily the prerogative of any age group. Her mother-in-law once told me that Kamalapati Tripathi (“Panditji” she called him) was a “modern man”. Seeing my scepticism, Indira Gandhi added, “Don’t be taken in by all that” — and she gestured across her forehead to indicate Tripathi’s sandalwood paste caste or puja marks — “he has a modern mind inside!” Whether he did or not I don’t know, but it’s modern thinking India needs.
Though well meant, the talk at Jaipur about bringing dalits, tribals and the Other Backward Classes into the fold could be counter-productive. Mr Gandhi was rightly dismayed by the few representatives present of these underprivileged groups. But he must go beyond counting heads (which, by the way, admirably demonstrated courage and candour) to ask why this is so. The reason established, he must look for lasting answers. If he leaves it to his lieutenants, they will only send out their agents to bribe or bully recruits. The Congress would not have lost state after state if its leaders hadn’t mistaken rent-a-crowd attendance for the mass following of yore.
The argument against the nuclear treaty was that it might alienate Muslims. That was also probably the rationale for keeping Israel at arm’s length for many decades. Both turned out to be fallacies. Muslims may have abandoned the Congress but not because of the US or Israel.
India is a land of minorities. The ruling party is always upheld by a coalition of groups. They supported the Congress because it represented the finest in the Indo-British tradition of liberal thinking, secular unity and responsible statecraft. Other parties represented particular lobbies. The Congress alone rose above narrow loyalties of religion, language or caste and was thus able to inspire the trust of all communities.
This goes beyond slogans. Indira Gandhi’s “Garibi Hatao” served a purpose as a rallying cry. Her daughter-in-law’s “Congress ka haath, garib ke saath” sank without a trace because it was recognised as a catchy ad man’s coinage. Jairam Ramesh’s complaint against mining was another superficial attempt to pander to the gallery. The Congress will not regain its heritage or win back confidence so long as it is content with the shoddy PR gimmicks of opportunistic courtiers.
Mr Gandhi doesn’t mouth empty platitudes. But it’s tough for someone with no experience of conducting an election or working in government to convince voters that programmes that seem immediately to threaten jobs will ultimately benefit everyone. Not that he is without assets. He likes saying — and there is no reason for disbelief — that he is not judgmental, he is flexible, and his opinions are based on what works, not dogma. He has an invaluable aide in Kanishka Singh who gave up Wall Street banking to be at his side. He also has the benefit of the sagacious Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s advice.
The Singaporean statesman long ago warned Mr Gandhi not to let people force him into high office too soon. “If he is wise, he should not take the lead position until he is fully equipped to understand all parts of the complex and very intricate whole of India,” Mr Lee told me when I was researching my book, Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India. “Because his drawing power is very big and can vanish in one term at the helm, he should not take over until he has had enough experience to understand how it all works, and surrounds himself by very able people to run it until then.”
Speaking in another context, Mr Lee highlighted the enormity of Mr Gandhi’s task. The Singaporean had begun by admiring P.V. Narasimha Rao whom he compared with China’s Deng Xiaoping. But disillusionment followed. He gathered from Dr Singh that Narasimha Rao was curbing his free market programme because of political reasons. Mr Lee also accused Narasimha Rao of not standing up to voters in the 1996 election and defending liberalisation by saying, “This is going to make you a better India, you will have a better life.” He said nothing at all about reforms.
Narasimha Rao brushed it aside when I sought his response. “One doesn’t talk about things like that in elections,” he said, meaning it doesn’t attract votes.
That must change now. Instead of allowing his flunkeys to denounce mining because it allegedly displaces tribals and compounds poverty, Mr Gandhi must explain how, properly managed, mining generates wealth that can enrich the entire country. Having done so, he must weed out the vested elements that maximise their own profits at the expense of the rest of the community. It won’t be an easy task. Good luck to him.

The writer is a senior journalist, columnist and author

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