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Millennium Post

Falling back on the dynasty

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi has succeeded, as expected, in scuttling the odious ordinance, which would have negated a recent Supreme Court judgment and enabled lawmakers to hold on to their seats despite being sentenced to jail for two years or more. It took the union cabinet mere five minutes to withdraw the ordinance.

Earlier, Gandhi famously barged into a party press conference in Delhi on September 27 and denounced the legislation as ‘nonsense’. He advanced no logical argument against either its content or its motive, which clearly was to shield leaders like Rashtriya Janata Dal chief Lalu Prasad from being jailed, as was then imminent.

Gandhi’s opposition to the ordinance reflected a wider public sentiment. Many conscientious citizens are glad that India is rid of the ordinance. It is indeed appalling that as many as 30 percent of the total of 4,807 MPs and MLAs elected since 2008 have declared in their election affidavits that they face criminal cases. A high 14 percent of them have serious charges like murder against them.
This is bad enough. The ordinance is worse because it shields legally convicted lawmakers, and will encourage further criminalisation of politics. Yet, the imperious manner in which Gandhi voiced his opposition, at a party press forum meant to defend the very measure, will bring him no credit. He could have raised the issue in the party, or quietly intervened to block the ordinance by appealing to the cabinet through a reasoned argument.

Instead, he chose to go public—in virtual defiance of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, whom he has since tried to mollify by calling him his ‘guru’.

Condemning the ordinance wasn’t an impetuous decision, but one calculated to assert and enhance Gandhi’s importance in the Congress by showing that he need not follow the norms and rules that apply to ordinary mortals. He is, after all, a fourth-generation descendant of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty who, many in the Congress believe, is exempt from the normal rules of democratic inner-party debate and accountable decision-making. In essence, this exemption or exclusion of a particular individual parallels the ordinance itself, which also sought to exempt a particular category, lawmakers, from the country’s criminal laws. This takes some of the shine away from the virtue that Gandhi can claim by having acted in the right cause.

By setting himself up as the ‘insider-outsider’ of the Congress—i.e., both as the inheritor of its leadership legacy, and as a dissident or critic of the party and its government—Gandhi risks being seen either as downright irresponsible, or as unwilling to do what it takes to lead the Congress even while assuming a leadership role in it and declaring, as he did, that India’s next government will be a ‘government of the youth’.

Earlier, when Gandhi was a newcomer, his ‘insider-outsider’ stance was an asset. He earned goodwill from being seen as the exceptional leader who would identify with the peasants of Bhatta-Parsaul in Greater Noida struggling against the loss of their land to highway construction, or empathise with Dalits by staying in their hovels and sharing their food-something few Congressmen would deign to do.

Now, the ‘insider-outsider’ image is becoming a liability. Gandhi is seen as arrogant and reckless. At the Jaipur Congress session this past January, where he was promoted as party vice president, he said, quoting his mother, that ‘power, which so many people seek, is actually poison’. But he shows no signs that he doesn’t enjoy the poison.

Gandhi has also earned discredit for his gaffes and extravagant claims about his family’s accomplishments. During the 2007 Assembly election campaign in Uttar Pradesh, he claimed the Babri Masjid wouldn’t have been demolished had his family been in power. But this ignores the political circumstances and power balances which define that specific context. Although the Bharatiya Janata Party cynically exploited these, these were partly of the Congress’ making.
 Even worse, he spoke of the division of Pakistan in 1971 as a great deed accomplished by his family. True, Indira Gandhi handled the chain of events leading to the birth of Bangladesh in a masterly way. But it’s wrong to present it as a family accomplishment and celebrate it chauvinistically as the dismemberment of Pakistan rather than as the victory of a valiant liberation struggle.

More important, Gandhi hasn’t lived up to the promise of revitalising the Congress through the ill-chosen instrument of the (largely discredited) Youth Congress. He decided to rebuild the Youth Congress by inducting fresh blood on the basis of democratic internal elections. These were all rigged, and returned the sons and daughters of established Congress leaders, defeating their purpose.

Four years ago, Gandhi said: ‘The hierarchical [dynastic] system exists [in the Congress]. It is a reality. But what is the option before me? I can either propagate the system or change it. I am not the one to propagate it so I am trying to change it…. We have to work together to change it.’ But the ‘hierarchical system’ continues unchanged both in the Youth Congress and the parent party.
Similarly, Gandhi crafted the strategy for the party during the last Assembly elections in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But the Congress’s performance in these, particularly in Bihar, was indifferent. He hasn’t shown much grasp of or aptitude for national-level coalition-building, which holds the key to the coming Lok Sabha elections. Illusions aside, the Congress is unlikely to win these on its own. After the ordinance episode, it is apparent that Gandhi lacks the maturity, gumption or astuteness needed to become a game changer in national politics. Nor, going by his own statements, is he ready or willing to play that role or become the Congress’s Prime Ministerial candidate-unless he whimsically changes his mind.

Deplorable as the Congress’s obsession is with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, and obnoxious as is its sycophancy towards its heirs, there is a ‘rational’ core of self-interest in it. To put it bluntly, Congressmen value the dynasty primarily because and insofar as it can win them elections, as Indira and Rajiv Gandhi did until the 1980s, and Sonia Gandhi has done since 2004.

 Rahul Gandhi hasn’t passed that test, and he seems extremely reluctant even to take it. So it   would be ill-advised for the Congress to force it on him in the belief that he can somehow save it from defeat. In any case, it should stop looking for saviours in individual leaders like him.

What the Congress badly needs is a progressive social and political vision, a good pro-people programme, and new strategies of political mobilisation, broad social-group coalitions and alliance-building targeted at secular parties. Sadly, these are its weak points.

The Congress can no longer put together the traditional winning social coalition (the upper castes+Dalits+Muslims), which allowed it to take 40 percent-plus in the distant past. But it can better its 2009 score of 29 percent.
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