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Feudalism comes back with Rahul

Rahul Gandhi’s coronation hints at the return of feudalism to the government’s helm after more than two decades. As the Congress vice-president and number two in the organisation, the uncertainties about his prime ministerial goal have been largely removed. If his party wins in 2014, he may well become India’s second youngest prime minister.

But, any delight within the Congress and satisfaction among the party’s supporters outside cannot but be tempered by the shadow of feudalism which remains the party’s defining trait. True, the Congress shares this characteristic with a number of other parties inside and outside the country. Even then, the fact that a person can be elevated solely on the basis of his lineage is not something which can be applauded, especially when little is known about his social and economic views.

Ironically, the anointment has taken place even as the resolution adopted by the Congress’s chintan shivir or brainstorming camp at Jaipur condemned the role of nepotism in the selection of party candidates. Similarly, the repeated references to Rahul’s initiatives for internal polls in the party’s student and youth wings do not gel with the fact that he himself parachuted down to the top of the political pyramid.

It is another matter that Rahul’s elevation will enthuse large sections of party men to offer a stiffer challenge to the BJP. Besides, the Congress has no other leader with a pan-Indian appeal. In this respect, the Nehru-Gandhi family retains some of the charisma, which drew crowds to see Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and even Rajiv Gandhi from all over the country.

Moreover, Sonia and Rahul Gandhi are far ahead in this respect compared to the leaders of other parties with the exception of Atal Behari Vajpayee, who is no longer active. As of now, Narendra Modi’s popularity has not been tested outside Gujarat. And, even if he attracts a sizeable audience outside his home province, it is likely to comprise saffron cadres and communal-minded upper caste Hindus. There is no question of the Gujarat strongman having an across-the-board appeal cutting across castes and communities, which is enjoyed as much by the Congress’s first family.

Notwithstanding these positive political features, what will be of interest is the impact of Rahul’s ascent on the government’s economic policy. In his thanksgiving speech after being appointed the vice-president, his references to bank nationalisation, the rural employment scheme and the proposed food security bill, among other things, showed a preference for the paternalistic
mai-baap
version of a government, which does not go with the present emphasis on market-oriented policies.

Although Rahul spoke in favour of the Aadhar-based direct cash transfer scheme, and his mother said that unpopular decisions on fuel price hikes have to be taken, it would have been better if they had spoken about the economic reforms in greater detail, especially with regard to land acquisition, which has been held up because of Sonia Gandhi’s objections to the present proposals, or labour reforms or disinvestment, which has been criticised as the sale of the family silver.

The new vice-president’s views on these issues are needed because there are influential sections in the Congress, mainly in Kerala, who are not fully on board in the matter of reforms. As A K Antony told the Surajkund conclave last November, the Congress must remember that it is a party of the
aam admi
, and Vyalar Ravi told the Jaipur meeting that FDI in retail will not help the poor and the tribals.

If Rahul did not shed any light on where he stands in the continuing tussle between the licence-permit-control raj, which is still the norm in the environment ministry, according to the prime minister, and the economic reforms, the reason probably is that the party is yet to fully make up its mind on the subject. But, if Rahul himself is uncertain, then there is cause for concern.

Instead of focussing on such specific issues, he chose to be emotional, admitting that his mother had cried because she believed that power was ‘poison’. He was also frankly outspoken when he said that the party functioned without any rules and that he was surprised that it won any elections at all. However, his candour would have won more plaudits if he had made such an honest appraisal in 2004, when he joined politics, or a few years later, and not when the party had been in power for nine years.

Had he really been so upset about policies being made behind closed doors, should he not have spoken out earlier, especially when he has always been the virtual number two even without the formal designation of a vice-president? The obvious comparisons have been made between Rahul’s speech and his father’s castigation of the power brokers in the Congress on the occasion of the party’s centenary celebrations in 1985.

But, Rajiv Gandhi had then just assumed power and much was expected of the then Mr Clean before the disillusionment of the Bofors scandal in 1987 botched his record. One can only hope that there isn’t a similar crashing of hopes with Rahul. (IPA)
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