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Stirring of soul not enough

The day after the Chintan Shivir concluded at Jaipur, Lutyens’ Delhi in bright sunshine looked Rahulmay (wrapped in Rahul mania) with huge hoardings at all the major roundabouts carrying congratulatory notes for the ‘leader of the future’.

Congress leaders in their interaction beamed bright, rejuvenated at having found a leader who could lead the party at the next Lok Sabha polls. For them the ‘game-changer’ had arrived. Newspapers and news channels too looked completely soaked with the piece enacted by the Gandhi scion at the stage of the Birla auditorium. Even a daily owned by a very vociferous BJP member of parliament could not help but say, ‘Rahul arrives centrestage’. The anointment of Rahul Gandhi as party vice-president even for this paper took precedence over BJP leader Sushma Swaraj rapping Home Minister Sushil Kumar Shinde for making the ‘Hindu terror’ remark.

Those who admire the Congress party and those who are critical of it will have to take the call whether the Jaipur event was indeed a piece well-enacted to mesmerise media and television audience through it or it was more than a media event, a milestone in the political history of the country. The Jaipur conclave will have to be examined from both the perspectives.

First the positives. As even the sworn critics of India’s oldest political party would concede that it was successful on at least one count – ability to reiterate and retain cohesiveness of leadership. Whether the congregation of Congress leaders, young and old, powerful and powerless was able to give the party a new direction would remain a matter of debate but there isn’t denying the fact that the Nehru-Gandhi family continues to mesmerise the nation’s not only the oldest but also the largest political outfit.

The Indian National Congress, despite the shrinkage in its influence over the years, is the only political party with an organisational presence in every state and union territory of the country. Therefore it was no small achievement that the prime minister, his ministerial colleagues, powerful satraps like the chief ministers of the states where Congress is in power, their cabinet colleagues, members of parliament, members of state legislature and other influential party leaders decided to work in near anonymity for three days. Whether this was in awe or for the love of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, either way it vouches for the control the family enjoys over the party, a fact much resented by their political rivals and detractors.

The second achievement being pointed out is that Rahul Gandhi with his charismatic speech succeeded in rejuvenating the party cadres. This is something which would have to stand the test of time. Rahul Gandhi on earlier occasions also has given ‘soul stirring’ speech but not followed it up with action on ground. His tendency to go into a shell after creating the ‘stir’ has been the biggest weakness of his leadership style.

Though the Congress leaders may find this completely unpalatable but Rahul Gandhi would repeatedly be compared with his mother’s charisma and style. Encomiums which followed Gandhi’s ‘soul-stirring’ speech at Jaipur compared him to father Rajiv and grandmother Indira, both assassinated leading the Congress party. Sonia Gandhi kept her distance from the party, which adores her family, and entered the fray only to revive the tottering monolith, which she has done so very effectively.  The fear of losing in what the media dubbed as the Rahul versus Modi battle, kept the Congress scion away from the Gujarat assembly polls. Loss in polls doesn’t always wither away a leader. The Sonia Gandhi-led Congress too faced several drubbings in the state polls in the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. However, she did not evade the challenge and continued in an aggressive mode, leading the party to victory unseating a very confident NDA at the Centre. She still is the best bet for her party given her ability to connect with people and ‘act in public interest’ at the right time.

Rahul Gandhi has somehow failed to imbibe these qualities of leadership from his mother. His absence from the national Capital during the protests against the gang rape-cum-murder case showed his inability to gauge opportunity to connect with the people, something which has been ingrained in his family lineage. The Congress vice-president has the daunting task at hand to overcome the ‘escapist’ image which has stuck to him for some time now. May be he wanted to project himself as somebody reluctant to acquire power but it has given the impression of escaping from responsibility. His style of springing Bhatta-Parsaul like surprise is somewhat similar to the ‘guerilla games’ which Arvind Kejriwal’s party plays.

He is not in fray as leader of a T20 outfit but future of the party which has given the country its independence and governance in post-colonial era. The party which anointed him at Jaipur also released a declaration at the same conclave, which underlined its roadmap for the 2014 polls. It sought forging of alliance with secular and progressive forces; wooing back urban middle class and pitch performance of the UPA government as its strong point; mass contact programmes for people’s feedback and the promise to create one crore jobs every year.

To implement Jaipur Declaration, Gandhi will have to change his role from being Devil’s Advocate to party’s star defender. He can no more afford to just whine about things not being done. As the leader of the party he has to see that the agenda is implemented and take responsibility if he fails.

Sidharth Mishra is with Centre for Reforms, Development & Justice, and is  consulting editor, Millennium Post

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