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After his sabbatical earlier this year, Rahul seems to be revitalized and visible. But that’s not enough as internal party democracy shows no signs of materializing

By Bhavdeep Kang

Meet the new boss. Same as
the old boss.
— from the song Won’t Get Fooled Again by British rock band The Who

Rahul Gandhi: dynast, dilettante politician, cavalier reformer, fuzzy thin-ker, elusive leader, enti- tled brat and confirmed bachelor. Public criticism of the Congress-president-in-waiting has been scathing, fed largely by Congressmen bitterly disappointed with a commander-by-diktat who led them to successive humiliations at the hustings. An epiphanic sabbatical earlier this year appears to have prompted a course correction; Rahul rebooted is palpably more sedulous, active and interactive.

The makeover-in-progress is best under-stood in the light of his perceived shortcomings, insightfully described by historian Rama- chandra Guha in an article earlier this year: “A leader who shirks responsibility, who works erratically in what for everyone else is a 24×7 profession, and who, above all, has a consistent record of failing to win elections and yet refusing to relinquish his post—such a leader does not wish his own party well, still less his country.”

The new Rahul is visible and articulate. He speaks up in and outside parliament, leads the charge against the NDA from the front, pops up in high-visibility zones, declares his empathy with farmers, ensures he’s never absent from the front pages of newspapers for long and (finally) engages with the cyber community through Twitter. A strategy which has at least ensured that the Congress resurfaces in the public consciousness.

The unprecedented burst of stamina is coupled with greater accessibility: partymen find it easier to get appointments with a Rahul who is apparently willing to lend them his ears. “Earlier, he would give you just five minutes. All the while, he would be on his phone, texting and scrolling away. You would get the feeling that he wasn’t interested. Now, he actually seems to listen and respond. He asks questions, promises action, seeks information and even wants you to gather intelligence on the quiet,” says a party office-bearer. Others who have met Rahul recently concur.

In what is perceived as an olive branch to the Congress veterans, their opinion has been sought by means of a written questionnaire on strategy, tactics and issues—charting the way forward, as it were. This is a shift of direction, given Rahul’s propensity for marginalizing the old guard. Sonia’s reluctance to do so is believed to have sent Rahul into self-imposed exile earlier this year.

He first earned their ire when he tore into his own government’s ordinance protecting convicted legislators from
disqualification, demanding that it be “thrown away”. The Congress president is believed to have rapped him on the knuckles, pointing out that in playing to the gallery, he had publicly humiliated UPA prime minister, Manmohan Singh. The ordinance, probably intended to allow Laloo Prasad Yadav, convicted in the fodder scam and a UPA member at the time, a seat in the Lok Sabha, fell flat.
The fact that none of his favored few won their seats (apart from Scindia), while the old guard did, hamstrung Rahul. While he reportedly has faith in Jairam Ramesh, Anand Sharma and CP Joshi and on legal matters consults Kapil Sibal, he has had little use for the rest of Sonia’s Congress.

Rahul preferred to fashion his own team, comprising scions of political families: Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, Jitin Prasada, Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia and Milind Deora, handpicked party office-bearers like Madhusudan Mistry and Mohan Prakash and his personal staff: Mohan Gopal, Kaushal Vidyarthi, Kanishka Singh and Sachin Rao.

Having been bitten more than once, Congressmen are shy of reading too much into the change. The question of whether he will stay the course or vanish abroad on another unexplained sojourn is uppermost. A Congress leader observes: “He is commitment-phobic. He cannot commit to politics, to the party or to marriage”. The mistrust is founded on Rahul’s erratic career over the last decade, marked by flash disappearances at critical junctures like the Uttarakhand floods in 2013 and the Delhi bus rape in 2012. His propensity to take up issues and then abandon them abruptly frustrates party workers. However, a member of his team says: “As a leader, he can only give direction. It is for us to take it forward, so the fault lies with the structure and not with him.”
The trust deficit between Rahul and the grassroots worker is yet to be addressed. “Tickets were handed out and appointments made on the basis of reports by observers sent from Delhi. MLAs, ex-MLAs and district-level office-bearers were not even consulted. It was a purely top-down approach,” explains a PCC secretary. This, he says, sent a clear signal that investing in party workers and building a grassroots base was unimportant; upward mobility could only come through the patronage of Rahul and
his cronies.

Thus, the promised era of internal party democracy shows no signs of materializing. Organizational elections were announced with great fanfare in March this year, but in June, a year’s extension was sought from the Election Commission. The elections will thus be held in late 2016, after the much-anticipated anointment of Rahul as Congress president. An event that may well prove a moment of truth for the Congress old guard.

Rahul is now a man in a hurry, but he has yet to articulate an alternative vision. His understanding of the socio-economic dynamics of rural and peri-urban India is limited, despite forays into Punjab’s grain mandis and Vidarbha’s suicide zone. Juxtaposing the Cong- ress as a “kurta-pyjama” party as opposed to the “suited-booted” BJP, for instance, has little resonance with aspirational rural India.

Party sources admit that it has very little traction in Madhya Pradesh despite the Vyapam scam and only marginally more in post-Lalitgate Rajasthan. The cadre continues to be demoralized and ignored.

In a recent article in The New York Times, Frank Bruni referred to Hillary Clinton as “The Tormentor”. He was describing his dilemma as a committed Democrat who couldn’t vote Republican but didn’t want to vote for Hillary. Congress supporters face the same crisis: they can’t vote BJP but loathe the idea of voting for “Rahul the Tormentor”.

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