When he raises his voice, they say he should be measured in his tone. Should he be soft-spoken, the critics are quick to say that he is meek and must be aggressive. When the young are inducted into the Congress, he is advised not to ignore the old and when the old are retained, then the young are not being allowed to grow, he’s told. Any attempt by him to partner with like-minded political parties is seen as a bad move – either its an “unholy alliance” or perceived as yielding ground and reducing the Congress to playing second fiddle to regional forces. Yet, had he not taken the initiative in that direction, he would have been held guilty of failing to comprehend the nuances of coalition politics. Being Rahul Gandhi is to realise that for a small army of strident critics he will always be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t.
This army of fault detectors include detractors within the Congress, journalists, right-wing thinkers, so-called secular intellectuals who attack him and reserve praise for his mother Sonia Gandhi and a sundry assortment of armchair pundits who subscribe to the ‘Rahul can never get it right’ school of thought. Ever since he entered politics in 2004, their constant refrain has been that the junior Gandhi is a mere dynast and does not have it in him to take over the reins from his mother because he is immature, naïve and fails to understand the complexities of Indian politics and caste equations. In their eyes, he was and is the perpetual “Pappu” (dumb kid) who will never pass the test.
Prepared to yield space in Karnataka
Even when the Congress managed to outsmart the BJP in Karnataka at the post-poll alliance game earlier this month, very little credit accrued to Rahul. From what one learns about the inner workings of the Congress, Karnataka may have gone the BJP way had the party president not pushed for swift action. In fact, one learns that Rahul had even chartered out possible emerging scenarios before the results came in and had worked out the modalities of tying up with the JD(S). He was prepared.
Several Congressmen admit in private that the very idea of conceding space (to JD(S) in Karnataka) would have been unthinkable in a pre-Rahul Congress. It would‘ve been seen as yielding too much ground when the party ought to be the senior partner, given it had 78 seats to JD(S)’s 37
He recognised that keeping the BJP out could mean yielding space to Deve Gowda and Kumaraswamy — perhaps even allowing the latter to head the government in Karnataka. It would also involve quickly rebuilding bridges with the JD(S) after a bitter election campaign in which the two parties were veritable enemies. But Rahul, in consultation with senior leaders, was quick to come to terms with the fact that it would pay the Congress in the long run to be accommodative, conciliatory and prove that it respects smaller, regional parties rather than throw it all away through tough bargaining in the name of being a larger and older party.
Of course, he did not rush to Bengaluru to have tea with Deve Gowda — that certainly would have been presumptuous on the part of the young man. Instead, he wisely chose two senior leaders, Ashok Gehlot and Ghulam Nabi Azad, to negotiate with the 85-year-old JD(S) patriarch. More crucially, he involved local Congress leaders at every stage of the negotiations so that it would not be seen as the party high command imposing its will on the state leadership. Sonia Gandhi also chipped in by calling Deve Gowda. But it was Rahul who directed the Karnataka post-poll drama. He was not missing in action as his critics allege.
In fact, several Congressmen admit in private that the very idea of conceding space would have been unthinkable in a pre-Rahul Congress. It would have been seen as yielding too much ground when the party ought to be the senior partner, given that it had 78 seats to JD(S)’s 37. But Rahul knew that the party had two options — to dilly dally, hold countless meetings and squander the opportunity or prove that it was ready to make sacrifices in seizing the secular space. That the party chose the latter option goes to his credit.
Quantum leap in party strategy
Indeed, through that single act, the Congress has suddenly become better integrated with the larger Opposition. It is no longer a party fighting its own battle — though sharing an anti-BJP vision — but one that is sincere about working with other like-minded parties to achieve a common objective. This is a quantum leap as far as Congress strategies go and makes the party that much more relevant and acceptable in 2019.
Those critical of this new line of thinking point out that it may have strengthened the Opposition but has also weakened the Congress. But any reinvention of the Congress after the 2014 debacle would mean thinking out-of-the-box and recognising that the party can rebuild only if it is part of the formation that has the chance to counter the BJP in 2019. And being part of a unified and strong Opposition will only benefit and strengthen the Congress. It cannot possibly fight the Saffron forces on its own.
In this context, the major Opposition leaders being invited to HD Kumaraswamy’s swearing-in, in Bengaluru is symbolic. It is as much a victory for the Congress as it is for the Opposition. Come to think of it, it could well have been a show of strength for the NDA and Narendra Modi-Amit Shah if the Grand Old Party had not pulled out all stops to swiftly seal the deal with the JD(S). In that sense, Pappu did certainly pass the test. It is now for his critics to acknowledge this fact.
Will 2019 be a redux of 2004 for Congress
For those who have been reporting on Congress politics since the 1990s, there is a sense of déjà vu in the trivialising of Rahul Gandhi. When his mother, Sonia, reluctantly entered politics in 1997 she was also pilloried by the media for being tactless. It took her seven years to prove herself. And that recognition came when the Congress-led coalition won the 2004 elections belying all poll predictions.
Until then, Sonia was lampooned for her style of speaking, her foreign origin and inability to gauge the pulse of the people. It was reiterated that she did not understand economics, concerns of the rural poor, caste dynamics or coalition dharma. Sonia was supposedly naïve, clueless and no challenge for Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s oratorial abilities and the BJP’s electoral management skills. The pundits had virtually written her off. To them she was presiding over a party waiting to implode.
Rahul too has had more than his fair share of criticism. His detractors have alleged that he lacks the skills required for someone heading a national party like the Congress. Hopefully, Karnataka will change perceptions and the critics in Delhi will credit him with better political acumen. Perhaps, Rahul, like his mother before him, should take criticism with a pinch of salt. He simply has to prove himself and what better way to do that than by ensuring that 2019 becomes the new 2004 for his party.