Congress leader Rahul Gandhi continues to be an unconventional politician and his address on the motion of thanks on 2 February 2022 in the Lok Sabha bears testimony of it.
Parliamentary forum for any opposition is a great opportunity to bite and demolish the government. Legendary opposition leaders such as Hiren Mukherjee, Bhupesh Gupta, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, SM Banerjee, Madhu Limaye, Madhu Dandvate, Chandrashekhar, among others, excelled in pushing prime ministers Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira and Rajiv Gandhi by raising politically relevant issues.
Rahul, instead, chose a much broader canvas instead of focusing his oratory skills on the upcoming Assembly polls of Uttar Pradesh, Uttrakhand, Punjab, Goa and Manipur. It is an open secret that Rahul’s political authority, within the Congress and outside, is undervalued due to electoral failures. A Congress victory in Punjab and Uttrakhand is crucial for the Gandhi trio — Sonia, Priyanka and Rahul.
The theoretically sound premise of two Indias, India being union of states and Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s alleged diplomatic failures resulting from the consolidation of China-Pakistan nexus, Pegasus snooping, etc, achieved Rahul’s objective of showcasing these issues close to his heart. But electoral terms, many inside the Congress believe, failed to enhance vote share in any poll-bound state. The next day newspaper headlines gave ample proof. Rahul’s remarks relating to railway agitation, jobs, unemployment, secularism, etc, were relegated while comments on China-Pakistan, two Indias and the country being truly federal instead of being governed by a unitary system formed part of the discourse which BJP ministers accentuated to a hilt and some may argue, to their advantage.
The unconventional nature of Rahul’s political instincts failed to see that the Indian voter, historically and temperamentally, does not like to go against the ruling establishment on matters of foreign policy and national security.
Be it the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, 1965 India-Pakistan war or Kargil conflict of 1999, some lapses on the part of the government of the day were largely ignored by the voter, in every subsequent election. There was no pronounced anti-government verdict.
China is Congress’ Achilles’ heels. Any mention of China has the potential to bring back memories of the 1962 debacle. The MP from Wayanad would have been better advised to focus on the 1971 war and state how grandmother Indira Gandhi managed to break Pakistan into two in spite of China’s undeclared support for Pakistan.
Pegasus spying is certainly close to Rahul’s heart. But the sensitive issue has not found much traction among the masses. There is also a counterargument that very few, otherwise agitated over spying, have deposed before a Supreme Court-monitored panel on Pegasus. In fact, most aggrieved individuals have not submitted their mobile phones for scrutiny or in the assistance of the probe.
I have argued in several pieces how Rahul does not fancy himself as a power wielder but as a trustee of power, much like his mother, Sonia. However, unlike Sonia, he expects most of his party colleagues to shun the trappings of power and offices. This expectation has resulted in a naught and exodus of some of his closest associates to other political parties, particularly the ideologically opposed BJP. Rahul has either not understood or unwilling to understand that political loyalties are highly transactional.
Pragmatism is in short supply in the present-day Congress.
Rahul, who served as 87th president of the AICC between December 2017 to May 2019, is unable to make up his mind on the party leadership issue, the need to present a face in state Assembly polls or any back-to-basics approach to revive the grand old party. The Congress constitution stipulates that AICC sessions are held every six months or at least once in a year. But the last AICC session held was way back in March 2018. The talking points articulated by Rahul inside and outside Parliament do not have a bottom-to-top approach. There is no internal debate or discussion, allowing the disgruntled party leaders to take extreme positions and often plot defections. Overall, the average Congressperson is happy to be unhappy.
Rahul’s economic and political thinking seems deeply influenced by the Left-of-centre, often colouring his political judgement and putting party leaders at odds with him. In 2010, Rahul had spoken to the Cambridge campus paper Varsity describing himself as an “economist”. Interviewers Merrow Golden and Ashleigh Lamming were quoted by Rahul’s biographer Aarthi Ramachandran as saying, “He [Rahul] tended to talk about things using economic language; he talked about affirmative action as being a problem of ‘supply and demand’, and… talked about teachers no longer having a ‘monopoly’ over information, but being one of the many sources of it.” During the interview, Rahul, who has done M.Phil in developmental economics, said that he disagreed with a lot of what he was taught at Cambridge. “I am a lot less Left-wing now than I was, for one thing.”
Rahul’s Left leanings have also been often attributed to his close advisors, some hailing from JNU and having AISA-Left background. But the impracticality of his vision is evident from the CPM’s recent statement, actually a draft resolution for the forthcoming 23rd Party Congress at Kannur in Kerala in April. About Rahul-led Congress, the CPM’s structural response observes, “The political influence and organisational strength of Congress has been declining and the ‘weakened’ party is unable to rally all the secular opposition parties.”
Significantly, the draft resolution released by CPM general secretary Sitaram Yechury also stated that the Congress is facing a series of crises with defections of several leaders to the BJP in various states. About secularism, Yechury read out from the resolution saying, “While it proclaims secularism, it is unable to effectively mount an ideological challenge to Hindutva forces and often adopts a compromising approach. A weakened Congress is unable to rally all the secular opposition parties.”
In the context of 2024 parliamentary polls, the CPM’s inability to back the Congress to the hilt is an indication how many non-NDA parties, particularly AAP and TMC, would act post-10 March 2022. The division among opposition ranks and Rahul’s utopian politics is acting as the best insurance policy for the ruling BJP-NDA.
The author is Visiting Fellow at Observer Research Foundation. A political analyst, he has written four books, including ‘24 Akbar Road’ and ‘Sonia: A Biography’. Views expressed are personal.