A little more than three years ago, I met Rahul Gandhi at an invited press gathering in Mumbai, where I was editing a newspaper.
He had film star good looks, a down-to-earth personality and an appearance of candour. While others asked the usual political questions, I only asked him why he was not getting married. And he said, perhaps, in a lighter vein, he was against propagating his dynasty.
No matter, by December 5, Rahul Gandhi is all set to become one of the youngest ever presidents of India’s Congress party. That just means the hoariest (131 years old) political party of the country just grew young and, dynasty or no dynasty, is up for the challenges of the 2019 general elections.
Though born in India’s most historically and politically powerful families, Rahul has been a reluctant leader. He has been the party’s vice-president since 2013. But his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi — to my mind one of the most gracious and bravest political leaders of India — who was almost just as reluctant to assume the party’s leadership mantle, has been holding the fraying factions together. Memorably, too, Sonia turned down the offer of prime ministership twice in the wake of her husband Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination. Reluctance runs in the family, perhaps.
That legacy of reluctance, however, has now been officially offloaded as far as Rahul is concerned. In the last few months, a new Rahul seems to have emerged from under the intimidating shadows of the Nehru family figures. He is no longer the outsider gazing in. It seems to have dawned upon him that he can’t shirk his destiny anymore: He must lead the Congress from upfront, win or lose the 2019 elections.
On Monday, the Congress Working Committee decided that Rahul’s presidency might help the party win the all-important Gujarat assembly elections scheduled to be held in two phases on December 9 and 14. But this seems just a timely excuse for Rahul’s supporters within the Congress party to force the moment to its crisis. The party has been for some time now caught in a cleft: The powerful old guard digging into the sympathies of Sonia, and the aspirations and hopes of a younger set of leaders and cadres resting on Rahul, who, on the face of it, swears by inner-party democracy and a reward system for merit.
No matter how democratic or infinitely more sophisticated Rahul sounds in comparison to the BJP leaders — including Prime Minister Narendra Modi — the 47-year-old has his task cut out. The chances are that the Gujarat state elections are going to be a touch-and-go affair. To shore himself up as a safe bet for the Congress and then hem the tide of the Bharatiya Janata Party-sponsored trolls, all he has to do is to give a good account of himself in the state.
The Congress is now in power only in six states in India. If Rahul wins the elections for his party in Gujarat, there would be no stopping him. But, if sources are to be believed, the BJP president, the formidable Amit Shah, is pouring money into the polls.
And, after demonetisation, the Congress party is a cash-strapped machinery. The ever-frightened corporates and business tycoons are hedging their bets. So, all in all, the chances are that the BJP will win.
But Rahul would know from this ordeal by fire what he is really up against if he is hoping to give a serious shot at prime ministership in 2019. It could be sooner, too. If the BJP wins the election in style, Modi is likely to call for early general elections.
All of it essentially boils down to the fact that Rahul is assuming leadership of an already emasculated party at a distressingly critical time. It’s not just party politics at stake. At no time in independent India has there been such socially and culturally divisive forces at work. While the BJP has proven to be far superior to the Congress in organisational terms, it has also shown that the Partition of India could be continued by other means. If the BJP wins the next general elections, it would be seen as an endorsement of its brand of politics. The Indian media, already in a state of cautious silence, would deteriorate into the status of praise mongers. The business community, always diplomatic, would crawl. Indeed, what’s at stake is India’s very character.
Much then rests on Rahul’s shoulders. From the look of it, he has changed. He is more approachable, light-hearted, and open to criticism. Unlike Modi, he is not thin-skinned. And, most, important, he comes across as a warm human being who is keen to usher in a civil and compassionate India. His social media presence has undergone a sea change for the better. And he is still young. Unless Rahul does something truly stupid, like presenting himself at the TV studio across someone like Arnab Goswamy at the other end of the table, as he once did, the Congress is set to see changes in its fortunes. The BJP, too.
C.P. Surendran is a journalist based in India.