Rahul Revivalism

Despite a rousing reception for its new vice president, the Congress party's message remains vague to voters

Though his political sympathies are frequently pro-poor, Rahul Gandhi remains non-committal on key issues in public. NOAH SEELAM / AFP / GETTY IMAGES
01 March, 2013

THE ELEVATION OF RAHUL GANDHI as the vice president of the Congress party dominated the three-day All India Congress Committee (AICC) meeting in Jaipur this January, called to “brainstorm on grave issues confronting the nation and the party and to come up with solutions”. With this, he formally assumes a position that has been his for the asking since he joined his mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi, in electoral politics in 2004.

Whether he can turn around the fortunes of his party in the same way that Sonia Gandhi did, with the adoption of a left-of-centre orientation and her capacity to form strategic alliances, is a matter of some doubt. His elevation will not end the endless speculation about his views on key national issues because he hasn’t spelt out his vision for India’s future, or about whether he will be prime minister in the event the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) can form the next government. Evidently, Rahul Gandhi is diffident about position and power.

Even so, the Congress Working Committee (CWC) made the declaration that Rahul Gandhi would be the official No. 2 and the principal campaigner for the party in the next general elections. His elevation invokes the routine criticism about dynastic rule, an enduring structural fault line in the party. Indeed, Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s Arun Jaitley, has already criticised it as a move to convert the world’s largest democracy into a dynastic one. Nonetheless, the AICC meeting has catapulted Rahul Gandhi onto the centrestage of Congress politics just when the party is reeling under two years of unprecedented corruption scandals and political slip-ups.

His acceptance speech offered systemic change as a solution to all problems. Its insistence on change through a process of political inclusion was both passionate and evocative. “Until we start to respect and empower people for their knowledge and understanding, we can’t change anything in this country,” he said. “All our public systems—administration, justice, education, political systems—are designed to keep people with knowledge out. They are all closed systems.” But the Congress has had ample opportunity to level the country’s playing fields during its nine years in power and for several decades before 2004. Instead, across India it has perpetuated hereditary politics and its most prominent younger leaders, such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Jitin Prasada and Milind Deora, to name just a few, belong to influential families.

Rahul Gandhi has rarely spoken at such length as he did at Jaipur, yet he did not take the opportunity to articulate his views on politics and the economy, and did not offer an alternative economic vision or social legislation to tackle rising levels of inequality and deprivation, or the country’s shocking record of human development. He offered a generic diagnosis of India’s problems, the limitations of the political system and the state leaders’ failures to delegate powers to others, but did not touch on policy regimes, leave alone the underlying structures, that exclude the economic majority. He put forward no notions of what he will do to change a ‘closed system’ that largely benefits the top 20-25 percent of the population.

He also spoke about decentralisation and inner party democratisation in his Jaipur speech. For nearly a decade, Rahul Gandhi has deliberately focused his political capital on the long-term project of transforming organisational systems by trying to democratise the party organisation, starting with the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India (NSUI). To his credit, he has shown greater enthusiasm for structural changes in the party apparatus than other leaders, none of whom have made any perceptible effort to change the party’s top-down centralised style of functioning. Early in his term as prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, in a speech commemorating the centenary of the Congress in Bombay in December 1985, denounced “brokers of power ... who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy”, but party elections were announced and postponed on at least five occasions during his time in office, and it proved impossible to hold them during his lifetime. Sonia Gandhi set up at least three major committees to review and reorganise the party. All the committees recognised the lack of internal democracy as one of the reasons for the growing disillusionment with the organisation, and recommended ending the practice of selecting Pradesh Congress Committee chiefs by nomination.  But these reports were shelved, for fear of stirring up the pot too vigorously and upsetting the status quo.

So far, Rahul Gandhi’s experiments in democracy have also been in vain. They have made very little impact on the Youth Congress and even less on the main Congress party, where the politics of patronage, clientilism and family thrive unchanged. His strategy for reviving the party organisation through the Youth Congress route has failed to change the culture of his party or its affiliated wings. The hoped-for rejuvenation of the party in the north—in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in particular—has not happened. Its dismal performance in these two states raises questions about the impact or efficacy of party rebuilding.

In 2006, in reference to the party’s weakening in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi said that the failure was organisational, and not political. “We have failed because we lost that ability by which we could bring forward the true worker of the Congress,” he said, asking the party to give “the anonymous mass of workers” a “voice in the organisation”. Restructuring the organisation is essential, but to do this, the top leadership has to reorganise the party through internal elections which can throw up a new set of leaders and activists. Both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi are cautious and careful, not quite ready to disturb the status quo.

The Congress has atrophied at the local level in many areas of the country, having relied for years on the Nehru-Gandhi family to ensure victory in important polls. But ushering in structural changes cannot substitute for the need to define the message the party must project, given how sharply public opinion has turned against it.

In 2009, Rahul Gandhi helped lead the Congress to its best performance in two decades. But since then, the party has suffered several state election defeats, and even though the Congress has been in power at the centre for nine years, it has lost states which were once its bastions. The party’s base has withered away in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, and is much weaker than before in several other states. Inflation, corruption and growing unemployment among youth have taken their toll on the party’s credibility, and this has been compounded by the failure to deliver on growth or welfare. Major groups in its social coalition no longer trust the party to represent their interests, and it has failed to regain support from Dalits and Other Backward Classes (OBCs).

It rules only in a handful of states on its own: Assam, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Manipur, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh. It is part of the ruling coalition in Maharashtra, Kerala and Jammu and Kashmir. In states where it has been out of power for a long time, it has not been able to project itself as an effective opposition. There is no credible second-tier leadership that can strategise effectively in crucial states, where the Congress has lost ground to regional parties. Still, given that the Congress’s victory in 2012 assembly elections in Himachal Pradesh was delivered largely thanks to the popularity of stalwart Virbhadra Singh, the argument to try to build a state and national campaign around an individual has also gained currency within the party.

The task ahead is not easy. Above all, the question of the party’s thinking on critical issues and the actionable agenda should occupy centrestage. A reading of the Jaipur Declaration, which according to a report in the Indian Express, the party “even forgot to adopt” in the midst of an emotional downpour that greeted Rahul Gandhi’s speech, however, shows it is more of the same. Over 56 points, this declaration repeats the rhetoric of previous AICC resolutions, claiming to champion the concerns of all, especially the weaker sections, despite the unease over price rise and the dilution of the Food Security Act. It states that the party will contest elections on a platform of nationalism, social justice, economic growth for all, and secularism. The last few AICC resolutions stated this verbatim.

But the party is making efforts to woo the upwardly mobile middle-class, even as urban India is witnessing new forms of social and political mobilisation. Although the declaration spoke about two Indias—“the young middle class India” and “the young deprived India”, there is no mistaking the shift. It acknowledged the need to take on board the “desires and demands” of an ostensibly homogeneous “aspiring India”, which does not find its concerns reflected by the political process.

Since the regional parties are even more divided today than they were in the 1990s, and the BJP is yet to sort out its leadership tangle, the Congress has a chance to reassert itself as a national player. The party’s political recovery, which began in 2004, depended on its ability to sharpen the focus on economic and political inclusion, which helped to renew its relevance. Since then, it has been keen to demonstrate that its policies stress both growth and equality, mediating and arbitrating between various interests, which included the middle classes and the poor.

But for the past couple of years, it has been in a dilemma. It is wondering how to regain the support of the powerful middle-class, which has turned against it, while retaining focus on its traditional support base, India’s poor, for whose support it has to now compete with the regional parties. Rahul Gandhi has been, in some ways, a lightning rod for that conflict. His political sympathies are frequently pro-poor, but fear of middle-class antagonism towards social welfare policies have meant that he remains non-committal in public. Then again, he has made it clear that high growth is a vehicle for the Congress’s pursuit of its distributive agenda. Both Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi have been willing to embrace the growth-first perspective, and have explicitly thrown their weight behind the UPA government’s pro-market economic policies, bringing the revival of growth and economic stabilisation to the forefront of the party’s agenda. Their speeches at Jaipur praised the economic policy direction taken by the UPA government.

For the first time in eight years, the CWC in September 2012 declared clear support for the government’s economic reform agenda in the belief that it would kick-start the economy and bring in funds for the UPA’s welfare programmes. The rally organised by the Congress at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan on 4 November last year in a show of support signals an ideological turning point for its politics. During the UPA government’s first term, Sonia Gandhi had been quick to oppose foreign direct investment (FDI) in retail, raising diesel prices and limiting cooking gas subsidies; now she is focused on explaining the benefits of FDI in retail and the difficult decisions the government is required to take to revive growth. Rahul Gandhi’s speech went a step further. Both at Ramlila Maidan and at his party’s conclave at Surajkund on 10 November last year, he expressed support for economic reforms. He claimed that the Congress, as a party of change, had over the decades been responsible for the country’s great paradigm shifts, from the green revolution to economic liberalisation; the new round of reforms, he suggested, would similarly promote the national interest.

Unlike earlier impressions that the party was often at odds with the government’s reforms agenda, this was a clear indication that it would take ownership of economic reforms. For a party that has seen itself as a champion of the poor, the deliberate conflation of the middle class with the ‘aam aadmi’ in the Jaipur Declaration marks a departure from previous electoral narratives. It signals a move away from redistribution to a much greater focus on a middle-class driven model of governance and development.

This is not to say that Congress is all set to jettison the poor. Food security legislation and direct cash transfers for 29 welfare schemes are on the way, but perhaps the party is more worried about the potential loss of support from a different base. It wants to reach out to the disenchanted middle classes, who are currently contesting the state’s institutional politics, demanding accountability in terms of public services the state provides to them, rather than election results. It hopes to reclaim middle-class support by showering attention on them, in the belief that they can decisively influence voting behaviour in 2014. But this strategy is unlikely to succeed. Poorer people still seem to prefer the Congress Party to the BJP, but, after the UPA’s lacklustre governance, the middle-class now seems to have little faith in the party, in government institutions and public policies associated with it.