Long gone are the days when the Congress Working Committee, that guiding hand of the Indian National Congress during the national movement, could force the party president’s hand as it did in 1939 against Subhash Chandra Bose. Or as the All India Congress Committee did, earlier that year, when it elected Bose defying Mahatma Gandhi’s wishes. The undisputed dominance of the Nehru-Gandhi family over the party leadership was once again in evidence when Sonia Gandhi scotched her son’s anointment as the Congress prime ministerial candidate despite leader after leader in the CWC raising this demand. Instead of questioning her decision, the CWC yielded and made Thursday’s AICC session an exercise in pointlessness. Last May, the BJP was caught in a similar situation when the party’s rank-and-file demanded that the leadership announce Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its PM candidate. Overcoming the dissidence by party veteran LK Advani, the BJP rose to the occasion and ever since, its campaign for the 2014 general elections has moved into high gear.
With its government in disarray and facing anti-incumbency, it has been evident for long that Manmohan Singh was ill-suited to face the challenge posed by Modi. But neither Sonia nor Rahul has shown the stomach for a direct confrontation with Modi. Sonia’s decision seems to be dictated more by maternal instincts rather than the political instincts of a seasoned leader. She would rather have her son shielded from a bruising BJP onslaught against the UPA government’s failures than egg him on into the heat of the political battle and let him earn his share of spurs and scars. The lessons from the 2012 UP assembly polls and the recent assembly elections which Rahul disastrously led from the front would not be lost on Sonia Gandhi. But with the Congress staring at its biggest challenge in 2014, her decision will demoralise cadres who expected the party to counter the BJP’s elevation of Modi with a matching response. Holding Rahul back for 2019 seems to be the clearest indication till date that the Congress could be resigned to a drubbing at the hustings.
Rahul’s aggressive speech at the Talkatora Stadium exhorted the faithful to view the Congress as a permanent presence in the life of the nation. He realises that restricting himself to the Congress’ debatable achievements over the past five or ten years was self-defeating. Instead of aggression, Rahul would have done better to show some humility and admit a few mistakes.
Instead of self-praise for the passage of the Lokpal bill, he could have accepted that the Congress twiddled, unacceptably, with it for 45 years. Rahul has to delineate his vision for the Congress and make a break with the past and present. The RTI and the MGNREGA achievements he highlighted are yielding only diminishing returns for the party and the citizenry. Father Rajiv’s telecom revolution and grandmother Indira’s bank nationalisation, which he repeatedly recalled, are far back in the past to evince nostalgia. Rahul kept reiterating that the Congress has empowered people, but it is a piecemeal, notional, empowerment that people are not buying anymore. From the party of the freedom struggle, to the party which faced repeated waves of popular anger in 1967, 1977, 1989 and 2013-14, the aura surrounding the Congress and the Gandhi-Nehrus has steadily depleted. Rahul faces a much tougher fight than his mother, father, and grandmother in restoring the Congress to a position of primacy.