Now that Rahul Gandhi is all set to take over as Congress President, it is perhaps an opportune time to speculate on how he should go about changing things in the party that has been in the doghouse since the 2014 general elections. It may also be worthwhile to see if the Gandhi scion has it in him to change things in a way that would put the century-old party firmly on the road to recovery.
If the suspension of Manishankar Aiyar for his grossly distasteful ‘neech’ remark on Prime Minister Narendra Modi is anything to go by, Rahul would perhaps be less tolerant of the use of intemperate and uncivilized language by his party men than his mother was. Notwithstanding the aberration of his ‘khoon ki dalali’ remark in the context of the attempt on the part of Modi and his party to cash in on the sacrifices of our soldiers, the Congress President-elect has been very remarkably restrained in the language he uses against his opponent. Whether this politically correct approach would work against a man who, unmindful of the dignity of the post he holds, has made abuse and below-the-belt attack on opponents into a fine art, is, however, a moot point.
But more than the change in the tone and tenor of the language used in political discourse, what the Congress desperately needs is a party President for whom politics is a 24X7X365 business. Now that he will soon be Congress President, the shoot-and scoot, on-again off-again kind of politics that he has been practising so far will just not do. A part-time politician, who lays great store on his privacy will not stand a chance against Modi and the BJP. The secret sojourns to unknown foreign destinations also have to end. If Rahul must go to a foreign country, it has to be the kind of well-publicized visit that his tour of US last September was.
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More than any change in his personal approach to politics, however, what Rahul needs the most is a fundamental change in the way the Congress party positions itself in the public eye. He has to redefine what the party stands for. One of the first thing he needs to do is ensure is to ensure that the party speaks in a language that appeals to and is understood by the youth, who already constitute over 60% of the country’s population. Nothing can be more ironical than the fact the aspirational youth understood, trusted and voted for a 60+ man than someone who is much closer to their age in the last elections. That Narendra Modi was able to articulate the concerns and expectations of the youth much better was one of the major factors responsible for the thumping win for the BJP in 2014.
To draw the youth towards his party, Rahul has to jettison wholesale its politics still stuck in the 1970s/80s mould. That kind of politics rested on the shaky foundations of out-of-fashion socialism, putting together a caste combination and appeasement of minorities. The rants against big business – a la the “I am your Sipahi in Delhi” rhetoric – may earn a few brownie points for him among the jholawala classes, but it is unlikely to impress the new age youth. The wooing of caste leaders like Hardik Patel, Alpesh Thakor and Jignesh Mevani in the run up to the Gujarat Assembly election shows that the Congress is still reluctant to abandon the KHAM combination that won it election after election in the past. [It is possible, however, that this was a one-off strategy adopted specifically for Gujarat where the BJP has been in power for 22 years and where the Big Two in the party – Prime Minister Narendra Mmodi and party President Ami Shah – have staked everything to win.] The new Congress President must also work assiduously to change the perception that his party is anti-Hindu and extremely tolerant of and indulgent towards the worst kind of obscurantist leaders among Muslims. The failure to condemn communalism of all kinds with the same force has, in fact, been one of the factors that has pushed large sections of Hindus into the lap of Modi. It is high time the Congress corrected this anomaly.
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Last but not the least, Rahul must concentrate on rebuilding the party organization bottom up. Luckily for him, he already has a fair idea of what ails the organization while discharging his role first as a general secretary, then as a Vice President and finally as the de facto party President in the last three years following the retreat of Sonia Gandhi from the public. The Congress scion now has the onerous task of setting the disheveled house in order. Instead of thrusting rootless wonders as AICC general secretaries and PCC heads down the gullet of unwilling party workers simply because they pass the loyalty test, he must appoint people who have the genuine support of workers. Rahul is not really a charismatic leader in the Indira Gandhi or Modi mould who can sway the people bypassing the party organization. So, rebuilding the party organization brick by brick is the only way he can make Congress a serious contender for power again.