If, as is being increasingly reported in the media, Sonia Gandhi is indeed planning to pass the baton of the Congress to her son and heir-designate Rahul Gandhi, the reason can be only one thing: Her health. Even this reasoning is based on conjecture since the state of the Congress president’s health remains as — or more — preciously guarded as India’s nuclear secrets, a strange phenomenon in one of the world’s most open societies.
Yet, Sonia’s health seems to be the most likely explanation for any such contemplated change of guard in the Congress. As a devoted mother, fiercely protective of her children and the family inheritance, Sonia would ideally have chosen a less worse time to throw the evergreen 41-year-old Rahul into the deep end, more so when his interminable ‘Discovery of India’ remains woefully patchy and confined to choreographed sleep-outs. There is no persuasive evidence that has emerged so far to suggest that seven years of political life has led to his mastering his family vocation. Rahul was born great; he has achieved greatness. Even for Congress loyalists, Rahul epitomises what the Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci cryptically observed as “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will”. They bank on him possessing the “magic wand” that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh admitted to not having.
Of course, there could be a more base explanation. For the past two years, the Congress, buoyed by winning 21 Lok Sabha seats in 2009 from Uttar Pradesh — where it was down to zero in 1999 — had made next year’s Assembly election the litmus test of Rahul’s ability to revitalise the Congress. The Congress general secretary’s endeavour to create a new breed of wholesome politicians who would rise from the ranks of the Youth Congress was one aspect of Rahul’s agenda. Its impact can only be felt in the long run.
Equally important was his commando raids to bolster local movements against the Mayawati Government — a project that has resulted in Digvijay Singh and Jairam Ramesh running amok. Digvijay’s minority wooing may not yield too many dividends because the Muslim vote seems to be firming up behind the Samajwadi Party, particularly after Akhilesh Yadav’s impressive rath yatra. However, Ramesh — ever the courtier with brains — is certain to do more damage to the future of India’s economic growth story with his over-populist Land Acquisition Bill than he is likely to add to Congress’ pro-farmer image. In caste-dominated UP, it will be some time before the intermediate and backward castes shed their long-standing antipathy to the Congress. Beni Prasad Verma, the only OBC leader of consequence attached to the Congress, is, for example, doing his own thing independent of Rahul Gandhi. His future movements would warrant close scrutiny.
Overall, reports from the ground in UP don’t seem terribly encouraging for the Congress. The party talks in terms of targeting 100 seats where it will throw in all the resources at its command but in its heart of heart it is aware that its best hope lies in displacing the BJP from the third position. The Anna Hazare movement has dented Congress’ support among the urban voters and upper castes and this is the reason it is now wooing the nimble-footed Ajit Singh in a frenzied manner. If the Congress’ indifferent run in UP persists, the party may become desperate enough to seek alliances with fringe Muslim sectarian parties in eastern UP.
The larger point is significant. If the Congress performance in UP turns out to be pathetic, there will have to be a fall guy. Digvijay Singh may nobly offer to be the sacrificial lamb. But will that settle the question? Congress activists will not join in the taunts hurled at Rahul’s ability to be the party’s secret weapon of the future -- a hope that, in another age, kept German morale alive from 1943 to the end of 1944 when everything pointed to impending collapse. They will defend Rahul robustly as Salman Khurshid did in 2007 when he suggested that the party had proved itself unworthy of Rahul. But in their minds there will be all sorts of questions. These questions won’t disappear if Rahul has already been kicked upstairs but it will allow Congress workers to claim that the big guy can’t be blamed for reverses in regional elections. The coronation of Rahul prior to the UP election forestalls the possibility of disturbances in the durbar in the short term.
Today there will be no challengers, a delay could invite problems.
The Congress is faced with a series of unenviable problems. The UPA Government increasingly resembles a Divided Progressive Alliance with top Ministers taking pot shots and pointing accusing fingers at a duplicitous PMO. The allies have their own mounting sets of grievances and Mamata Banerjee was the latest one to echo hers in belligerent language. These problems are more than ego hassles. They are occurring in the backdrop of a discernible failure of governance, mounting economic woes, eroding international confidence and an impression of drift.
The ‘DPA’ is clearly unravelling but yet no one — neither the Treasury benches nor the Opposition (barring LK Advani) seeks an election. The Congress believes that the worst is over and the Opposition BJP wants more time to put its own house in order. Rahul, to use Mahatma Gandhi’s immortal words, may well come to be the proverbial “post-dated cheque” on a crashing bank.