Monday, April 20, 2015

More Questions Than Answers From Rahul Gandhi's Sunday Noon Show

NDTV, April 19, 2015
(Ashok Malik is a columnist and writer living in Delhi.)

Rahul Gandhi's comeback event at the Congress' "farmers' rally" in Delhi this afternoon was not so much to prove to the Indian voter that he could lead the country. It was to tell the Congress worker that he has it in him to run the party.

With his mother, Sonia Gandhi, now close to 70, a generational change in the Congress is on the anvil. Rahul, as Congress vice-president, is likely to be the next Congress president. However, in recent weeks many senior Congress politicians, including Amarinder Singh and Shiela Dikshit, both former chief ministers, have suggested a succession be postponed indefinitely and Sonia stay put.

To be fair, there is no competition between mother and son. Sonia and Rahul are on the same page and are far from being factional rivals. However, the point is substantial sections of the party don't quite trust Rahul's instincts, judgement and ability to manage a complex political situation. If Rahul was attempting to change their minds today, after his 56-day holiday, he didn't quite pull it off.

A modern political meeting is a televised spectacle. It is as much about theatre as about substance. Rahul's limitations as an orator became apparent soon enough. What is more, so did his inability to stick to a coherent line and train of thought.

While his mother is no fiery orator either, her speech was much sharper and much more disciplined. It focused on the subject at hand - the plight of Indian farmers and how the Narendra Modi government's amendments to the Land Acquisition Act of 2013 would apparently hurt agriculturists. In contrast, Rahul's speech was all over the place. If a Congress worker had to choose his immediate leader solely on the basis of those two speeches, he would deliver a simple message to Rahul: Let's keep Mum.

In some senses, Rahul seems not to have recovered from the defeat of 2014. Listening to him, there was this inescapable feeling that he was in a time warp. It was not helped by the fact that he referred repeatedly to his experience of visiting drought-hit farmers some years ago. The crowd he was addressing was of north Indian farmers worried by a spell of unseasonal rain that has damaged a crop ripe for harvesting.

His mother, in her speech, took care to recall the unseasonal rain and the labour of harvesting, which the farmers had set aside to attend the political meeting. Did she have a better speech writer or simply better political judgement?

Rahul may as well have given this speech in April 2014, in the midst of the Lok Sabha election campaign. He has not moved on. He referred to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, the write-off of farmers' loans, his excursions to Bhatta Parsaul (Uttar Pradesh) and Niyamgiri (site of a Vedanta bauxite mining project and aluminium plant that Rahul and the UPA government thwarted). He announced these as his - and the UPA's - exemplary deeds. This was all very well, but it was yesterday's story. It was voted upon, one way or the other, in 2009 and 2014.

Indeed, in Kalahandi (the parliamentary constituency of which Niyamgiri is a part), Bhakta Charan Das, the sitting Congress MP, finished a distant third in 2014. One interpretation of this was that while a few hundred people wanted the mining project blocked, many thousand more saw benefit in industrialisation. If there was a learning here for Rahul and the Congress, it was obviously lost on the Congress vice-president.

Clearly, popular positions in Niyamgiri and Kalahandi were not as cut and dry as Rahul claimed they were.

The wider issue is Rahul was and is still expected to shape a platform for the future, and for the period leading up to the 2019 election. This platform cannot simply be an iteration of the initiatives and achievements, such as they were, of the UPA government, especially in the 2009-14 period. The platform's elements have to be forward-looking and contemporary. Where does Rahul stand on this?

The Congress has little idea.

In the weeks to come, there are mundane challenges for Rahul to tackle. His engagement with mass politics cannot be limited to guest appearances at stage-managed (pun intended or otherwise) party jamborees. His associates say he will take to the roads in Bihar and then other states; he has to prove he has the stomach to sustain it.

That apart, who will coordinate with non-BJP parties in Parliament as the debate and possible vote on the Land Acquisition (Amendment) Bill comes up? Who will take a call on the Congress' choice of chief ministerial candidate in Punjab? Who will negotiate with Laloo Yadav and Nitish Kumar, as the Congress seeks a junior role in the emerging anti-BJP alliance in Bihar? Who will sort out the civil war in the Assam Congress?

Will it be the mother or the son? Does Rahul have it in him to do any of these? The Sunday noon show provided no answers, only further questions.

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