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Rahul Gandhi's elevation to vice-president of the party has understandably evoked enthusiastic responses from Congress circles. But we need to remember that he was already general secretary and, for all practical purposes, second-in-command in the party. So the recent organisational change in the Congress would not merit much analytical attention but for the fact that the party tends to rely heavily on his — and his mother's — leadership and this development signals a decision by the Congress to project Rahul as its mascot for the coming Lok Sabha elections. After Rajiv Gandhi failed to win the elections for his party in 1989, there has seldom been a national level leader who won an election mainly on his personal appeal. Rahul Gandhi's euphoric supporters should remember this useful lesson from contemporary history.
Rahul Gandhi begins with quite a few handicaps. His elevation would, of course, invoke the routine criticism about "dynastic" rule, but more importantly, he now leads a party bruised by a decade of incumbency. It would be a delicate task for Rahul to be leader of the ruling party and yet distance himself from the actions (and non-actions) of his party's government. Crucially, Rahul and his Congress will have to adjust to the reality that our current politics inhabits a "post-Congress" polity. The party has found it hard to adapt to this reality so far — whether it is the idea of being a national party or the hard fact of having to deal with coalition partners. The Congress does not have much chance of winning a majority on its own in the near future, nor is it accepted as a party that sets the rules of the game anymore. This is not just to do with Rahul Gandhi's leadership but with the psyche of the party and its decision-making core. It is the challenges arising from this larger political context that will truly test Rahul Gandhi's capabilities.
Today, the Congress party rules only a handful of states on its own — Himachal, Haryana, Rajasthan, Assam, Manipur, Andhra, Delhi and Uttarakhand. It is part of ruling coalitions in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Kerala, and is a less-than-significant force in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In states where it rules, the governance record of the Congress is not very impressive. It looks as if the Congress governments are engaged in a holding operation rather than actively busy with purposeful governance. Where the party is not in power, it has not been able to project itself as an effective opposition. In some states, it only hopes to benefit from the failures of the ruling parties there. In most, the Congress suffers from organisational weakness and lack of intra-party cohesion. Almost every state appears to be a "multi-Congress" one if we start counting major leaders and factions. Historically, factions have helped the Congress to hold on to different social sections, but the inability to mediate among factions has resulted in a party without focus and direction at the state level.
In the last two parliamentary elections, as National Election Studies (NES 2004 and 2009, conducted by Lokniti) show, support for the Congress has been characterised by the dismal lack of a sharp social profile. If the party polled 26 and 28 per cent votes, respectively, support for the Congress among most social sections also hovered around the same proportion. In other words, except adivasis and Muslims, the party cannot claim to have a wider support base than its average voteshare. It has failed to gain ground among Dalits, OBCs or very poor voters. If anything, it gained a little among upper castes and the upper class in 2009. The same is true of the rural-urban and gender divides.
In a sense, this social profile is connected to the post-Congress context. This context provides voters with many parties to choose from — particularly in terms of state-level political actors — and leaves the Congress to be just one among the many competitors. It also means that the Congress is no more in a position to define the middle ground of political contestation. Today's Congress finds itself on a middle ground that is only partly of its own making. Of course, the policy perspective on the economy today could be seen as the party's contribution but the Congress never shifted to this new economic policy consciously or openly, at least, till the manifesto of 2009. It always resorted to doublespeak on matters pertaining to economic policy. One suspects that the party simply caved in to various extraneous pressures rather than recognised the need to shift policy. On the issue of secular nationalism as opposed to communal nationalism, the party has something to claim, but it does not know how to go about it. In 1999-2004, the party did lay claim to the secular nationalist discourse, but that smacked more of instrumentalism than conviction. In fact, between 1987 and '96, the Congress never appeared willing to take on communal nationalism. It was then that the party lost its claim to the middle ground and became a helpless witness of the BJP onslaught. Similarly, when the Mandal turn came, the Congress abdicated its long-stated position as the party of the underprivileged and allowed state-level, pro-OBC parties to flourish.
This is the past Rahul Gandhi inherits as he moves up to number two position in the Congress. The loss of power and initiative demoralised the cadre, and the victories of 2004 and 2009 made them complacent. Can Rahul bypass the older leadership, which does not have ideas and the urge to fight, and the glib, complacent leaders who do not have the stomach for a long-drawn political fight?
Three of the leaders who inherited the party before him (in very different circumstances), have redefined the Congress — Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru and Indira Gandhi. Mahatma Gandhi made it an inclusive mass force, Nehru made it an instrument for building a nation-state and Indira Gandhi reduced it to a machine for aggrandisement. Rahul inherits the party at a time when the ordinary Congress worker does not know why he or she happens to be in the Congress. Rahul will have to show resolve and a vision to redefine the party. Only then would he really grasp the meaning of being powerful — something he spoke about after taking on the new responsibility.
The author teaches political science at University of Pune