THE LEADER IS GONE; long stay the leader. The modified conundrum of leadership might well help perplexed minds, within the Congress and without, to understand the situation in our party.
No standard rules of the game can be applied to the Congress, even if any other party goes by any rules beyond jo jeeta wo sikander! The problem for them is to understand that two successive defeats in Lok Sabha elections and the subsequent resignation from the post of party president have not conspicuously impacted the hold of Rahul Gandhi on the party. His repeated assertions about having decided to distance himself from the top post, sometimes with surprising adamance, have put some entreaties on pause, but have not made people give up on hope and habit of Congress ethos.
One thing is clear though: vacating the president’s post did not mean retreat from leadership, which, in any case, is a trait not amenable to being switched on and off. Rahul has remained in control of guiding the party and has concentrated on a leadership style unique in terms of the standard we are accustomed to in the dreary political landscape. Indeed it is commendable for modern democracies, closest to the likes of Barack Obama and Tony Blair rather than Donald Trump and Boris Johnson. Contrast prime minister Nehru and Prime Minister Narendra Modi and you will understand that there are many role models and the Congress preference is obvious.
Ultimately, however, it must work with the voter. I recall a brilliant piece written by Vir Sanghvi many years ago in memory of the late Madhavrao Scindia whom he described as the ‘best PM India never had’. But then as Shah Rukh Khan would add, picture abhi bhi baki hai.
We hear a great deal about the urgent need for the leadership ambiguity to be removed. We all think that in principle that is fine, but the ambiguity, as I said, is for outsiders, not the homegrown Congress cadres and leaders. That is a fact that outsiders can continue to deny for as long as they wish; it has and will make little difference for party faithfuls. Nothing is on hold that we would do with a full-time president. There is, of course, much more that we can do even now and hopefully will in the weeks and months to come, factoring in the constraints of Covid-19 and the political atmosphere in the country.
Rahul is an idealist, something some people consider a disqualification for a mass leader; he is a hardcore professional, something that some people believe sits uneasy with the malleability needed for the rough and tumble of politics; he has clear likes and dislikes for ideas and people, something that people used to politicians who are everything to everyone do not understand. The unrelenting attacks on Modi and the RSS made some leaders uneasy about taking on the popular mood.
At one gathering of intellectuals suggesting more diplomatic alternatives he asked as only he can, “Why? Are you afraid of the RSS?” His steadfastness and political fortitude showed in his response to the Scindia and Pilot episodes. In the world of compromises, he is loath to depart from principle. Some of his uncompromising democratic positions, like the Youth Congress elections, made dyed in the wool old hands nervous.
Once India tires of being told it is deprived by the ‘other’ and inevitably returns to collective destiny, it will discover the need for Rahul. The only question that remains is whether this happens naturally or will require strategic steering. The truth is that no party has figured this out as yet. Many are hoping that the fruit of change in public mood will fall in their lap like in the past, but politics has transformed considerably to assume that. The tree needs to be shaken and from the record Rahul is the only public figure to be attempting to do that.
Any honest person will admit that contemporary politics in India is surreal. There is public approval of vigilante justice and crowd lynchings, criminals use crime to secure political power and then use power to subvert justice, botched governance is being proclaimed as high accomplishment, and inexplicable military ambiguity is being brandished as unprecedented success. Audacity of the political class is the new norm, while dissent and public protests are being painted in dark shades. Enforcement agencies are unselfconsciously becoming dramatis personae of the drama of political vendetta, while disguised and open defiance of India’s composite culture has become entrenched in the landscape.
In this crowded space, Rahul has thoughtfully chosen to harp on the devastating medical and economic consequences of mismanaging Covid-19 and the knots we are tying our foreign policy into. The future of India depends heavily on those two frontiers, yet people continue to ask what he is doing about the party. Politics is as much about the idea whose time has come as indeed about the nuts and bolts of the organisational machine with circumstances dictating priority.
His commitment to liberal democracy is second to none, but as we learnt in the economic competition with China, democracy has its own timeline for development and growth. It is the very time that Congress is taking to shake itself free of the shock of two consecutive defeats that will give it a sustainable thrust for the future. Many of us in the Congress continue to have faith in the proposition that the future will not only include Rahul, but will be substantially shaped by him. His detractors and ambivalent well-wishers will just have to understand that he will write his own script and pick his own timeline.
Boxing great Muhammed Ali’s career seems to have interesting parallels that fit the trajectory of Rahul’s politics. When the body was young, it was the dance trick to tire the opponent with ‘I dance like a butterfly, I sting like the bee....’ In tougher moments it was the rope-a-dope: lean back on the ropes to take more beating than the opponent has the stamina to give. Ultimately it is the left jab that will decide the match. Lesser mortals can seldom guess where and when it will come.
The dream of Camelot, ‘the once and future....’ is still alive. Those who have gone to the current power house without character will miss being part of it and resign to the fate of being part of the best team that did not happen because of their unwise decisions.
The author is a senior Congress leader and former Union cabinet minister.