Saturday 18 January 2014

Rahul Gandhi: Too little, too late (Pakistan Observer)

M D Nalapat. Friday, January 17, 2014 - In war as in politics, timing often makes the difference between success and failure. By the date when this column appears in print, Rahul Gandhi is likely to have been declared as Prime Minister Designate, should the Congress Party repeat its 2004 and 2009 successes in the May 2014 General Elections. It has taken a while, but it would appear that the Congress High Command, comprising of the vote AICC President Sonia Gandhi (referred to by senior colleagues as “CP” or Congress President), AICC Vice-President Rahul Gandhi and the half-vote of Sonia Gandhi’s daughter and Rahul’s sister, Priyanka.

Although the last is by far the most popular and charismatic of the three, she has been kept on the periphery of politics, even as Rahul has emerged on centrestage. Congress seniors say that the reason was that in 2004,with Rahul away abroad, it was daughter Priyanka to whom Sonia Gandhi turned to fight the traditional constituency of Amethi. At that point, for whatever reason, Priyanka is reported to have declined the request, thereby forcing Sonia to summon Rahul back from overseas and into the bustle of an election, which he won with ease. Since then, Priyanka has been dusted off the shelves only when elections beckon, and that too to campaign only in Amethi and in Sonia Gandhi’s constituency of Rae Bareilly rather than across the country. Rahul Gandhi loves traveling abroad.

Details of his flights to varied locations (with Ankara and Bangkok being favoured destinations) have been kept secret by a protective Manmohan Singh, ever willing to play the role of faithful retainer to the family that made him the Prime Minister of India despite only a single Member of Parliament (ie himself) backing him. Officials say privately that private aircraft are the favoured means of travel, and that Rahul is often accompanied by friends and family members on such outings. His tax records show only a modest income and a level of wealth that is under whelming, but Finance Minister Palaniappan Chidambaram is there to ensure that inconvenient questions not get asked about the 7-star travel and stay of the Prince of Wales of what since 1969 has been the Congress (Indira). It was Rahul’s grandmother Indira Gandhi who converted the party into a 100% family-owned enterprise, such that the leader of the party after about thirty years (when Rahul and Priyanka retire), it will be Priyanka’s daughter Miraya who takes over as AICC President.

By all accounts, Priyanka, husband Robert Vadra and their two children are a close-knit and dutiful family. The children go to a normal school and have normal friends, and by most accounts, none of four have the conceit or arrogance which comes from controlling govt which runs country Rather than keep Priyanka in the shadows, it would have been best for the AICC President and Vice-President to have ensured that she too begins to participate in political events on a regular basis. There is something distant about Rahul Gandhi, who comes across as someone who is uncomfortable with India and its people. Each meeting seems choreographed, with an invisible partition between Rahul and those he is with.In contrast, Priyanka clearly loves being in India and among the vibrant people of this country. She enjoys crowds in a way that neither Rahul or Sonia appear to do.

Hence the presence of Priyanka at party functions would have been a plus for the family, a lesson that has even at this late stage not been learnt, for once again, Priyanka Vadra is being pushed to the periphery of politics, asked to confine herself to Amethi and Rae Bareilly rather than to the entire country, way Rahul and Sonia operate. Not utilising the potential of Priyanka Vadra is among mistakes committed by Rahul Gandhi. Another is the fact that he has thus far refused to accept any ministerial or other governmental responsibility. True, his father Rajiv Gandhi had a lack of similar experience before taking over as PM in 1984,but it needs to be remembered that Rajiv Gandhi lost in 1989 more than half of the parliamentary seats he had carried in 1984.

After Rajiv Gandhi’s disastrous stint in office, voters in India have paid much more attention to experience. Consequently, had Rahul Gandhi accepted Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s offer of a portfolio of his choice, and conducted himself well, he would have been in a much better position to challenge the BJP’s Narendra Modi, whose trump card is success in running complex state of Gujarat since 2002.Modi’s one blemish is fact that riots took place that year in which several hundreds were killed, a third of them Hindu and the rest Muslim.

However, the Chief Minister seems to have learnt from that mishap, and since then, Gujarat has been free of violence, unlike much of the rest of the country. Today, people are looking at the Gujarat of 2014 rather than that of 2002,which is why the effort to freeze history to the latter date has failed in political terms With all his drawbacks, Rahul Gandhi is a much more attractive choice for Prime Minister than Manmohan Singh, which is why it would be better for the Congress Party to appoint him not simply as the PM nominee but as the PM, replacing Manmohan Singh. However, this seems unlikely.

The Congress Party is likely to go to the polls with Manmohan Singh as the Prime Minister, a factor that will cost it about thirty seats in coming polls. Even if Rahul is made the PM, it will be too late to prevent his party from repeating Rajiv Gandhi’s debacle of more than halving Congress tally of seats from election to election. The time for Rahul to have taken over as Prime Minister was early 2011.By that time, Manmohan Singh had become an object of derision because of his refusal to ensure honest distribution of the country’s natural resources, and his “Chalta Hai” (anything goes) attitude towards graft. Had Rahul taken charge and put in place the very corrective measures that he is championing now, his party may not now be as unpopular as it is. However, it is clearly “too little, too late” for Rahul Gandhi. It will be a miracle of his party remains in the driver’s seat after the May elections.

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