Saturday 30 June 2018

Stop mothballing Priyanka and Varun (Sunday Guardian)

M D Nalapat

Holding a new generation guilty or responsible for the sins actual and perceived of their ancestors makes no sense. We need leaders wedded to 21st century mindsets.

What decided the last Lok Sabha verdict was the 2009-2014 record of the Manmohan Singh government, along with the public perception of Congress president Sonia Gandhi as an individual more concerned with securing the future of her Italian relatives than the 1. 26 billion people of the country of her in-laws. The 2019 Lok Sabha result will hinge on the record of the Narendra Modi government during the previous five years, including its lack of success in prosecuting and sending to prison any central-level leader of the UPA, a formation that was relentlessly labelled as corrupt beyond imagination by Modi during the 2014 election campaign. Either the UPA leadership was not corrupt, and only falsely labelled as such by the BJP, or the new government is unable or unwilling to enforce accountability for past misdeeds. Add to that negativity a plunging rupee, a tax system still anchored to the colonial “squeeze the natives” model, and the continuing control by the state of most aspects of a citizen’s life. All these make it more and more likely that the next government will be a collection of parties united by their desire to send Modi into retirement, exactly as disparate groups came together in 1977 to ensure an “Indira Hatao”. Prime Minister Modi has asked the people to give him time till 2022 to fulfil the promises he has made, but to those who are at the lower end of the economic pyramid, even a week is too long a time to wait for succour to arrive. Modi will need to do more in the next six months than he has during the previous 49, not speaking on the stump but working in his office, or the BJP will go the way the Congress Party did in 1989.
Should Modi’s party return to the opposition benches in May 2019, it could make a comeback in 2024 if the new government retains the UPA policy of selective communalism and statism. Interestingly, younger leaders such as Akhilesh Yadav and Telangana CM KCR’s talented son and daughter seem to have understood the depth of the hunger for change of the electorate. Rahul Gandhi had given rise to expectation that he would adopt a course different from that of his predecessor, but lately seems to be reverting to his UPA-era role of being led by Sonia Gandhi, and thus not finding the energy or the inclination to move beyond her 1930s “Cambridge socialism” so as to lead the charge towards a 21st century makeover of his party. Rahul ought to lead campaigns such as the abolition of triple talaq or universalising the teaching of English in primary and secondary schools. He ought to press for lower taxes and an end to Babu Raj. Such a policy transformation would include an effort designed to do away with several colonial-era laws and practices, bringing back freedom of choice in diet, dress and lifestyle to all, and avoiding Sonia Gandhi’s indulgence towards Wahhabism. That Rahul Gandhi still declines to publicly back the abolition of triple talaq or the building of the Ram temple are signs that the policy clouds of the Congress past still hang over the present. Unless this changes, the Congress Party will not reach the 150 Lok Sabha seats the party can secure were it to walk away from the errors made during the UPA era. An example of how lost opportunities are hurting the party is the lack of a role given to Priyanka Gandhi, who would be an immense asset to her party, having as she does much of the charisma of her paternal grandmother. Thus far, Priyanka has scarcely been deployed by the Congress Party, although those who say that this is because Italian (and Indian) mothers prefer sons to daughters in positions of responsibility may be wrong. Certainly her husband is not a poster boy for Gandhian values, but even should the Modi government find the will in the short time it has left to make Robert Vadra accountable for past transactions, this will not damage Priyanka’s political potential, as she has a standing within her party and the country independent of her spouse. Perhaps Rahul needs to show that he is no Manmohan Singh, but the actual and not the notional leader of his party, by ensuring a role for Priyanka that matches her capabilities.
The Congress Party is not the only formation ignoring obvious talent. Varun Gandhi has shown his qualities through the systematic way in which he has joined in the public discourse on policy. Several of the points made in his writings and speeches are worthy of implementation, while the MP’s personality matches that of his father. Even during the worst period of his life (just after the 1977 defeat of his party), Sanjay Gandhi had a presence and a leadership style that awed his contemporaries. The history of his party would have been different if some unseen force had not filed away at the control wires on his aircraft so that they snapped after a few tugs of the joystick, sending the small aircraft into a death-dive. “Each One Teach One” or “Plant More Trees”, not to mention overpopulation or the abolition of Soviet economic models, remain as relevant in 2018 as they were in 1973 when Sanjay first expounded on his vision for India, although it must be added that several of the methods adopted by his acolytes were unpardonable. Varun has the zeal and magnetism of his father, and it is the BJP’s loss not to make much better use of such qualities in its youthful MP. For example, by ensuring a Rahul Gandhi-Varun Gandhi battle in Amethi during the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, and in the interim, recognising rather than ignoring Varun’s potential within the party organisation. Holding a new generation guilty or responsible for the sins actual and perceived of their ancestors makes no sense, and hopefully both Varun and Priyanka (not to mention Rahul) will accept that past precedents need to be replaced with ideas relevant to the people and the times of the present. India has been searching since decades for leaders wedded to 21st century mindsets and methods, a quest that continues. 

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