Even if the Congress did not initially want it, there is every possibility that next year’s general election will see a direct confrontation between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi. The reason for the Congress’s earlier disinclination to field the heir apparent in a straight fight was never wholly clear – unless Rahul was deemed too diffident – just as there is no plausible explanation about why the perception has changed even if there hasn’t been any formal announcement.
However, it was apparently Rahul’s forceful intervention in compelling the government to withdraw the ordinance on convicted legislators, which seems to have changed the contours of the battlefield. From this standpoint, it was Rahul himself who appears to have decided that there is no point in remaining in the background any longer.
It is possible that Modi’s energetic campaigning has made the Congress vice-president change his mind. He probably realised that the Congress was leaving the field open to the challenger from Gujarat by not taking him on more purposefully. Arguably, the Congress discovered that it did not have anyone who could match Modi’s combative approach. It couldn’t be either the soft-spoken prime minister or Sonia Gandhi with her deadpan reading from a script.
To make an impact, it has to be someone who can revv up the audience with his voice and rhetoric. Rahul meets these requirements to a large extent. Not only is he a fluent speaker with a command over the vocabulary, but he also exudes a sense of confidence and, above all, sincerity. He may still be somewhat woolly in his thinking, as when he said that poverty is “a state of the mind” or that Dalits will have to acquire the escape velocity required on the surface of Jupiter to rise above their present lowly condition.
Even then, what comes through is an earnestness suggestive of a willingness to grapple with the country’s myriad problems. What is more, he apparently wants to do so in his own way, with or without the inputs of experts. As much was clear from his trashing of the ordinance when the experts would have advised him to act with circumspection as, indeed, his mother did. Yet, as he reportedly told the prime minister even while apologising for his conduct, he could not be expected to defend the indefensible.
It is not impossible that more such instances of his sincerity as, for instance, on the inclusion of political parties under the Right to Information Act against the government’s wishes, will enable Rahul to put his stamp on the campaign. He may be criticised for suddenly finding his voice after 10 years of silence. But, if he can crack the Congress’s crusty, cynical mould, he will be emerging in a new light, which will deflect Modi’s single-minded focus on the Congress’s corruption and subservience to the dynasty.
Not that these points will go away. But, a serious attempt by Rahul to reset his party’s wavering moral compass will do a world of good to his own image and that of the Congress. It will also compel Modi and the BJP to rethink their tactics, which have been based till now on the public anger and disillusionment with the Congress’s habitual cynicism, of which the most blatant example was the crude attempt to protect crooks in politics.
Modi and the BJP may make fun of Rahul at last listening to his “inner voice”, especially when his mother has been complicit in the Congress’s crony capitalism and minority appeasement, as when Salman Khurshid promised reservations for the backward castes among the Muslims, knowing full well that the proposal ran afoul of the Constitution. But, notwithstanding such criticism, Rahul’s detractors will not find it easy to deny that he is on the right track, even if belatedly.
As for Congressmen, their volte-face on the ordinance after Rahul’s castigation was an indication, if any was needed, that their supine cowardice would make them follow the dynasty unquestioningly. It isn’t only their lack of spine which will make them Rahul’s obedient foot-soldiers, but also the realisation that all may not be lost as yet, and that it is just possible that the pitch for honesty by the young prince will enable the party to cross the electoral hump. Devoted as the Congressmen are to their own well-being, they will not hesitate to root for probity in public life if that is the price they will have to pay for another stint in power.
This admiration for honesty will be a new line for them, considering that they seem to have been banking till now on the possibility that Modi will be hobbled by his divisive image, his critics in the BJP and the absence of any saffron influence in southern and eastern India. But, irrespective of whether Rahul can throw a lifeline to the Congress, it is strange that a 128-year-old party is so dependent on a single family for survival.
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