Can Rahul save Congress?

He brings with him the clean slate of a 42-year-old, which is a sharp contrast to the beleaguered, corruption-ridden government of Manmohan Singh.

On September 4, 1944, almost a month after Rajiv Gandhi was born, Jawaharlal Nehru wrote to daughter Indira Gandhi from Ahmednagar Fort Prison, "I understand you people have been referring to the infant as Rahul. Well, Rahul is not a bad name." He then asked, "But do you know what it means? It means a fetter, something that binds, a bandhan."

The letter was published in Two Alone Two Together, a collection of letters between Nehru and Indira. Eventually it was not Indira's son, but grandson who was named Rahul. Sonia clearly sees her son's role as that of a "binding force" but it has taken eight years since he first became an MP for the crown prince of the dynasty to roll up his sleeves and finally lead the Congress from the front. On November 15, the Congress gave the most emphatic indication that he would be the face of the party for the next General Elections. It made him chairman of a six member Coordination Committee for the next Lok Sabha polls. The main task of this committee is to work out a blueprint for the next General Elections.

It couldn't have happened at a worse time for him. The Congress-led Government is in exit mode. Occasional allies such as the Samajwadi Party (SP) and the Bahujan Samaj Party are putting finishing touches to their list of candidates for the next Lok Sabha polls. SP has announced as many as 55 Lok Sabha candidates from Uttar Pradesh. Even a pliant ally like DMK has begun distancing itself from the Congress: It does not support FDI in multi-brand retail and has misgivings about pension and insurance sector reforms.

Another former ally, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress, is looking for any opportunity to pull the Government down. Mamata threatened a no-confidence motion in the winter session of Parliament but this was rejected by the Speaker as she did not have the requisite number of 50 MPs backing the motion. The only saving grace for Congress seems to be the fact that BJP, headed by a tarnished Nitin Gadkari, is fighting its own battle within instead of leading the attack against the Congress.

BJP's confusion has helped the Congress make the transition from the diarchy of Sonia and Manmohan Singh to the Age of Rahul. During his political apprenticeship, Rahul took on two admittedly difficult projects: Reviving the party in the nearly 200-million-strong state of Uttar Pradesh, and democratising the Congress youth wing.

The results have not been encouraging-but they give an insight into Rahul's working style. The old durbar style of politics is out, instead he prefers to work with a mix of party workers, professionals and NGOs. Unlike Sonia's politics of consensus, Rahul opts for a more aggressive style. This was evident in August 2011 when an ailing Sonia left him in charge during Anna Hazare's Ramlila Maidan fast.

Rahul was not part of the team that negotiated with Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal. Instead he advocated a confrontationist stance-as was evident from the statements of his personal megaphone, Digvijaya Singh. Hangers-on who visit his home at 12 Tughlaq Lane during his weekly 'janata durbar' are ticked off and sent back to their constituencies if they appear too frequently.

Neither has he played the politics of patronage and organised transfers and posting for his constituents. Such is his reputation that in Amethi, there is a rumour that his party office in Delhi has a board that says 'No Jobs, No Transfers'. This is not true. But such a perception has its drawbacks, as Rahul found out when he visited Amethi in May after the Uttar Pradesh drubbing this year. Angry constituents pulled him up for being insensitive to their needs.

During the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, Rahul had divided the state into 10 zones with each zone representing 40 Assembly segments. Zonal officials were put in charge, who in turn reported to the party General Secretary, Digvijaya Singh. He is now planning to set up a team of observers to visit 10 Lok Sabha constituencies each and report back to him before he finalises the candidates list for the General Elections. While he interviewed aspirants for the Assembly elections, candidates were surprised that Rahul didn't ask them the usual caste-based questions. Instead a ticket aspirant from Nawabganj was asked if he knew the number of mobile users in his constituency.

Rahul's elevation brings a cultural shift in the Congress. He brings with him the clean slate of a 42-year-old, which is a sharp contrast to the beleaguered, corruption-ridden government of Manmohan Singh. The first casualty within the party will be the culture of nominations. Rahul has been promoting democracy and transparency in the Youth Congress.

The last time elections were held for the Congress Working Committee (CWC) was in 1997 and elections for Congress president in 2000. At a press conference in Delhi during the 2009 General Elections, Rahul was asked whether he favoured CWC elections. He dodged the question claiming that this was outside his domain. Now, he can no longer hide behind this fig leaf. He has to make good his platitudes-whether it is his promise of uniting Bharat with India or not giving tickets to candidates facing criminal cases.

He can also no longer be the opposition within the party, flying down to Odisha's Niyamgiri Hills and pledging support to the tribals against a project cleared by the Government. Now, as the leader of the party, he will have to ensure that both the Government and the party are in sync. The second casualty in the Age of Rahul is likely to be the Congress love for chamchagiri. Sycophancy undid the expectations from his father Rajiv, whose Mr Clean image quickly dissolved into a national joke even as he got tagged as the head of a "babalog government". So far, slogans such as 'Desh ka neta kaisa ho/Rahul Gandhi jaisa ho' have failed to impress Rahul bhaiya.

For the old guard, Rahul is still an unknown quantity. His management style is marked by impetuosity, whether it was a midnight decision to go to Bhatta-Parsaul last year or even a surprise farewell visit to then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee. Finance ministry officials still recall how Rahul had called Mukherjee on the morning of June 25, asking if he could come over. Since Rahul was in Parliament at the time, he arrived at the finance ministry well before North Block could get its act together. Although there was an official to meet him at the gate, the vip lift which usually awaits high-profile visitors on the ground floor took five minutes to come down. An impatient Rahul bounded up the stairs instead.

Rahul has begun interacting more with party leaders, whether this is at committee meetings at the party's war room at 15 Gurdwara Rakabganj Road or at 10 Janpath. The coordination committee that he chairs, with Ahmed Patel, Digvijaya Singh, Madhusudan Mistry, Janardan Dwivedi and Jairam Ramesh as members, has already met informally. Meetings with Rahul don't last very long as he is not fond of long-winded speeches. As early as 2007 when Rahul was made general secretary, he got the party to make pamphlets in bullet points instead of long paragraphs. Moreover, a source adds, "Refreshments are limited to tea or coffee. As Rahul is not too fond of snacks, we don't serve any."

But atmospherics of being a doer and not a ditherer are not enough. If the Gandhis are to keep the dynasty alive in Indian politics, they desperately need a big-ticket announcement for Rahul to take to the people. The rural employment guarantee scheme and the farmers' loan waiver were major announcements in 2009 which convinced the aam aadmi that UPA 2 would have its heart in the right place.

Sonia wants the Food Security Bill to be the trump card for the next elections and is pushing the Government to finalise the draft. But senior policy officials point out that both Finance Minister P. Chidambaram and his predecessor Mukherjee had hinted to the party in no uncertain terms that a Right to Food Bill, which would require an additional expenditure of around Rs 40,000 crore a year-a sum equivalent to the annual MGNREGA outgo-is unaffordable given the current state of the fiscal deficit. The only thing that would make the bill affordable is high government revenues. For this, UPA 2 needs to usher in a series of reforms-such as FDI in retail.

The balance between populism and reforms is something that Rahul, an MPhil in economics from Trinity College, Cambridge, understands. Currently, there is a neat division between Sonia and Manmohan. The Congress president represents the party's Welfare Face while the Prime Minister is the Reformer-in-Chief. At his coming-out speech at the party's November 4 mega rally in Delhi, Rahul supported both FDI in multi-brand retail and the Food Security Bill. He ended his speech saying, "If the poor have to progress, economic reforms are needed. Liberalisation is a must."

According to a party general secretary, both the Food Security Bill and FDI will be cornerstones of Rahul's campaign. But Rahul is careful to give reforms a pro-poor twist. Whenever he endorses FDI in multi-brand retail, he always highlights the benefits to farmers and not industrialists. The Congress general secretary adds that this is one lesson that Rahul learnt from the bjp's 'India Shining' fiasco of 2004. "India was only shining for a select few and not the masses," he points out. Clearly, this has made a lasting impression on Rahul, for even as recently as the Uttar Pradesh elections this year, he would refer to the bjp's campaign and ask the crowd, "Is India Shining for you?"

The nuts and bolts of Rahul's game plan are yet to be worked out. It's not enough to identify a mascot and give him a shiny new slogan. The Congress also has to crunch the numbers. During the last elections, almost half (101) of the Congress's tally of 206 came from just five states: Andhra Pradesh (33), Uttar Pradesh (22), Rajasthan (20), Maharashtra (17) and Haryana (9). The Congress is in trouble in all these states. In Andhra Pradesh, it is worried that Y.S. Jagan Mohan Reddy will walk away with a chunk of votes. "It is unlikely that he will return to the Congress. But we are hopeful of a post-poll alliance with him as there is no way he will go to bjp. Look at how he voted with the Congress during the presidential elections in July," says a party general secretary. The Congress is also hoping that a divided Shiv Sena, post-Bal Thackeray, would help it retain its vote in Maharashtra.

Where the party is hoping to score is Karnataka and Odisha. Unfortunately, the Congress does not have a strong regional leader who will deliver either state for the party. The septuagenarian S.M. Krishna no longer inspires confidence while there is no mass leader in Odisha. "Our best bet is Jharkhand where we have only one MP," laughs a party MP. But this does not dampen the Congress's enthusiasm. A Rahul aide points out that the Congress will still emerge as the single largest party for the simple reason that bjp is non-existent in the south and the North-east, which account for 157 of the 543 seats.

While Rahul is making an effort to reach out to his party leaders, he has not reached out to the allies. Allies management is still Sonia Gandhi's preserve. The committee on alliances is headed by her favourite, A.K. Antony. Unlike Sonia who has a cordial relationship with all allies, Rahul has no chemistry with the old guard. This lack of communication was visible during a lunch hosted by Sonia in July for UPA allies to thank them for supporting Mukherjee's candidature as President. Rahul was seated on a table with Mulayam Singh Yadav, Praful Patel and Farooq Abdullah. Instead of reaching out to the influential Yadav, he spent the entire meal discussing workouts and golf with Omar Abdullah and Patel.

It is not that Rahul has never been in charge of the party. He was, but on his own terms, as an in-house critic. But Battleground 2014 will mark a departure. Rahul will have to sell a new dream to the people, as his father did three decades ago when he said, "India is an old country but a young nation? I am young and I too have a dream, I dream of India strong, independent, self-reliant and in the front rank of the nations of the world." The son has yet to come out with an equally evocative vision thing. After all, it is easier to be the "face" of the Congress when there are hardly any other credible faces left in a party going through the worst of times. He has to become the limbs of the party to be a leader with a difference-and inheritor of the future.

- With Dhiraj Nayyar

Reproduced From India Today. © 2012. LMIL. All rights reserved.