Reviving Congress? Rahul has a long, long way to go

By M.R. Narayan Swamy, IANS

New Delhi : Rahul Gandhi is taking his work as Congress general secretary seriously, but insiders and analysts warn he has daunting obstacles to overcome if his aim is to dramatically rejuvenate the party.

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Congress sources say the Gandhi family charisma is a powerful factor, but they point out that the times are different and the party is now a pale shadow of its former self. And Rahul Gandhi does not have the advantages of his late father Rajiv and his late uncle Sanjay who sailed into Congress politics in the early 1980s and 1970s respectively when it was a powerful force in the country.

Political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan told IANS that the Congress decision last month to name Rahul Gandhi, 37, as a general secretary was aimed at grooming him ahead of the next general elections due in 2009 but which may take place earlier.

“The party’s thinking is clear,” he said. “They are preparing and grooming him for the leadership. That is why they have put him in charge of Youth Congress and NSUI (National Students Union of India). But this will be connected to the number of people from these groups they put up in elections.

“But we need to remember that the coming elections will be fought on the record of the Manmohan Singh government. Does he (Rahul) have the stomach for prolonged electoral politics? So far he has only had brief forays. Will he pass the acid test?”

Some in the Congress believe he will. Others are not so sure.

A first time MP, Rahul Gandhi, whose entry into Congress politics has slowly pushed his more popular younger sister Priyanka into the background, is already showing that he means business.

His first victory of sorts came last week when the Manmohan Singh government extended the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which ensures work for the rural poor for at least 100 days a year, to all the 600-plus districts of India, from the present 300. The decision was announced just 48 hours after a Congress delegation that included Gandhi called on the prime minister.

Later, Rahul Gandhi took off for New York to be with his mother Sonia Gandhi, who addressed the UN General Assembly on the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birthday.

The Congress thinks Rahul Gandhi has age on his side, more so in a country where the overwhelming majority are under 35 years.

Some, however, see him as an introvert who relies more on computers and old buddies than on grassroots activists although he has a great desire to know and learn.

Rahul Gandhi failed to click in the May Uttar Pradesh ballot when the party’s figure in the assembly slipped from 25 to 21 despite his extensive campaign. He attracted crowds but not votes for India’s oldest political party.

“I am afraid it will take at least five years if not more for Rahul to fit into the system,” said a Congress source. “He is essentially a computer boy.”

There is another major handicap.

From a party that once enjoyed commanding influence, even after losing power nationally for the first time in 1977, the Congress is now limping. It won just 145 seats in the 545-member Lok Sabha in 2004.

Sanjay Gandhi became the Youth Congress head in 1974 and soon became a virtual right hand of his mother and prime minister Indira Gandhi – Rahul’s grandmother – as she imposed Emergency, was then voted out and later stormed back to power.

Sanjay Gandhi was killed in an air crash in 1980. Rajiv Gandhi was made a party general secretary in 1983, one year before his mother’s assassination propelled him to power. He led the Congress to a grand victory.

Today, in almost the whole of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu, accounting for nearly 225 Lok Sabha seats, the Congress is on a weak wicket or can win only with support from friendly parties.

“If in 40 percent of Lok Sabha seats the Congress cannot achieve much, what can Rahul Gandhi do?” asked a Congress insider.

Worse, some of the small parties that helped the Congress to take the number one slot in the 2004 ballot have deserted it.

Analyst Rangarajan emphasised the point: “The Congress needs to rebuild itself after a very poor showing in Uttar Pradesh.

“When Sanjay Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi got into party affairs, the Congress had majorities on its own. So it will be much tougher for Rahul Gandhi. The Congress is a pale shadow of its previous self.

“The Congress has usually come up with new ideas. What does Rahul have? If there is something, it is a closely guarded secret. What has emerged so far from Rahul is too little.”