If cricket is a game of “glorious uncertainties” even for the best teams, so is politics. And as the late Indian political maverick George Fernandez said: “No politician can be written off unless he is dead and buried”. Therefore, caution is called for in predicting the future of the seemingly incompetent Indian leader Rahul Gandhi, writes P.K.Balachandran in www.southasianmonitor.com.
Political commentators and the chattering classes tend to be off handed and facetious in their remarks when faced with a politician’s or a political party’s success or failure in an election or after a politically meaningful action. They either declare them as “invincible” or write them off totally, all at a pinch as it were.
But a study of recent political history will show that such predictions are unwarranted. In politics, upsets and surprises are more common than consistency.
Yes, the heir apparent and de-facto leader of India’s Grand Old Party has had a string of high profile failures recently to make people call him a “fake” or a pampered kid who has nothing to show other than his exalted Nehruvian lineage. The more charitable critics call him a “reluctant prince.”
Under Rahul’s leadership, the Congress failed to win the May 2014 parliamentary elections and the March 2017 Uttar Pradesh (UP) elections. His inability to put the Congress in power in Goa and Manipur last month even as it was the single largest party in the Legislative Assembly, is interpreted as an innate political incompetence.
Following these glaring failures, television commentators, print journalists and the chattering classes have declared that there is no future for a Congress under Rahul Gandhi or the Nehru-Gandhi family for that matter. Rahul himself does not have a future in politics. Some foreign writers base their prediction on the fact Rahul is 47 but has nothing to show for himself by way political achievements or performance in a constitutional office. It is pointed out that his father, Rajiv Gandhi, became Prime Minister at 40 and had many achievements to his credit before he was assassinated at 47. His grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, became Congress President at 40 in 1929, when the party was not a Nehru family fiefdom.
Yes, as the de facto party leader and the main election campaigner in the absence of his mother Sonia who is none too well, Rahul has not been a great motivator, a skillful operator and a combative speaker in parliament unlike his mother, who despite being an Italian can speak in Hindi in a combative and effective way.
Rahul also lacks Sonia’s firmness in dealing with dissent. While Sonia brooks no disloyalty, a policy which had kept the party fighting fit, Rahul is accommodative and tolerant making the party machine wobbly. While Sonia wanted to sack Sanjay Nirupam because the party organ he controlled said that her father was a “fascist” when Mussolini ruled Italy, Rahul pleaded for letting Nirupam off.
It is also pointed out that Rahul has no natural flair for politics or the necessary thirst for political office. When Dr.Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister for two terms and Rahul was critical of some his policies, Singh wanted him to take up a ministerial post and participate in decision making. But Rahul would not take the offer. He skipped parliament for 57 days in 2015 being abroad for meditation and introspection when India under the newly elected Prime Minister Narendra Modi was taking the country towards a communal and right wing line, threatening social justice and the country’ unity.
However, given past experience with political parties, politicians and governments, fortunes can swing dramatically. Very strong leaders and governments have crashed. And apparently lackluster leaders have risen to the top and stayed there long enough to devalue predictions about their failure.
When Jawaharlal Nehru, who strode the post-independence Indian political stage like a colossus, was ageing, and there was no one of his stature around, fit enough to wear his mantle, the Western media and their Indian hangers on confidently declared that India will break up into several pieces. But this did not happen.
Nehru was succeeded in 1964 by the puny, shy and non-English speaking politician Lal Bahadur Shastri. Before a heart attack shortened Shastri’s tenure as Prime Minister in 1966, he was able to defend Kashmir against a full scale attack by Pakistan by his resolute as well as mature leadership which kept the war within manageable bounds.
Shastri was succeeded by Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, who at that time was a butt of jokes for being a “gungi gudiya” (dumb doll). Right up till her father’s death in 1964, Indira had only been running his household and being his official hostess. She was a shy and private person unlike Nehru who was public personality. But to her critics’ surprise she turned out to be anything but a dumb doll.
Indira took on the powerful “Syndicate”, a group of regional satraps like S.K.Patil, Atulya Ghosh, K.Kamaraj, S.Nijalingappa and Morarji Desai. Her pro-poor policies and vigorous leadership style won over younger party members and eventually the majority of Congress workers. The dumb doll won the 1971 parliamentary elections handsomely.
She conducted a successful political and military campaign against Pakistan which helped establish Bangladesh in December 1971 in the face of a threat from the US Seventh Fleet. The “Indira Wave” secured several State Legislative Assemblies for the Congress. She put India on the world nuclear map by conducting the first nuclear test at Pokhran in Rajasthan in 1974.
But the lady who had been hailed as Durga, the Hindu Goddess of female energy and power after December 1971, began to lose control in 1972. The Sikhs in Punjab sought a separate Khalistan. The 1971 war and the 1973 oil crisis led to inflation and economic hardship. When the opposition protested, she came down on them heavily putting India under Emergency Regulations from 1975 to 1977.
The Iron Lady lost the 1977 elections. As expected, the Indian intelligentsia wrote her off. But the opposition’s inability to coalesce and rule brought her back to power in 1980, making a mockery of the prophets of doom.
Indira’s son,0 Rajiv, who was an apolitical airline pilot, was brought into politics in 1984 after she was assassinated. Rajiv himself had grave doubts about his abilities. But thanks to the “sympathy wave” he and the Congress won the 1984 elections with a huge majority. Though Rajiv rode on the Indira wave, he showed considerable spunk in modernizing his country and trying to solve problems in Assam, Punjab and Sri Lanka. However, trouble caught up with him in five years. The Bofors guns purchase scandal bought his government down in 1989.
However, the National Front government under V.P.Singh did not last long. Rajiv who was to win the 1991 elections, when he was assassinated in May that year. His exit threw the Congress into a leadership crisis again. Rajiv’s widow, Sonia Gandhi, refused to step into his shoes.
The Congress had no option but to choose a man from outside the Nehru-Gandhi family. The man chosen was P.V.Narasimha Rao, a soft spoken, scholarly, person, an unlikely Prime Minister. But once chosen to lead the party, Rao skillfully formed alliances which enabled him to complete his term and also carry out economic reforms. Rao proved that one could be a successful Prime Minister without being flamboyant or media savvy.
However Rao had to leave the leadership, as Sonia Gandhi wanted to take charge, which she did in 1998. But since she was new, the Congress lost the 1999 elections which were by Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), a new nationalistic and Hindutva force different from the previous National Front parties.
But Sonia’s assertive leadership, reminiscent of Indira Gandhi’s style, enabled the Congress to come back to power in 2004. Under Sonia’s leadership it got two terms. Though Dr.Manmohan Singh was Prime Minister, the party and the government were under the de facto control of the elusive but strong Sonia Gandhi.
But the Congress regime was not to last forever. Its lackluster performance in its second term led to the rise of BJP again, especially because it had a new leader, the young and dynamic Narendra Modi, who promised to shake the country out of inertia, promote economic development and make India a world power.
As present Modi is on top, still retaining much of the support he got in the May 2014 parliamentary elections. The BJP led by him has won the Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Uttarakhand State Assembly polls handsomely. But it was ousted from Punjab and only came second in Goa and Manipur. It was unabashed horse trading which enabled the BJP to form governments in Goa and Manipur eventually.
Rahul is blamed for the Congress party’s debacle in UP. But UP has been out of the Congress’ hands for many years. The Congress won in Punjab, for which Rahul is not give due credit. The party had emerged as the single largest in Goa and Manipur. Here again no praise for Rahul. But Rahul might be faulted for being outwitted by the BJP’s political managers who aggressively bought over legislators to form a government.
As for Rahul’s future, much will depend on the performance of the governments. People do not look at only personal characteristics. While image, marketing strategies and political skills are important, the performance of governments is equally or even more important.
Despite his flamboyance, Modi had had lost the Delhi Assembly elections after winning all the seven parliamentary seats in Delhi a little before. Recently, the BJP lost Punjab and came only send in Goa and Manipur. The less flamboyant and allegedly incompetent Rahul helped the Congress secure Punjab and emerge as the single largest party in Goa and Manipur.
Rahul does have flaws both in personality and organizational skills, but he could throw up surprises as his much maligned mother and grandmother did.
(The featured images at the top is that of Rahul with Sonia Gandhi)