Underlying the Gandhi scion’s aggressive tactics on pro-politician ordinance were real compulsions.
Rahul Gandhi’s “tear up this nonsense” act on the ordinance shielding convicted politicians had most experts scratching their heads. What he did was so atypical and out of character, even veteran Congressmen wondered what had happened.
It is hard to digest the theory that everything was a stage act to project the prince as a strong leader. One, the Congress is not so well organised and coordinated as to pull off such a high-wire scripted performance on a sensitive ordinance, involving the entire cabinet. If Rahul needed an opportunity to showcase his tiger roar, plenty of safe occasions existed — for instance, a strong anti-Pakistan statement after the Kashmir attacks or a firm stance on the anti-rape legislation.
Two, it did not make Rahul appear stronger. In fact, it made him appear somewhat less powerful, even if more real. The fact that he had to resort to the media to be heard, shows his word wasn’t going through in the party. And that suggests interesting insights on what might be happening inside the Congress.
One, the actual power of the Gandhis inside Congress is less than what people outside the party think. Yes, they are the leading stars of the party. Without them, Congress will crumble and lose most of its seats. No doubt the Gandhis are the most powerful, but not all-powerful.
The Congress has the Gan-dhis as its faces or brand ambassadors. They are a fabulous asset, given every nook and corner of the country is familiar with them. Four generations of leadership, sacrifices and recall is difficult for a new entrant to replicate — no wonder Narendra Modi has to work extra hard.
In return for brand value, the Gandhis wield a lot of power. They decide senior positions, can hire or fire almost anyone and take most strategic decisions. However, the power is not unlimited. Indian elections are local in nature, given our parliamentary system. Local partners in terms of smaller netas are vital too. These netas have decades of experience, are mini-brands in themselves and enhance the tally of seats. In return, netas get their own chunk of power. This symbiotic relationship between a great national brand and good local brands helps keep the Congress in power.
Over time the pressure to win and poor systemic accountability have meant political parties have abandoned ethics and values. Many politicians call this ‘the compromise’. To a certain extent, every party and politician does it. There is virtually no MP who has fought an election campaign within the EC’s absurd and outdated funding limits. Ironically, you need to break the law to become a lawmaker in India.
In such a scenario, party brand ambassadors learnt to nod their heads and look sideways as their members ‘compromised’. Unfortunately, compromise is a slippery slope. In recent times, scams became bigger and the party turned murkier. However, most in the party loved and enjoyed the perks of these compromises. Hence, it was difficult for even Rahul Gandhi to change things.
It is one thing to make people listen to you when you align with their interests, quite another when you want them to give up the easy spoils of the system. Meanwhile, new moral lows were reached. The government wanted to subvert the Supreme Court and allow convicted criminals to stay in power. A few good people in the party were against it. However, these were relatively younger politicians with lesser influence and were ignored. The government pushed ahead with the ordinance.
Until it all became too much for Rahul. Yes, even though he may be an entitled prince, and allows a certain level of compromise everyday, something seemed to have pricked deep inside. Maybe this was an issue he felt strongly about, unlike other compromises where he hasn’t said a word. Maybe the president didn’t like the ordinance either (Pranab-da’s role in this has been underrated). Whatever the reason, Rahul didn’t want the ordinance passed.
However, even he had to ride public opinion and use media power to kill it. Of course, Congress leaders relented, more from shock and awe at his move than anything else. The country benefited, and the ordinance lies buried now.
But what does it all mean for Rahul and for those who will judge him in the next election? Well, his tactic worked once, but ultimately he has to take charge of the party with the same conviction he showed at the press conference.
He has to learn to lead, not only when the pack is happy following his instructions, but also when he is being tough on them. If he doesn’t or can’t, he will be unable to bring any change the country is clamouring for. He will only remain the face of the party and a sales tool for Congress.
Did his assertive display mean he would do things differently from now on, or was it a one-off venting exercise? Is it more important for him to clean up the party, or to win 2014 at any cost? Sometimes losing an election is a great way to put one’s house in order. Rahul will need to decide all this. Whatever happens, the country badly needs a leader, not just a famous face. Rahul better realise that. Or, well, we have some good options.