Rahul Gandhi Opens Door For Indian Political Change

Rahul Gandhi has opened the door to a logical extension of Narendra Modi’s revamping of the Indian political scene and his Congress Party should have the guts to let him have his way.

He offered a near-revolution when he resigned from being president of the Congress Party on May 25 – and reportedly said he meant it. This would be an urgently needed sequel to the political revolution that Modi has wrought over the past five or six years, culminating in the Bharatiya Jana Party’s landslide general election victory last week.

Rahul’s move would not just trigger the end of Congress’s outdated and increasingly ineffectual dynastic rule under his family’s leadership, but could also lead to growing unity among secular parties that do not subscribe to the right-wing Hindu nationalism of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party.

Rahul Gandhi, his mother Sonia, and former prime minister Manmohan Singh at the May 25th Congress leaders’ meeting

Currently that secular unity is spasmodic, and there is also no coherent leftist and liberal voice in Indian politics at a national level with the demise of the centrist-left Congress and the collapse of the Communist parties in West Bengal (which now hold sway only in Kerala).

Regionally-powerful state-based parties that make up most of the opposition are more based on caste and other local interests than political ideologies. They do however mostly oppose extreme Hindu nationalism and are likely to be more willing to join non-BJP coalitions if Congress had experienced and decisive leadership and if they did not have to doff their caps to the Gandhis.

Both Modi’s victory and Gandhi’s resignation stem from dramatic economic and social changes that have swept across India over the past three decades. Rule by the old Delhi-based elite, which relied for its strength and survival on the dynasty, is no longer viable or wanted by a population where 65 percent are under the age of 35, with 170 million first-time voters on the 900 million electoral rolls last week.

When the votes were being counted five years ago and it was clear that Modi would become prime minister, I wrote on this blog: “Virtually everything to do with government will now change, not just ministers and policies but how the people at the top react to events and even the language they speak – many of leading politicians, including Modi, prefer to use Hindi. Modi will bring in top bureaucrats from his home state of Gujarat and elsewhere and little-known politicians will have important ministries. For business, as in other areas, a new era is about to begin, with new relationships and ways of working.”

Gandhi hugs Modi, July 2018

I had not then foreseen how far those changes would stretch out from Delhi. They encompass virtually the whole country and have embraced a new generation that, it seems from last week’s result, buys into the Modi doctrine because, however flawed, it offers the prospects of prosperity and a strong and secure India that inspires patriotism.

Congress does not know how to generate that response. It continues to talk in the pre-1991 (the year of the big economic reforms) jargon of protecting the poor instead of enabling them to meet their aspirations. Rahul Gandhi does not seem to understand the needs of business, nor how to combine them with sound social policies such as right-to-information legislation introduced by the last Congress government.

It is therefore time for a change at the top of Congress. In India, they are mercilessly mocked by Modi and his supporters for clinging to power.

Internationally (not that this matters too much) the survival of the (semi-Italian) Gandhis is seen as unbelievable and even ludicrous. Rahul Gandhi has not corrected that impression with his international tours, even though last November I wrote that in London he was showing signs of getting his act together.

I sensed that he had a new sense of purpose that stemmed from a passion to drive Modi out of office. Last week, he failed to do that after a series of missteps that ranged from not forging alliances with regional parties in Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal and Delhi to continually condemning Modi instead of offering a constructive alternative.

Rahul and sister Priyanka

Gandhi has always been a reluctant leader. He entered active politics in 2004 but failed to focus.

He refused ministerial posts in the last Congress government, and resisted taking over the Congress presidency from his mother Sonia until the end of 2017.

Having only been in the job for 17 months arguably he should not be running away so quickly, but the need for a change negates that line – and he said he would remain active as a party worker.

He should however have handled his resignation more openly on May 17. He announced it in a meeting of the Congress Working Committee (CWC), which inevitably rejected it because other senior leaders do not want to risk losing their positions under someone new.

He then reiterated that he meant it and reportedly also said “don’t drag my sister into it” when Priyanka Gandhi’s name came up as a replacement. (Her appointment to the higher ranks of the Congress leadership during the election campaign had underlined the family’s grip on power.)

But he failed to appear at a media conference where his resignation was announced by officials. That inevitably gives rise to the thought that his resignation was born more out of frustration with the election result and out of anger than determination. He reportedly voiced his anger at the CWC meeting, complaining that his leadership had not been followed on a variety of issues including attacks on Modi and sons of three politicians being made candidates.

The meeting fell back on the ineffectual formula it adopted in 2014 that the whole party organization should be revamped. This did not happen, but it should now, with Gandhi making way for a successor who should be chosen by secret ballot to avoid sycophancy. The CWC is expected to discuss what to do later this week.

Whether Congress would survive as it is, or split as many have feared it would do without a Gandhi at the top, would remain to be seen. But both Congress and the country need the change.

John Elliott is Asia Sentinel’s South Asia Correspondent. He blogs at Riding the Elephant.