Euphoria over Rahul Gandhi’s new role may be short-lived

January 21, 2013

(Any opinions expressed here are those of the author, and not necessarily of Reuters)

Rahul Gandhi has his work cut out as the new Congress vice president. His speech at the party’s brainstorming meeting on Sunday impressed fans and critics, but it probably is too soon to celebrate.

While he may be the best choice to take charge of the Congress campaign before the 2014 elections, state battles could remain outside his control. No matter how good the 42-year-old Gandhi might prove himself to be, prevailing in the nine assembly elections happening this year will be a tough sell.

The opposition Bharatiya Janata Party is expected to retain Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh, while electoral outcomes from the four states in northeast India are peripheral to Congress’s goals for the country at large. Gandhi will have to set his sights on Congress victories in Delhi, Rajasthan and Karnataka, but even then the task might prove too hard.

The biggest stakes are in the national capital where Sheila Dikshit has led the Congress to three consecutive wins since 1998. But her handling of the Delhi gang rape protests and perceived inability to ensure women’s safety in the city has diminished her popularity. Dikshit is still smarting from the party’s defeat in local corporation elections last year. Add to this tensions in the party’s Delhi unit, and Gandhi may have a real fight on his hands.

The other challenge is Rajasthan where the Congress government of Ashok Gehlot is facing dissent from within. The party faction close to CP Joshi, a minister in Manmohan Singh’s federal cabinet, has been at loggerheads with the chief minister. Infighting has hurt the party’s image and given the BJP reason to cheer. Gandhi will face a hard test there.

His best bet will be the southern state of Karnataka where infighting has seen three BJP chief ministers take charge in four years. Former BJP star B.S. Yeddyurappa has floated a new party, and may steal votes from the BJP. The Congress may have to deal with the question of leadership — who will spearhead its campaign here? There’s a campaign afoot to remove the party’s state president.

Will Gandhi be able to turn around the party’s fortunes by the end of 2013? Such a result in the state elections would silence critics who question his lack of political experience, but the task would be a rough one for any politician, even one with more experience.

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You are right that the Congress has an uphill journey in the 2014 elections. The only uncertainty is that the opposition BJP seems to be somewhat in disarray with a lot of infighting. This could, quite unpredictably, tilt the scales if the problems within the BJP are not resolved soon.

On the Congress’ side, Rahul Gandhi himself is probably the biggest liability for the party. The party rules dynastically; so even when Manmohan Singh was supposedly the PM, it was clear that he was taking regular orders from his boss, party president Sonia Gandhi. It was always clear that the stage was being set for the heir apparent, Rahul.

This would be fine if Mr. Gandhi had some achievements to his credit. Unfortunately, he has failed in every electoral test that he has faced since he joined the party in 2004 – a string of disastrous defeats – in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat are his most glaring failures. In addition, he took it upon himself to reinvent the party and its youth wing, and has come up woefully short.

Even these shortcomings are not as great as the appearance of a person totally devoid of ideas. On matters of national importance, such as the Anna Hazare anti-corruption agitation of August-September 2011 and the rape of the young girl in New Delhi in December 2012, Mr. Gandhi had almost nothing to say. This is not the profile of a leader, even a minor one, let alone the leader of a national party and the projected future leader of the country. Mr. Gandhi therefore faces a huge credibility gap.

Even the acceptance speech he made is disingenuous, for in it he talks as though he were an outsider, in pointing out the flaws in the system and in his government, yet he himself was a key member of the government; his mother was and is the president of the party; and even before his coronation, Congress party workers were falling over themselves to fulfill his slightest wish. So if things are not well in the state of the Congress and the country, he has himself to blame.

I have written a humorous article that talks about this credibility gap as it might apply to a corporate situation. Readers might find it entertaining: http://bit.ly/WhVFnn

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