After the BJP’s drubbing in the recent elections all eyes were on the Congress and more importantly on Rahul Gandhi who has been steering the grand old party after his mother Sonia Gandhi stepped down as Congress President.
Rahul Gandhi’s innings as an MP were rather shaky but a few months into the Congress Presidency he has come out on his own.
Of course till last week the argument was that he is no match to Prime Minister Narendra Modi; comparing Rahul Gandhi of the past to present day Rahul Gandhi there is a perceptible change but the ground reality is that if pitched against Modi he still has quite a distance to cover; the Congress should not conclude that Rahul Gandhi ‘has finally made it’ but should pause, think and reflect on the way events are likely to unfold.
But last week changed it all and put the Congress leadership on a high as it were. Rahul Gandhi led from the front and demonstrated that he has not only caught up but can pose a serious threat to the BJP and even Modi.
That done, Rahul’s second test was in juggling around the options and choices that he was faced with post elections. All eyes were on him as claims and counter claims were made to the Chief Ministers’ position in the three states that the Congress was all set to form a government.
The toughest was Rajasthan where Sachin Pilot was not willing to concede an inch of space to Congress stalwart and former Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot. Both, Sachin Pilot more than Ashok Gehlot, had worked tirelessly to wrest the state from the BJP and even while being rivals did their best to fight the enemy unitedly. That done, the results saw the BJP pushed out in its own stronghold and the Congress move in.
The leadership tussle that followed was, to put it mildly, a headache for Rahul Gandhi. Never before in the recent history of the Congress was the leadership issue so complicated. The Congress culture has been to leave the decision to the party High Command irrespective of the wishes of the elected MLAs. Ofcourse a semblance of consensus was always there but the truth was that the Chief Minister was always nominated rather than elected. Long drawn discussions have never been part of working within the Congress: it has always been the commandof the High Command, so to say. So it was expected to be this time around too with Rahul Gandhi at the helm. But things took a different turn and he spent three days trying to hammer a solution between the two contenders.
There was a similar situation in Madhya Pradesh too when senior leader Kamalnath and the not so old Jyotiraditya Scindia staked a claim to the leadership. Except in this case the truce happened sooner and Scindia gave in to persuasion and went along with the leadership’s move to anoint Kamalnath, an old war horse, instead of infusing fresh blood by way of giving charge to Scindia. Chattisgarh too was a problem but not in the measure that Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh were.
By the time Rahul Gandhi took a decision on all the three Chief Ministers, the inauspicious period as per the Hindu calendar had set in. Kharmas, an inauspicious month in Hindu calendar is marked from December 16, 2018 to January 14, 2019.
During this period, Hindus refrain from commencing or doing anything new and auspicious. Consequently, for any of the Chief Minister to take oath during Kharmas was, for the superstitious, simply not done. Given an opportunity none of those who were sworn in would have tread on slippery ground but absence of a consensus shelved religious concerns.
Rahul bashers criticised his “dithering” and slammed him for taking so much time in naming the chief ministers. However, those who have been witness to the Congress functioning and style were pleasantly surprised that this was a rare time when discussions preceded decisions and the leadership made an attempt to take people along rather than ride rough shod over their wishes. To give credit where it is due, Rahul Gandhi did demonstrate a change and signalled that there was a change in the way decisions were taken earlier: the fact that Pilot and even Gehlot were called several times and even Scindia and Kamalnath. This only proved that consensus and discussion was the way forward with the new leadership rather than cracking the whip if someone dared to differ. The fact that Sachin Pilot was made deputy Chief Minister does not speak poorly of Rahul Gandhi: if anything it speaks volumes about his wanting to give room to other voices and going along with a view that is different from his.
Ofcourse it is being said that Rahul Gandhi buckled under pressure and gave in to Pilot’s demand of making him Deputy Chief Minister but the other view is that as a leader he decided to accept a contrarian view and go along even if that was not in conformity with the way he would have liked things to pan out.
However, it is much more than any of this. It is of Rahul Gandhi coming of age and realising that with 2019 elections around the corner it is imperative to weigh the options and not jeopardize the chances of the Congress with inner contradictions and political rivalry. He did a fine balancing act by accommodating both the factions and making Pilot scale down his demand of wanting to be Chief Minister to settling for the second position. Equally, he managed to influence Scindia to bide his time and let Kamalnath take charge. Whether Scindia is regretting not pulling all sops like Pilot and getting what he wanted is another matter.
Rahul Gandhi’s maturity was also in not rocking the boat and demonstrate that the younger lot was more desirable than stalwarts who even while they are tried and tested are not very much in sync with the aspirations of the new India that Gen next aspires to see.
Also seen as a young leader himself, Rahul had a tight rope walk because by his sacrificing young talent for old guard he ran the risk of being a status quo-ist rather than a leader who dared.
By appointing Kamalnath, who is 72 years and sacrificing Scindia who is not yet 50 or handpicking 67 year old Gehlot in favour of 41 year old Pilot, Rahul came across as someone who while speaking of a change had himself walked the beaten path.
But Rahul Gandhi did not make the mistake his father had. Rajiv Gandhi too wanted to change things and he was in a hurry so among the few things that he did after taking over as Prime Minister was to show the door to the senior leadership including stalwarts like Pranab Mukherjee. More importantly he also gave marching orders to his mother Indira Gandhi’s loyalist and nuts and bolts man R.K.Dhawan. Those he inducted were clean and meant well but knew little. Unlike his father Rahul understands and accepts that the transition if and when it happens must be gradual and must allow easing out of the old guard and settling in of the new rather than an overhaul that could prove detrimental. As of now, Rahul seems to believe that the two must co-exist rather than trip each other.
The writer is a senior Indian journalist, political commentator and columnist of The Independent. She can be reached at: (firstname.lastname@example.org)