Congress ire over Rahul gets an
airing By Neeta Lal
DELHI - Salman Khurshid, the Indian minister for
law and minority affairs, set the cat among the
pigeons within the folds of his party - the
127-year-old Congress - last week by criticizing
the chaos and inaction that bedevil it.
a candid interview to The Indian Express,
Khurshid, a senior party member and a staunch
Congress loyalist, said the party needed "a new
ideology" to meet contemporary challenges.
"Reforms in the 1990s were the emergence
of a new ideology," he said. "But today we need an
ideology to be given by our next-generation leader
Rahul Gandhi to move forward. We have to be clear
about what we want to go ahead with in the next
But what really riled his
party was what Khurshid had to say next: "Until
now," the minister told the newspaper, "we have
cameos of his [Rahul
Gandhi's] thought and ideas, like democratizing
elections to the Youth Congress. But he has not
[woven] all of this into a grand announcement.
This is a period of waiting."
grumblings and disenchantment have been all too
audible of late in the Congress ranks because of
its growing incoherence, a senior Congress
minister expressing his pique with the Gandhi
family so openly is quite unprecedented - that too
with Rahul, who caries the imprimatur of the
party's prime-ministerial candidate for the Lok
Sabha (lower house) elections in 2014.
Though as expected, the minister later
clarified that his comments were "misinterpreted",
the episode amplifies a growing chorus in the
Congress fold for Rahul to step up his game. The
dissonance with Rahul's marginal role in party
affairs, say experts, underscores a desperate need
for the Gandhi lad to mainstream himself, simply
because the storm-tossed Congress needs an
immediate infusion of fresh ideas and young blood,
Khurshid's critique of the
Congress also provided ammunition to an issueless
opposition to fire at the Gandhis. The Bharatiya
Janata Party, which has already tasted blood as
Time magazine dubbed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh
an "underachiever" in a cover feature this month,
rubbished Rahul's credentials as a leader. "As the
leader of the future, [that] he has no clear
coherent thinking is being confirmed by a senior
government minister ... I can only say good luck
to the Congress," said Ravi Shankar Prasad, the
BJP's chief spokesman.
Even the Samajwadi
Party, which supports the United Progressive
Alliance (UPA) government from outside, leveraged
the opportunity to take a swipe at Gandhi. "It is
clear from the very beginning that Rahul may want
to become the PM, but he is not [of] the
leadership material. He does not have the
ideological moorings like Indira or Rajiv Gandhi.
He does not have ideological focus," SP leader
Shahid Siddique said.
Though Khurshid has
been frostily asked by the Congress to "explain"
his Rahul comment, party members admit anonymously
that he has only articulated the prevalent
sentiment in the organization. "He [Gandhi] has
been a member of Parliament for eight years now.
This was a long enough period for him to have
taken his involvement to the next level," a
Congress MP told Asia Times Online. "But he has
done nothing of the sort. He isn't even accessible
to MPs and legislators."
The broad view is
that Khurshid's ire frames the party's growing
frustration with Rahul after it saw him emerging
as the pivot of a new power center. The Gandhi
scion has not spoken within or outside Parliament
on matters of national importance. He has eschewed
sustained media interaction while singularly
investing all his energy on the Youth Congress
when what his party needs is an organizational
Had he reconciled himself to a
marginal role in national politics, says a
Congress worker, Rahul's current amorphous avatar
would have been acceptable, but not when he is
being projected as a larger-then-life
has also not accepted any administrative role
where his political acumen or leadership skills
could be judged. In the eight years he has been an
MP (member of Parliament from Amethi in Uttar
Pradesh), he has not only turned down a minister's
post offered by Manmohan in 2009 but also the
party's vice-presidential post. Furthermore,
though he has been the Congress general secretary
for almost a decade, he is yet to spell out a
clear vision for either the party or the country.
"He's a clone of his mother [Sonia]," says
a functionary of the right-wing BJP, the country's
principal opposition party. "The Gandhis love to
wield soft power without the accompanying burden
of political responsibility which may put them
under public scrutiny."
At 42, age is also
not on Rahul's side. This is going to be a
handicap in a rapidly evolving global political
landscape where leaders are getting increasingly
younger. David Cameron became prime minister of
Britain at 44, while Barack Obama, 49, could soon
become a two-time US president.
supporters, however, feel he is sufficiently
equipped to take the prime-ministerial plunge
without bothering about propitious timing. He
carries a phenomenal political legacy, they feel,
and has oodles of charisma. Besides, they iterate
that even if the Congress loses the 2014
elections, Rahul can always stage a comeback in
2019 as a seasoned and more mature politician.
"Given the durability of the Gandhis, this won't
be an impossibility," says a senior Congress
One good thing has come out of the
Khurshid controversy, though. The Congress is now
scrambling to endow Rahul's political presence
with more heft in the run-up to national polls.
Some say he will soon be anointed as the party's
official prime-ministerial candidate. Congress
general secretary Digvijay Singh, considered to be
the political mentor of the Gandhi scion, says
that by September Rahul will play a much more
defined and proactive role in the party.
"An elaborate roadmap," iterated Singh, is
being chalked out by the party out for him. Had
Rahul gone too fast, added Singh, the media would
have criticized him, but now there is a demand
within the party for his "larger role". "So I
think the time has come."
The time, say
Congress members, has also come because there is a
growing disconnect between Congress leaders and
the party high command. In the past year, the
Congress has witnessed the unprecedented spectacle
of numerous party leaders venting their ire about
the party's internal affairs. A few have even
articulated their dissent in public, while others
have been more discreet, expressing their
displeasure in private conversations.
Among the heavyweights who have vented
their frustration about the current governance
deficit as well as a drift in the party in
different ways are senior leaders such as Mani
Shankar Aiyar, Salman Khurshid, Shankersinh
Vaghela, Jairam Ramesh and Digvijaya Singh.
The next general election will see more
than 290 seats up for grabs in six states - Uttar
Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, West
Bengal and Tamil Nadu. With Congress' prospects
not appearing too bright in any of the big six,
the regional satraps and the UPA allies are set to
call the shots here. With his mother and UPA
chairwoman Sonia Gandhi's clout also eroding fast
within the party, the Gandhi heir would do well to
heed his party's wake-up call before it is too
Neeta Lal is a widely
published writer and commentator who contributes
to many reputed national and international print
and Internet publications.
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