Rahul Gandhi seen as last hope for India’s opposition Congress party

Rahul Gandhi

NEW DELHI, Dec 21: With Rahul Gandhi formally taking over the reins of India’s main opposition Congress party last week, the oldest party in India has placed its best bet on the last Gandhi dynast to stay relevant.

Political experts feel that 47-year-old Gandhi has finally managed to come of age, despite having been a constant victim of a vicious, below-the-belt campaign of India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that projected him as an unwilling and inefficient political dynast.

“Gandhi proved his mettle in the recent assembly elections in Gujarat, homestate of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, where under his leadership, the Congress gained much ground, winning seats, much more than its tally last time,” said Prof Ravindra Gulati, formerly of Delhi University.

This is despite the fact that Gandhi could not show his leadership skills in the first three years of Modi-led government, when he was often ridiculed by the BJP as well as by sections of the media for being a “liability for the Congress party”.

“The slide of the Congress continued, with it losing elections after elections and elections since 2014 when the BJP came to power. Something, however, changed in the middle of 2017. Gandhi started to hold regular party meetings and press conferences, taking on the queries indulgently and smartly,” said Delhi-based analyst Prof Ajay Sharma.

“Gandhi appeared updated and confident and even displayed a knack of humor, less seen in the political class of the country. His September visit to the University of California brought across a vigor that spread cheer in the Congress. He revived his social media handle and the resurgence was met with applause from users and followers,” he added.

And all this came at the time when Modi started coming under criticism for his failure of economic and social revival.

“The challenges for Gandhi are far and many. He has to revive the party and usher in a new excitement among ground-level workers specifically. These challenges have to be secured with electoral triumphs even though his party lost the Gujarat polls. Gandhi just now can’t be distracted by malignant criticisms and rather chart his own path for his and the party’s future,” said Surendra Bharti, another political analyst.

While many believe Rahul Gandhi has no real mechanism to throw over the influential Modi and turn the negative publicity against him into votes, there are some who think he indeed offers an alternative to the ideological Hindutva (Hindu religion) politics of the BJP.

“People are now looking for recovery from the so-called negative politics of the Modi government and a replacement by something that represents the diversity of Indian people.

The Hindutva homogeneity imposed by BJP and the one-sided patriotism and nationalism debate have led voters to crave for their multi-cultural and plural democracy. A young Gandhi seems to represent that idea to the young India,” said Manish Kidwai, another political analyst.

However, Gandhi took charge at a time when the Congress has seen too many setbacks electorally, with the lowest ever tally in the lower house of Parliament with 44 seats of the 543 total.

Losing the popular mandate in politically important states like northern India’s Uttar Pradesh despite teaming up with regional Samajwadi Party led by its young leader Akhilesh Yadav, western state of Maharashtra, Uttarakhand in north, added to the continuing woes. This has given confidence to the ruling BJP.

“It is a desperate and undemocratic act of the Congress to elevate Gandhi to the post of party president. The Congress is no longer the face of the new and aspirational India. They have lost their footing. It has become lacklustre. But we still believe he is the last hope for the Congress party to stay alive in Indian politics,” said a Congress functionary in Delhi.
“The next year may set the tone for Gandhi’s eventual performance in 2019 general elections because of the significant eight state assembly polls. Besides his own transformation of becoming the sole political challenger and political alternative, he will need to chart out vision of an inclusive economic growth and social engineering,” said Prof Sharma.

“Rahul has brought up many issues in his recent speeches that have hit the bull’s eye. Take for consideration the issues of unemployment and farmerssuicide. In the run-up to elections, politicians talk about these matters but usually they are forgotten. Gandhi has been constantly bringing them up since the past eight months,” said Nilanjan Sarkar, a political commentator based in the eastern city of Kolkata.

“These issues are a magnet for the youth. People want to talk about them. It is important that Gandhi works on these visions and charts out a sorted path to be presented to the people before 2019. This is the way he will be able to niche political image for himself.”
Yet others feel that despite sharpening his skills, Gandhi only risks appearing immature and naive in front of seasoned political leaders of the BJP. This is also because seniors in the Congress party have fallen silent in recent times, with all attention being focused on Gandhi himself.

“Since he continues to battle charges of elitism, meritocracy and exclusion, it only seems like a fair idea to build his team comprising the old and the young. Gandhi will need to take both his seniors and juniors along in his journey before he can lead the party in 2019 general elections,” Bharti said. XINHUA