Rahul inherits a Congress that has ceased to set the terms of political contestation
Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to vice-president of the party has understandably evoked enthusiastic responses from Congress circles. But we need to remember that he was already general secretary and, for all practical purposes, second-in-command in the party. So the recent organisational change in the Congress would not merit much analytical attention but for the fact that the party tends to rely heavily on his — and his mother’s — leadership and this development signals a decision by the Congress to project Rahul as its mascot for the coming Lok Sabha elections. After Rajiv Gandhi failed to win the elections for his party in 1989, there has seldom been a national level leader who won an election mainly on his personal appeal. Rahul Gandhi’s euphoric supporters should remember this useful lesson from contemporary history.
Rahul Gandhi begins with quite a few handicaps. His elevation would, of course, invoke the routine criticism about “dynastic” rule, but more importantly, he now leads a party bruised by a decade of incumbency. It would be a delicate task for Rahul to be leader of the ruling party and yet distance himself from the actions (and non-actions) of his party’s government. Crucially, Rahul and his Congress will have to adjust to the reality that our current politics inhabits a “post-Congress” polity. The party has found it hard to adapt to this reality so far — whether it is the idea of being a national party or the hard fact of having to deal with coalition partners. The Congress does not have much chance of winning a majority on its own in the near future, nor is it accepted as a party that sets the rules of the game anymore. This is not just to do with Rahul Gandhi’s leadership but with the psyche of the party and its decision-making core. It is the challenges arising from this larger political context that will truly test Rahul Gandhi’s capabilities.
Today, the Congress party rules only a handful of states on its own — Himachal, Haryana, Rajasthan, Assam, Manipur, Andhra, Delhi and Uttarakhand. It is part of ruling coalitions in states like Jammu and Kashmir, Maharashtra, Kerala, and is a less-than-significant force in the crucial states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu. In states where it rules, the governance record of the Congress is not