Can Rahul Rescue the Congress 

By Aijaz Zaka Syed 

What’s Rahul Gandhi having these days for breakfast? The scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has been on a roll having discovered, in the words of that whacky hero in movie, Austin Powers, his ‘mojo’. His stinging attacks on Narendra Modi over issues like the catastrophic demonetization and the stillborn GST (goods and services tax) have the BJP running for cover.

Rahul Gandhi’s performance in Modi’s home turf Gujarat has been simply breathtaking, attracting huge crowds for a change. He has been mobbed wherever he goes in the poll-bound state, with the public eagerly lapping up his clever one-liners and no-holds-barred attacks on the government’s disastrous performance on various fronts.

It may not amount to much but is certainly a sign of shifting popular mood that for the first time the Congress leader has surged ahead of Modi in terms of Twitter retweets and talking points generated on social media. Not a small feat for someone who, unlike the media-obsessed PM, discovered the power of social media rather late in the day — in 2015.

Gone is the image of the soft spoken, shy rookie weighed down by the legacy he has inherited and who would rather be somewhere else than face the bloodthirsty hounds of an increasingly aggressive and abusive BJP in and outside parliament.

You couldn’t blame him either given the steep fall that the Congress, haunted by a series of scams and electoral defeats, has been staring at for some time. Indeed, the second term of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had been largely dedicated to firefighting on this front, with the party being perpetually on the defensive.

Perhaps this is why the not-so-young Gandhi has yet to take control of the party, despite the deteriorating health of Sonia Gandhi.

Many of the Congress’ old guard, including his mother, seemed to believe that he is far from ready in the face of growing expectations and demands of the party faithful to pass on the baton to the next generation.

The fact that Rahul has had an uncanny habit of disappearing right in the middle of crucial electoral battles or has far from delivered in critical states like Uttar Pradesh has not helped his case.

However, that is changing.

For the first time the BJP government and the vast and committed propagandist machinery of the Parivar and corporate media that supports it is beginning to look rather unsure of itself. As even Tavleen Singh, a Modi loyalist, acknowledges, the façade of invincibility has cracked.

The old warhorse that is Modi looks so jaded and jarringly repetitive, as he peddles the same old claims about his government’s lofty “achievements”. So much so, his characteristic ‘Mitron’ (friends) has become a butt of jokes among standup comedians.

This even as the economy has been steadily declining with jobs increasingly difficult to come by in a predominantly young country. Farmers have been killing themselves in their thousands as rural distress spreads. This is a country where agriculture remains the main source of livelihood.

It is not just the farmers and rural areas that have been finding the going tough. Even the business community and urban middle classes, the core supporters of the BJP, have not been too happy with the way things have panned out over the past couple of years.

In a state like Gujarat, known for its powerful mercantile community and dedicated supporter of the party, popular discontent is deepening.

The ground is shifting from under BJP’s feet. It could lead to further disillusionment with the party that has been bursting with hubris over its electoral successes in states like UP, ahead of the 2019 Elections. With Modi’s slogans like ‘Congress Mukt Bharat’ (the Congress-free India) the BJP’s pompous sense of entitlement may yet prove its undoing.

The saffron party could still win the assembly elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, given its dedicated organizational presence and massive electoral campaign. Its loyal Hindu vote bank is unlikely to desert it so soon. Yet it is undeniable that the BJP is beginning to look vulnerable. It may find the going particularly tough in 2019. If it manages to still win the reelection battle, it would be because the opposition remains weak and divided with opportunists like Nitish Kumar, once portrayed as a challenger to Modi, jumping the ship midstream.

The only party that is still capable of offering a credible alternative is the Congress. For all its flaws and sins, it remains the only party that has truly national presence and can claim to represent all communities and states. After all, it led the movement for India’s independence under stalwarts like Gandhi, Nehru and Maulana Azad and governed the country for nearly six decades. It used to be India’s natural party of governance.

Today, that distinction is claimed by the BJP despite all that it has done over the years to undermine the country in the name of religion and nationalism.

However, the Congress is guilty of willingly surrendering and ceding its preeminence in Indian politics by trying to act like the ‘B’ team of the BJP and trying to be all things to all people. When you start playing the game of soft Hindutva, as Indira Gandhi often did and Rajiv Gandhi did over the Babri Masjid, why shouldn’t the electorate go for its original proponents?

Today, if India is not guided by the worldview of Gandhi but by the dogma of his killers with the BJP lawmakers openly cheering for Godse and the Congress has been reduced to a double digit figure in Parliament the party has no one to blame but itself.

More disturbing is the total saffronization of all arms and facets of Indian establishment or the deep state. From legislature to bureaucracy to judiciary and armed forces to police to the media, the Hindutva truly rules India today, in every sense of the word.

Even if the Congress or any other party manages to stop the BJP in 2019 or 2024, it wouldn’t be easy to deal with the ideology of hate that brought it to power. Yet the Congress cannot afford to give up or give in. Neither can the reasonable majority of Indians who still believe in an inclusive and more representative democracy as imagined by the founding fathers of the republic.

It may still not be too late to revive the grand old party and rediscover its strength, just as Rahul has discovered his. The Congress needs to start working with all secular and democratic forces in the country, rallying the nation once again for the goal of building a healthy, progressive and inclusive democracy, as envisioned by India’s liberal constitution and its farsighted architects. The Congress must up come with a redeeming narrative, its own idea of an inclusive India, to counter the BJP’s cult of hate. It can still win back India provided it believes in itself and sincerely works for the original Idea of India – the ideal of a secular and democratic nation representing all segments of society.

— Aijaz Zaka Syed is a widely published journalist based in the Gulf and former opinion editor of Khaleej Times. Email: 

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