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Will Congress bet on Rahul?

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Mani Shankar Aiyar

I am so far out on the periphery of the Congress that I have no idea when — or where (or even whether) — the All India Congress Committee plenary would be held to elect the next president of the Congress.

Indeed, I have no idea who that president will be, although the name most in circulation is that of Rahul Gandhi, provided always his mother does not seek another term.

Rahul Gandhi himself has said he would rather not seek the presidency as a birthright but through the freely expressed will of the party. That’s easier said than done — because who in the party would want to stand against him?

It is all very well to say that inner party democracy demands an alternative choice, but the eternal question remains: Who is going to bell the cat? I would be pleased — if astonished — were a candidate to show up, but unless he or she is a dark horse cached away for the present in some quiet corner, I can see no alternative to either mother or son becoming the next president of the party — only because that is the entirely democratic desire of the party, however eccentric or idiosyncratic that might appear to those outside the party.

After all, neither Modi nor Amit Shah nor the cocktail crowd (read Tavleen Singh) are going to determine who heads our party.

So, what is the Congress history to which I am so keen to draw attention?

It is the personal histories of the four leaders from one family who have dominated the Congress since at least 1929 — Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi, and Sonia Gandhi.

This might explain why, despite the apprehensions of many about the suitability of Rahul for the job and their concern at the Congress not throwing up a viable alternative, the Congress is most likely to place its 2019 electoral bet on Rahul Gandhi.

Nehru-Gandhi’s days of glory

Jawaharlal Nehru attended his first Congress session at Bankipore within months of his return, playing no part at all but gawking at the leaders. Nehru says he “felt dissatisfied with life in those early years.”

A lazy, easy, untroubled life that soon “lost its freshness … being engulfed in a dull routine of a pointless and futile existence” that Nehru attributed to his “mongrel education” in England. A “sense of the utter insipidity of life grew upon me.”

Yet, he did little or nothing about it for seven long years, from 1912 till 1919.

He did not have to because he was swathed in the lap of his father’s luxury. “My own political and public activities in the early war years were modest and I kept away from addressing public gatherings.”

This was the same retiring young man who, once he came under the spell of Mahatma Gandhi, was to sweep through the country over the next decade like a tornado to become president of the party at the incredibly young age of 40, and lead the nation to “Purna Swaraj.”

Jawaharlal, thus, set the Nehru-Gandhi tradition of taking their own sweet time to grow into leadership. But from then on, there has been no stopping them.

Indira was the same. At Somerville, Oxford, she was utterly undistinguished, spending most of her time rushing off to London to meet Feroze. Says her biographer, Katherine Frank: “She only spoke once on a platform — and it was a fiasco.”

I well remember how during the first few months of her becoming PM, cinema audiences would giggle uncontrollably at her convent accent and piping voice. Lohia mocked her as a “goongi gudiya” (a dumb doll). That sneer got obliterated only five years later when, after the 1971 war, Vajpayee hailed her as “Durga Mata” — that is the long road she took to grow to reverential stature.

A world-class statesman

Rajiv Gandhi matched his mother’s undistinguished academic career at school and failed his exams both at Cambridge and Imperial College, London.

He returned to India as an airlines pilot.

Fit as a fiddle, he had no taste for politics or public life, content to be swaddled in the warmth and affection of his family.

But when the call of duty came, he did not look back. Arguably, no PM after Nehru has had such an excellent first year in office as Rajiv did, but when challenges mounted, he was man enough to tackle them. He was on his way back when an assassin blew him up.

But in five short years, whatever his errors, he did awake the nation to his vision of taking India into the 21st century through science, technology, and morality.

Another late starting Nehru-Gandhi who, after a very hesitant beginning when it took him 12 takes to record his first TV statement of under a dozen lines the evening he became PM, grew into a world-class statesman and a political leader of national stature, win or lose.

I was personal witness to Sonia Gandhi’s first 18 months as Congress president.

That had been preceded by seven years of monastic existence following her husband’s brutal end, during which she kept her very limited political role under wraps to preserve the privacy she so treasured.

But consider her path to progress.

After five years in opposition, she quietly stitched together a rainbow coalition that defeated such a stalwart as Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his empty boast of “India Shining” to gift the Congress political office for an unbroken decade that resulted in Dr Manmohan Singh becoming the longest-serving PM after Nehru.

Yet another Nehru-Gandhi who took her time rising to the top but, once there, became the symbol of all her party stood for — win or lose.

Where does Congress stand now? 

And now, the Moving Finger writes and prepares to bring to the Congress presidency the latest Nehru-Gandhi, young Rahul.

He has had a long probation, but it was one thing to be preoccupied tinkering with some part of the engine and now being in a position to overhaul the whole machine.

From some of his actions, and a lot of his remarks, he does seem to have a plan in mind. Only time will tell whether he holds in his hands the key to renewal and rejuvenation. The party believes — and I share the party’s belief — that he has it in him to pick up momentum once he is fully in charge.

The panic in Modi’s voice betrays a creeping realisation that time is running out for his brand of politics. It is with confidence that the Congress looks forward to the next Lok Sabha elections. If Rahul Gandhi, as Congress president, is able to persuade Mayawati to join the fold, Modi will soon be history.

Then, with a sigh of relief, the nation can look forward to blooming again.

  • Mani Shankar Aiyar is former Congress MP, Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha

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