What now RahuI Gandhi?
Ajay Gudavarthy Now that Rahul Gandhi has got formally elevated to the number 2 position, the question really is what he stands for and...
Now that Rahul Gandhi has got formally elevated to the number 2 position, the question really is what he stands for and how he proposes to respond the changing India that he has been talking about. He has performed a series of cameo roles and failed to make the big impact the Congress was looking for. He is searching for an image that will propel him into an acceptable and legitimate leader of a national party with a long legacy in India. All his predecessors have had the advantage of catapulting themselves into national leadership roles riding on a wave: Rajiv Gandhi after the assassination of Indira Gandhi and Sonia after the death of Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul has had no such wave but has had instead the arduous task of creating a wave in his favour and it is, perhaps, the changing nature of Indian democracy that has failed to provide him with such a favourable context. Over the last few years Rahul Gandhi made a series of experiments of constructing an image for himself. He was in the news for a range of consciously and cautiously conducted experiments, including his breach of security for travelling in sleeper class to Gorakhpur to enquire about the plight of the migrants, as he did earlier by travelling in the local in Mumbai; he conveyed the desire of the student organisations in UP to have elections for student bodies to the Ministry of Human Resources. Before that he was busy campaigning for development and the rural poor in Bihar, 'compelling' his fellow Congressmen to commit the blasphemy of comparing him to Jayaprakash Narayan which was only putting in a metaphorical language Rahul's carefully crafted persona of a social activist. He did not hesitate, on an earlier occasion, to even go public with regard to the issue of displacement of the tribals of Niyamgiri hills in Orissa, when he assured them that he was their 'foot-soldier' and would carry forward their battles right up to the power-centres in Delhi. The image of a social activist, a rebel or a messiah of the downtrodden raised the obvious question: Who is Rahul Gandhi fighting against and whose government is it anyway? Why does he need to take a posturing against his own government? This seems to be the sordid story of achieving growth with the rhetoric of equity. The formidable combination of Manmohan-Montek is only too happy to carry forward the growth story with repeated public statements on achieving 8% growth rate and suggested target of crossing into double figures by next year, creating an investment-friendly climate for global capital flows and incentives to the corporate sector. The Prime Minister did not even hesitate to disallow free distribution of rotting rice to the poor, since it would, he claimed, damage the incentives to the farmers. These pronouncements are then, often, countered by Sonia and, of late, Rahul Gandhi who have come across as those representing the equity part of the story. They are the 'dissenting` voices that raise the issues of adequate compensation for any land acquired for purposes of development, light for implementation of the RTI; are in favour of the tribals and all those dispossessed by the current developmental path adopted by the Congress. The current phase of economic reforms seems to be accompanied by a welfare dimension, without a Welfare State. There is no visible long-term welfare policy structure in place, for instance, either with regard to labour laws or social costs of production. However, there are any number of welfare policies in all the Congress States ranging from the MGNREGS to Indira Vilkas Ayogan, subsidies to farmers, loan waivers, free electricity, rupee 2 a KG rice schemes, and free housing. The number of policies named alter the Gandhi family was so wide-ranging that the various ministries had to be reminded that they need to use the `brand` name of the Gandhi family with prudence. This, rather new mode of `managing` growth with a discourse of equity, has led to new institutional arrangements. While the State institutions, such as the Planning Commission, are headed by neo-monetarists, the discourse of welfare seems to have more space outside the State either through the political parties, individual leaders or to be found in semi-governmental bodies such as the NAC with social activities, such as Jean Drteze and Aruna Roy who have been championing causes that include rehauling of the PDS. This allows the State on the one hand to continue with a long-term undivided focus on growth-oriented policies, and the Gandhi family to retain their welfare, if not a socialist rhetoric. This new institutional arrangements has to a new culture of dissenters being tolerated within the Congress. While the likes of Digvijay Singh make noises on all sorts of issues, including adverse comments on their allies to rein them in, others like Mani Shankar Aiyer have stayed in the headlines with their anti-CWG statements. This range and intensity of dissent is allowed only for those outside the government, and not for either those in the government holding various ministries or even those, such as the former media adviser to the PMO who was chastised for going public in critiquing the Congress as a status-quoist party. In fact, the Prime Minister had to finally claim that his Cabinet is more cohesive than even Nehru's. The dissenting voices are being tolerated, as never before, in the history of the Congress. This could well be a carefully crafted strategy, but it has not, at least for Rahul Gandhi, worked favourably in the sense of being caught between being a dissenter and a `foot soldier` and taking over the reins of the party. After his party`s debacle in UP and Bihar, it is obvious that Rahul needs a new image makeover but what is a convincing image that can make him a legitimate and credible leader is the most challenging of questions, and how this is going to play out will hold some important clues to what is to happen to dynasty rule in a democracy. The writer is associated with Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi