Sunanda K. Datta-Ray | A new narrative for India's future: Can Rahul script it?

The respect and deference accorded to him stresses that the importance lies in the position, not the person

The ancient Romans knew how to bring the most soaring ego down to earth. They devised the ceremonial triumph for an imperial hero -- a Caesar -- who rode in a decorative open chariot through streets that were packed with adoring crowds. The cheers of a frenzied multitude rang in his ears and flowers and garlands cascaded on his head over which was held aloft the victor’s laurel wreath.

The official who held the wreath also fulfilled a more sombre task. Amid the crowd’s heady roar, mingling with a myriad chants and cheers, his was the lone voice of reason and realism. “Remember you are only a man!” he intoned continuously, for only the hero’s ears: “Remember you are only a man!”

His nearest equivalent in today’s parliamentary democracies is the Leader of the Opposition. He is, of course, also much more at the same time. As the symbol of peaceful change, he is the President or Prime Minister in waiting, the prospective head of an alternative government. The respect and deference accorded to him stresses that the importance lies in the position, not the person. Recognising this, most democratic systems entitle a Leader of the Opposition to almost the same emoluments as the head of government. His credible role ensures that no matter what the hiccups, the smooth stream of continuous governance is not disrupted.

That is why Rahul Gandhi’s performance in the Lok Sabha is infinitely more important than his Bharat Jodo Yatra. The latter was an exhilarating and exciting personal adventure, an opportunity to renew his bonding with the masses and reassert his position as the Indian National Congress’ undisputed leader. It cannot compare for constitutional significance with the cut and thrust of parliamentary debate which defines a politician’s identity and policies and exposes a government’s failures. Any muzzling of that process by expunging crucial passages from parliamentary speeches, prime ministerial silence on vital national issues, restrictions on media coverage such as the Editors Guild of India recently pointed out in letters to the Speaker of the Lok Sabha and the Chairman of the Rajya Sabha or the least hint of partisan behaviour on the part of legislative presiding officers must naturally be deplored: they strike at the roots of democracy.

However, sneers and mockery at Mr Gandhi’s expense reassures the world that he need not worry about his political future. Narendra Modi would not have attacked his lineage so sharply if he had not felt it necessary to try to cut the Congress leader down to size. The Prime Minister’s scathing rhetorical question -- “Nehru was such a great person, then why does none of them use the Nehru surname?” -- was clearly an attempt to push Rahul back into the juvenile “Pappu” mould that he has obviously outgrown. A “Pappu” basking in ancestral glory poses no threat to his adversaries. An outspoken critic armed with facts and figures (not to say photographs!) and more fluent in English and Hindi than many government spokesmen can strike terror in defenders of the status quo.

It has taken Jawaharlal Nehru’s great-grandson a long time to achieve this recognition of his standing as a mature political leader in his own right. At one time some feared that the promise of his youth would remain his most prized asset. His career until recently was not always scintillating. When Mr Gandhi led the Congress in the 2014 general election, his party suffered its worst-ever electoral result, winning only 44 seats against the 206 it had captured in 2009. He succeeded his mother as party leader in 2017 and led the Congress into the 2019 general election. The negligible rise in the party’s tally to 52 did not mean the 10 per cent of seats it needed to claim the post of Leader of the Opposition a poor performance that prompted Mr Gandhi’s resignation and the return to the party’s top post of his Italian-born mother, Sonia Gandhi.

That, too, was not an illuminating example of political astuteness. A restrictive mother and son cast suggests both lack of talent and of confidence at the top; it cannot inspire public trust. The chance of breaking out of that pattern was neglected in 2022 for although the new party president, Mallikarjun Kharge, was not a family member, he was seen as enjoying Mrs Gandhi’s blessings. There is reason to believe that without in any way faulting the veteran Mr Kharge as a political leader, many attributed the defeat of the personable, popular, promising and younger Shashi Tharoor to this factor. Recent reports of Mr Tharoor’s inclusion among the organisers of the Congress’s 85th plenary session to be held in Raipur suggest that wiser counsel has prevailed at some levels at least of a party that cannot afford to squander its most gifted activists.

Many talented young political careerists have already left the party in disappointment. Many remain disgruntled. Mr Gandhi can prove his statesmanship by assuaging bruised feelings, restoring faith in Jawaharlal Nehru’s inclusive vision of a multicultural India in which the minorities did not have to fear second-class treatment, and scripting a new narrative for India’s political future. No one will cavil at a bigger role for his 51-year-old sister, but while Priyanka Gandhi Vadra’s formal elevation to an important position was expected and seemed logical at an earlier stage, any such move now would strengthen misgivings about the manpower that the Grand Old Party has at its disposal and the spirit of democratic competition that it allows. The member for Wayanad in Kerala who served as the president of the Indian National Congress from December 16, 2017 to July 3, 2019 and is chairperson of the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India, not his mother or sister, must be the principal architect of the future. He must script a new narrative for a country whose politics has always suffered from sycophancy, nepotism and crony capitalism, but never as blatantly as now when small men in outsize turbans can cite “bara sau saal ki gulami ki manasikta” (the mentality of 1,200 years of servitude) to justify every excess.

“We want no Caesars” -- Nehru had famously thundered in 1937. That could be the rallying cry for the Congress Party’s -- and India’s -- rejuvenation in 2024.

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