The first major intervention which Rahul
Gandhi made in government policy was on the nuclear deal. But for
his support, Manmohan Singh would not have been able to secure the
party’s backing for it.
In fact, the prime minister had
virtually given up any hope when he said that life would not come to
an end without the deal. That was after Sonia Gandhi had conceded
that the communists had a point in their objections.
Clearly, it was Rahul’s championing of
the deal which ultimately won the day. What his initiative showed
was that he was capable of guiding the party (and, therefore, the
government) along the path chosen by him - and even in a direction
which was not initially favoured by his mother.
The same determination to set the agenda
was also evident from his preference for the party to go it alone in
Bihar and Uttar Pradesh in the general elections. It was considered
too daring a venture at first, but the unexpectedly good showing by
the Congress in Uttar Pradesh where its tally of parliamentary seats
jumped from nine to 21, demonstrated that Rahul’s reading of the
popular mood was right.
Since then, much of the young general
secretary’s efforts have been directed at enabling the Congress to
return to its golden days in the years immediately after
independence when it towered over the Indian political scene like a
The endeavour may not succeed, of
course. Or it may take a long time to become reality. However,
Rahul’s objectives may not relate solely to the question of turning
the Congress into the Grand Old Party it once was in terms of seats
in state assemblies and in parliament. An equally significant
intention is to achieve this end by winning back the Muslim and
Dalit votes in order to revive the old, unbeatable upper
caste-Muslim-Dalit support base, which was the Congress’s forte.
Why this combination collapsed is, of
course, well known. First, the Muslims began drifting away during
the Emergency of 1975-77 when they felt that they were being
specifically targeted during the family planning drives orchestrated
by Sanjay Gandhi. Then the exodus became more pronounced following
the demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992.
While the rise of the Bharatiya Janata
Party (BJP) in the nineties saw the upper castes turning to it in
increasing numbers from a confused Congress, the appearance of a
combative Dalit-oriented party like the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP)
led to the erosion of the Congress’s traditional influence on the
True, some of Rahul’s efforts to
resuscitate the old equations have been amateurish, as when he told
a rally that the Babri Masjid would not have been demolished if a
Nehru-Gandhi was at the head of the government. It is also
undeniable that one of the reasons why the Muslims have been
trickling back to the Congress is the failure of leaders like Lalu
Prasad and Mulayam Singh Yadav to retain their trust because of
their failures of governance.
In this respect, BSP’s Mayawati has
proved to be a more formidable opponent. Even then, the fact that
Rahul’s forays into Dalit villages have unnerved her is evident from
her somewhat tasteless comment that Rahul washed himself with a
“special soap” after spending time with the Dalits. The crude jibe
underlined her attempt to rekindle the old casteist prejudices for
her own partisan purposes.
But even more significant than these
attempts by the young Congress leader to woo specific groups was the
bold stand which he took against the rabble-rousing tactics and
vandalism of the Shiv Sena in Mumbai, forcing the Congress-led
government to act against the Sainiks after many years.
As in the case of the nuclear deal,
Rahul was overturning his party’s habit of mollycoddling the Sainiks
in order to placate the Marathi vote bank. The Congress’s cynical
cossetting of these parochial elements began in the 1960s with the
propping up of the Shiv Sena leader, Bal Thackeray, for use against
the communist trade unions, and in failing to take any substantive
action against him and the Sainiks for involvement in the Mumbai
riots of 1992-93 after the Babri Masjid demolition.
More recently, the state government was
not only seen to be “soft” on the Maharashtra Navnirman Samiti (MNS)
despite its role in attacking Hindi-speaking taxi drivers from north
India, but the administration also played its own parochial card by
once saying that prospective drivers must know Marathi if they
wanted their licences.
It was only when Rahul made it clear
during a visit to Mumbai - which he called Bombay perhaps to
irritate Bal and Raj Thackeray - that he was dead against such
localism that the government decided to crack down on the Sainiks by
arresting more than 1,600 of them in connection with their protests
against Shah Rukh Khan’s latest film, “My Name Is Khan”.
What is clear from Rahul’s support for
the nuclear deal, plans for reviving the party and firm stand
against the Shiv Sena and the MNS is that he wants to take the
Congress back to the days of his great grandfather, Jawaharlal
Nehru, when it was a modern, secular party which stood for pluralism
against the narrow-minded insular politics of the regional outfits.
Amulya Ganguli is a
political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org