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 colossus.
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 community.
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.
(13-02-2010-Amulya Ganguli is a political analyst. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)