At a time the Congress is facing a serious leadership crisis comes a book with a rare insight into how the party’s former president, Rahul Gandhi, and his sister Priyanka Gandhi-Vadra view the Congress organisation, its ideology and future. Significantly, in their interviews, the Gandhi siblings share the belief that a non-Gandhi can—and should—lead the party.
India Tomorrow: Conversations with the Next Generation of Political Leaders is authored by Pradeep Chhibber, Indo-American Community Chair in India Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harsh Shah, an MBA candidate at the Harvard Business School. The book chronicles the journey of 20 politicians who are most likely to lead India in the future. The leaders interviewed by the authors include Aditya Thackeray, Akhilesh Yadav, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Asadudddin Owaisi, Devendra Fadnavis, K.T. Rama Rao, Smriti Irani, Supriya Sule, Omar Abdullah and Varun Gandhi.
As expected, the Gandhi siblings were asked how they hope to revive the Congress, which has faced successive humiliating defeats in the Lok Sabha election. The party finds itself riddled with internal dissent, and saw power being snatched from its hands in at least two states in the past year. After the 2019 Lok Sabha defeat, Rahul resigned as Congress president, taking moral responsibility and trying to instil a culture of accountability. He was also categorical that he did not want anyone from the Gandhi family, including mother Sonia Gandhi, to occupy the post he had relinquished. The Congress Working Committee, however, thought otherwise and appointed Sonia as president, instead of holding elections for the post, as Rahul had hoped.
On August 10, Sonia completed one year in this ad hoc arrangement, with clamour growing in some quarters of the party for Rahul’s return to the top. Meanwhile, some Congress leaders, such as Shashi Tharoor and Manish Tewari, have advocated that elections be held for the next president if the Gandhi family was unwilling to take charge. Suspended Congress leader Sanjay Jha even claimed that 100 party leaders, including MPs, had written to Sonia demanding a leadership change and transparency in internal elections. The party has, however, denied this.
In his interview in the book, Rahul has made it clear that he is in no mood to return to the top Congress post. “I don’t need to be the Congress president to fight for the party or work on strengthening it,” he says. Sister Priyanka appears to second his decision. “he said that none of us should be president of the party, and I am in full agreement with him. I think that the party should find its own path,” she says.
Priyanka tries to dispel the impression that even when not holding official positions, the Gandhis continue to be power centres and do not allow any elected president to function independently. “if we wanted to step back and give other people the freedom to take decisions and do anything, I don’t see why there should be an encumbrance. It depends very much on the way we look at it, and I don’t think that any of us look at it that way. I think if there were to be another party president, he would be my boss. If he tells me tomorrow that he doesn’t want me in Uttar Pradesh but wants me to be in Andaman and Nicobar, then I would jolly well go to Andaman and Nicobar,” she says.
The most significant insight from the interviews is how Rahul and Priyanka see their roles in politics. Both seem unaffected by short-term electoral debacles and have set their sights on long-term reforms for the country and their party. “I’m here for the long haul,” declares Rahul, who pins hopes on the people to bring change. “Eventually, it is the rising anger against the imposition of their ideology on every Indian that will lead to the electoral downfall of the BJP,” he says in the book.
Priyanka offers a glimpse of the party structure she would like to build in Uttar Pradesh, the state she is in charge of. She elaborates: “I often ask party workers what they do all day, and they tell me they participate in party demonstrations, etc. However, if there is a problem in the village, are you the first guy there? Are you the guy people come to? Do you take them to the local police station to file a complaint? Do you fight for them against the local thug? That element of connecting with the public, at least in Uttar Pradesh, seems to have slipped. I would think of building those areas well. But it is a long haul.”
Both Rahul and Priyanka are aware of the problems ailing the party—the failure to connect with people, a poor organisational structure based on patronage and the inability to convince people about the strength of the Congress’s ideology. “We are not connecting with people. We are actually functioning within ourselves,” says Priyanka. Rahul minces no words as he declares “any strategy we develop has to be effective in convincing a majority of the electorate that the Congress ideology and the Congress party are a better alternative”.
But the bigger question is if the electorate has the patience and trust to wait for the “long-haul” politics of the Gandhis and accept them as better alternatives to the current dispensation. More importantly, does the Congress itself have the patience for a slow-cooked reinvention recipe? As Priyanka herself asks: “What is the incentive for younger, more passionate people?”
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