Sunday, April 22, 2007

If Rahul is future, who is the past?

Byline By M.J. Akbar : If Rahul is future, who is the past?

If Rahul Gandhi is the future of the Congress, then Dr Manmohan Singh must surely be its past. The Prime Minister’s definitive statement linking the future of the Congress to Rahul Gandhi, made in the midst of a faltering UP election campaign, suggests many things. But the most important surely is that the dynamic of Congress politics has shifted from preserving Dr Singh in office to making Rahul Gandhi the next Prime Minister.

Was Dr Singh mature, or premature, in being so specific?

It was not a casual remark. Nor was it meant merely to please. If the second were the reason then Dr Singh would have been parroting it ever since he was sworn in as Prime Minister three years ago. The point of the message lies not in the content of the remark but in the timing.

The content is not news. Rahul Gandhi did not win an election from his father’s constituency, Amethi, to become minister of information and broadcasting. The tea leaves could be read in the list of Congress ministers sworn in along with Dr Singh. No one from Rahul Gandhi’s age group was given a place in government, although you could virtually hear the crash of broken young hearts as the queue formed before the President of India. The young were told to wait their turn. It was implicit that their turn would come along with Rahul Gandhi. But in those early days an ‘if’ was attached to the ‘when’, as Rahul Gandhi’s will often seemed to veer towards won’t. Dr Singh’s statement is evidence that the ‘if’ has been deleted; the ‘when’ has been notified.

The statement is clear indication to two generations of Congressmen that they have no hope of taking Dr Singh’s place; that if the Congress returns to power, it will go unambiguously to the Gandhi family.

There has been much background jostling in the past few months, as the government’s failure to protect the party vote takes its toll at the state level. The Prime Minister is head of government and must take the blame. One politician’s failure is always another politician’s hope. There is a common view that if the Congress comes a poor fourth in UP, there will be turbulence in Delhi. There is also uncertainty about whether a government candidate can win the coming elections for President of the country. It is merely human if such circumstances encourage hope in the minds of stalwarts like Pranab Mukherjee, or old hands like Sushil Shinde. The Prime Minister has informed his generation of hopefuls that they can stop hoping.

Manmohan Singh belongs to GenerationWas.
Rahul Gandhi represents GenerationNext.
What happens to GenerationInbetween?

Dr Singh is over 70. Rahul Gandhi will soon be 40. Quite a few Congressmen, some of them with substance, are trapped in between, in that last decade of hope called the Sixties. They don’t seem to be in their Sixties, for two reasons. First, because the men dye their hair. Second, most of them came to prominence after Rajiv Gandhi’s victory at the end of 1984, when they were in their early Forties. More than 22 years have passed but we still subconsciously think of them as young. They will be squeezed, but they will adjust with the future as best as they can, keeping any regret intensely personal.

The problem will be with ambitions within the same age group outside the Congress. If the Congress could win a majority on its own, this would not be a problem. But that is not possible in the foreseeable future. Will non-Congress parties within the UPA coalition accept Rahul Gandhi as easily as Congress MPs? Lalu Prasad Yadav, for instance, has not been shy of claiming the prime ministership for himself at some future date; and it is difficult to see Sharad Pawar in a Rahul Gandhi Cabinet. But all options will be subject to a single consideration: how many seats Congress wins in the next general election under Rahul Gandhi’s leadership.

In 2004, Dr Manmohan Singh became Prime Minister because Mrs Sonia Gandhi stepped aside and Rahul Gandhi did not have sufficient experience. You could argue, of course, that he still does not have sufficient experience, or he would not have made the gaffes he did on the UP campaign trail. But you don’t get experience by staring at the computer screen. Experience comes when you have stumbled on the wrong phrase, or made some exorbitant claim that induces friends to search for worry beads and opponents to check out their potential for sarcasm.

Politics at the highest level, in a democracy, is above all the art of communication. Some masters, Atal Behari Vajpayee, Narasimha Rao, or Kamaraj, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Govind Ballabh Pant and Sardar Patel from an older lot — know that to talk less is to say more. To rise beyond this you need the confidence of a post-1969 Indira Gandhi, or a Jyoti Basu at any time in his career. A genius like Jawaharlal Nehru is exceptional. But neither confidence nor genius is achieved without effort. Indira Gandhi’s composure was not an overnight phenomenon. It did not descend upon her the moment Shastri made her minister of information and broadcasting in his first Cabinet in 1964. For years, the Socialist leader Dr Ram Manohar Lohia described her derisively as "Gungi Guriya", or the silent doll. But her silence had the last word over his eloquence. Indira Gandhi understood that silence is preferable to a mistaken assertion.

Rahul Gandhi needs to appreciate the virtues of minimalism until moderation is within his reach. The past is a trap if you do not appreciate its nuances. It helps to have a speechwriter who remembers Sheikh Mujibur Rehman, the Mukti Bahini, and the innumerable Bengali refugees who fled Army repression in East Bengal in 1971. Politics is an examination in which the voter awards marks, and the voter is one tough invigilator. Rahul Gandhi can become leader of the Congress, but he cannot become leader of India without winning an election. Rajiv Gandhi emerged from his election at the crest of an unprecedented tide. Rahul Gandhi is swimming against an ebb current, for which he has no one to blame but his own government.

So was Dr Manmohan Singh’s remark mature or premature? His realism may have eliminated ambiguity in the Congress, but injected uncertainty into the coalition that he heads. If the other parties are uncomfortable with the transition in the Congress, and they know that the change is scheduled to take place before the next elections, then they could look for other alliance options. The Prime Minister might have been wiser to remain vague about the future. Could it be that there was a decision that the ground had to be prepared just in case unpredictable events catapulted the government towards an early election? We do not know.

Power is not stagnant energy; it is high voltage electricity that switches from one point to another without compunction. But you cannot indulge in too much voltage fluctuation without hurting the machinery.

If the past has beckoned the future, then it cannot allow the future to hang around idly outside the door because those with an interest in the future (which means everyone except the Prime Minister of India) will spend their time outside the room rather than inside it. A government works only when there is a sense of fusion. Confusion is its death certificate.

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