New Delhi: Twelve years of active politics behind him, while Rahul Gandhi celebrates his 46th birthday on Sunday, the Congress vice president is facing the toughest political challenge of his career. Gandhi not only has to revive the 131 year old party in most parts of the country but has to also counter a surging Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) under Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
His 46th year could also be a defining year of his political fortunes, as the Congress party wants to come back to power in Punjab politics after a decade, play a decisive role in Uttar Pradesh, wrest Goa from BJP and retain Uttarakhand which till recently was facing a mutiny by party leaders.
While party members across the country will celebrate the occasion on Sunday, for Gandhi it could be a moment of introspection. Defeat after defeat in assembly elections, increasing rebellion in state units, threat to incumbent state governments by rebel leaders and exit of senior leaders - the past two years have been the most challenging one in his political career.
“This would be the toughest phase (for him). A series of electoral and political setbacks have raised voices of rebellion. The party in the past has always looked to its “first family” to help it win elections. Rahul Gandhi is yet to perform or demonstrate the capability or even inclination to lead the parties electoral/political battles,’’ said Sandeep Shastri, said Sandeep Shastri, pro-vice-chancellor, Jain University, and director of its Centre for Research in Social Sciences and Education.
The immediate focus for Rahul Gandhi, according to senior party leaders will be formulating election strategies for poll bound states particularly Punjab and Uttar Pradesh and effecting organizational changes, if not a total overhaul, of the party’s top level leadership. The ball was set rolling for it when last week veteran leader and leader of opposition Ghulam Nabi Azad took over as general secretary incharge for Uttar Pradesh and Kamal Nath for Punjab and Haryana. While Nath resigned after three days from Punjab’s charge, he continues to hold the charge for Haryana.
“Organizational changes have been in the offing for a long time now and this would be Gandhi’s key priority. We will see more changes in the days to come. But yes, as the leader of the party, he needs to take a few tough decisions and it has to happen soon. Questions like when will he take over as president of the party, what does he plan to do about increasing dissidence and how to deal with strong regional leaders cannot wait for long,’’ a senior party leader from Uttar Pradesh said requesting anonymity.
Fourth generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, Rahul Gandhi plunged into full time politics 12 years ago, when he successfully contested the Lok Sabha elections from his family bastion of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. In 2007, he was appointed the general secretary of the party and three years ago he took charge as vice president, a move that formally anointed him as the political heir to Sonia Gandhi, the longest serving party president who had led the party to two consecutive victorious general elections in 2004 and 2009.
‘’Firstly, he needs to inspire confidence in the party rank and file that he has the appetite for a 24x7 role in politics. He now tends to demonstrate a switch on-switch off approach. Secondly, he needs to lead at the ground level and be seen as actively engaged. Thirdly, an image makeover where his communication style inspires confidence, demonstrates a long term commitmemt and reveberates with enthusiasm and energy. Finally, he needs a set of key advisers who have their ear to the ground and are trusted by him. A second line youth leadership especially in the states must be put in place,’’ Shastri added.
Ever since a drubbing in the 2014 general elections, the Congress party has lost every state election in the last two year except Bihar where it is a junior partner in the ruling alliance. It has faced rebellion from party leaders in Arunachal Pradesh which led to ousting of party led government and in Uttarakhand where chief minister survived a crisis of 9 party MLAs joined hands with the BJP. The party is facing rebellion in incumbent Meghalaya and Tripura where six party MLAs have crossed over to Trinamool Congress (TMC).
‘’Way too many people, specially rebel leaders, have pointed out how the high command of the party is inaccessible and how it is difficult to get a hearing even in politically fragile situations. Gandhi needs to take steps to reach out to the disgruntled leaders, whether it happens in the current structure where he is second in line or whether he decides to take over the top post is upto him, but the party needs to take these warnings seriously before its too late,’’ another party leader said requesting anonymity.
As Gandhi looks ahead to the next one year, his key challenges will be firming up a strategy for incumbent Punjab where it has entrusted former chief minister Captain Amarinder Singh as the face of the party, in Uttar Pradesh where it is has to ramp up its ground strength to even improve its tally from previous elections and retaining Mizoram and Uttarakhand amidst a series of problems in state units, particularly in North East.