Opinion: Time For Rahul Gandhi To Do A Vajpayee

It is time for Rahul Gandhi to take the backseat and pass the baton to someone else. If he is unwilling, then Sonia Gandhi should talk to him as Congress president and make him understand why. If he is still not ready, Sonia Gandhi should take the hard decision. That decision should not be left to the Congress party or to the Congress Working Committee as they will never have the courage. Due to their parasitic nature, they will also not risk telling the truth.

In the Indian context, a political party is defined by its leader and most parties are led by families. So-called senior leaders neither have the autonomy nor the willingness to exercise their democratic right to question the leadership and demand accountability for the party's defeat.

I have always believed that Rahul Gandhi is an intelligent person and a nice human being. His only problem is that he is operating at a time when the political ecosystem is not favourable to his kind of politics. I also know that he reads a lot and that he is in a better position to know that sometimes in history, it's better to take the backseat and wait for the opportune time rather than fight against the grain and damage oneself and the organisation one is leading. Rahul Gandhi does not need to go too far in the past. If he digs up the BJP's history, he will get enough material and more to not only recalibrate his own politics but also that of the party he is supposed to be leading.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the darling of the BJP before the rise of Narendra Modi. In 1984, when the BJP was reduced to two MPs in parliament, the BJP took the call to ask Vajpayee to take a backseat and help rebuild the party from scratch. 

Vajpayee, the tallest leader of the party since Shyama Prasad Mukherjee - the founder of the BJP's predecessor Jan Sangh and once a member of Jawaharlal Nehru's Cabinet - made way for his junior, Lal Krishna Advani. The rest is history. The BJP never looked back.

Politics in those days was not so vindictive. Leaders were never this invested in the vitriolic discrediting of opponents. The BJP, since Modi became its Prime Ministerial candidate in 2013, has changed dramatically in its attacks on political opponents. Perhaps taking tips from Barack Obama's campaign, team Modi unleashed its energy and resources for a "destroy-the-opponent-in-the-public-perception" campaign to distort the image of the leader in the opposition camp permanently.

Since then, Rahul Gandhi has been so viciously targeted by Modi's media team that a large section of the Indian electorate is convinced he is good for nothing and his only qualification to be the leader of the Congress is that he happens to be a member of the Nehru-Gandhi family. The word "Pappu" has been purposely attached to him.

There is no doubt that Rahul Gandhi is the only leader who has taken Modi head on, on major issues. He could be among the few leaders not scared of the Modi government and its investigating agencies; he never minces words while attacking the central government and the BJP and regularly puts them in the dock for the right reasons. Unfortunately for him, he does not strike a chord with the voters and is not taken seriously by them.

The hard reality is that because of comparisons with Modi, Rahul Gandhi stands no chance in national politics. At a time when an existential crisis is staring at the Congress, he and Sonia Gandhi should understand that they need to make a "strategic retreat" for a "future leap" like the BJP did in the mid-1980s.

No leader could match Atal Behari Vajpayee's magnetism, charisma, oratory and connect with the people but the party was not winning under his leadership. The party took a conscious decision to remove him. In BJP's history, it is one of the party's boldest decisions, one that could have led it to ruin, but it proved to be a boon. 1984 was the election in which even Vajpayee himself lost from Gwalior. A committee was formed under the chairmanship of senior BJP leader Krishna Lal Sharma to investigate what led to this political apocalypse. Pramod Mahajan was to assist him. As Nalin Mehta writes in his book, The New BJP, the committee engaged with more than 4,000 party workers and 1,000 friends of the BJP and reached the conclusion that the party had to return to its ideology, that is Hindutva or cultural nationalism. 

The BJP, after splitting from the Janta Party, had deviated from Hindutva and had adopted Gandhian Socialism as its core belief system. Vajpayee believed that in a secular polity, a party based on Hindutva will not get enough traction to form the government. He was wrong.

The party in search of "positive secularism" looked confused and lost its unique identity and the cadre was not enthused enough to commit itself wholeheartedly during elections. The loss was inevitable. The scale was unprecedented. Surgery was the only option to prevent certain death. In May 1986, Advani was chosen to lead the new party, which junked moderate politics rooted in parliamentary traditions, and the Ram Mandir movement took centrestage in the BJP's agenda. 

It is unfair to compare Rahul Gandhi with Vajpayee but the Congress is at the crossroads the BJP was then. The Congress today needs a leader who is more sure-footed and who can connect with the people with a clear ideological thrust. Above all, one whose ability to lead is unquestioned in the public perception and who can take the party along. Half measures won't work. If the party thinks Prashant Kishor is the answer then it's living in a fool's paradise because if his prescription is that Rahul should continue and he (PK) should have all the power to execute his plan, then I must confess that either PK has not diagnosed the Congress's illness or he is not honest enough to tell the party the terrible truth. 

The truth is that Rahul Gandhi, despite being a good man, is not the right person - at the moment - to lead the party. That does not mean it is the end of the road for Rahul Gandhi.

Once Advani assumed leadership of the BJP, many thought Vajpayee's innings was over. But it dawned on the BJP/RSS a decade later that only Vajpayee could be the Prime Minister in a coalition era. He was sworn in as Prime Minister, thrice. The golden boy of Hindutva (Advani) eternally waited for his turn to be Prime Minister but it never came.

Now the question is, will Sonia Gandhi bite the bullet and take the call or will Rahul Gandhi volunteer? It's a tough call but it has to be taken if the Congress has to rise from the ashes. 

(Ashutosh is author of 'Hindu Rashtra' and Editor, satyahindi.com.)

Disclaimer: These are the personal opinions of the author.

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