At Berkeley, Rahul glosses over what ails the Congress

Rasheed Kidwai | 14 Sep 2017 10:54 PM

At another level, Rahul's speech and interaction at Berkeley has renewed his ongoing battle with Union Minister Smriti Irani. Photo: PTI

Rahul Gandhi's candid admission about Congress-UPA's "arrogance" during 2012-14 is welcoming. But it raises several issues relating to the absence of any subsequent course correction, accountability and future road-map.

After its May 2014 electoral defeat, there has been no open discussion in the Congress on what led to the debacle. An AICC session has not been called in the past three years and the last plenary (83rd AICC plenary) was held in Delhi in 2010. These are glaring omissions as per the Congress's constitution.

Speaking at the University of California at Berkeley, Rahul also declared that he is ready to take the mantle of leadership of the Congress party. He, however, did not spell out whether he will be elected or nominated.

For years, Rahul has advocated the restoration of inner-party democracy in the grand old party. Should he not be setting an example by contesting for the party president's post? Congress members of all hues and shades should be encouraged to participate in internal party polls even if the entire Congress election apparatus is far from satisfactory.

At another level, Rahul's speech and interaction at Berkeley has renewed his ongoing battle with Union Minister Smriti Irani. It is true that many Ministers and BJP functionaries have commented on Rahul Berkeley speech but Irani was the first off the block and most fierce.

Irani has a knack of stealing limelight. Encouraged by both Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Sangh Parivar, she loves to take on Rahul. The scar of an electoral defeat in Amethi (2014) has made her a lot more determined. She rarely misses an opportunity to ridicule, oppose and take on the Congress vice-president.

So, when Rahul travelled to the United States to showcase himself as a "serious politician", she quickly labelled him as a “failed politician.” Her criticism was crisp but was it valid?

Take for instance the slur of “failed politician.” Just because the Congress failed to win the 2014 Lok Sabha election, does it mean Rahul is a failed politician? Some Twitter handles aligned to the Congress went on to question how could Irani hold Ministerial posts without winning any direct election.

But the Congress seems to be suffering from selective amnesia. Manmohan Singh remained Prime Minister for 10 long years without getting elected to the Lok Sabha. In fact, like Irani, Manmohan Singh has nothing to show in terms of winning any direct election.

There is barely a six-year age gap between Irani (born in 1976) and Rahul (born in 1970). Prime Minister Modi and his spin doctors seem wary of according a lot of importance to Rahul in terms of making it a Rahul versus Modi narrative in 2019. The BJP is aware that both Indira Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi gained tremendously because the opposition parties targeted them specifically. But even in terms of Irani versus Rahul, the AICC vice-president gained simply because the BJP, perhaps as a matter of strategy, chose to accord him the importance of a worthy opponent.

There are several factors responsible for Rahul’s somewhat cogent and satisfactory performance abroad. His long years of stay in Florida, Boston and other US cities had him more confident. His reliance on prepared text and homework by a team of professionals, namely Sam Pitroda, Milind Deora and Shashi Tharoor, provided some cutting edge. It's a pity why Rahul does not use a professional set of speech writers on home ground.

His Berkeley speech wasn't bad; but live interaction still remains a problem area. While talking about dynasty politics, Rahul should have spoken about dynasties in the US, the concentration of wealth with them and even the politically trending Bush Family, Clinton Family and, who knows, the Obamas or the Trump family next way Donald is going about Ivanka.

The Congress should draw solace from the fact that as long as the BJP is taking note of Rahul Gandhi and what he says, irrespective of where he says it, even if he is criticised by Irani in her inimitable style, he and the Congress will stay politically relevant. This is a real and substantial gain from his ongoing US tour.

That said, Rahul's focus on the  need to review the first-past-the-post system in parliamentary democracy sounded a bit rich. Following the May 2014 general election, the Congress has been questioning the first-past-the-post’ electoral system. In a nutshell, the candidate with the most votes in a constituency wins the election in this system. All other votes count for nothing.

The main criticism of the first-past-the-post system is that individuals can be elected and parties can achieve a governing majority of parliamentary seats even though they have not received a majority of the votes. But then, barring the 1952, 1957 and 1984 general elections, the Congress has been a major beneficiary of the first-past-the-post system.

Rahul's speech and interactions in the US provide glimpses about his gameplan for the 2019 general elections: A Rahul-led Congress seems trying to beat the BJP at its own game. This strategy in itself, is risky.

Rasheed Kidwai is the Associate Editor with The Telegraph. His Twitter handle is @rasheedkidwai

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