Why Rahul Gandhi Matters

Rahul Gandhi matters for the quality of his moral resistance—and for his intuitive understanding that it takes more than electoral arithmetic to take down totalitarian regimes

Congress workers and residents line up along the beachside to watch the launch of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kanyakumari on September 7, 2022
Congress workers and residents line up along the beachside to watch the launch of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in Kanyakumari on September 7, 2022

Ajit Anushahi

Even the headline will invite derision — such is the power of propaganda.

It didn’t help that the Congress, with Rahul Gandhi at the helm, won a paltry 44 Lok Sabha seats in the general election of 2014. In 2019, it managed only 52 seats, still shy of the minimum 10 per cent strength in the lower house that would have qualified it as the leading party of the Opposition. Rahul took the blame for the party’s defeat and stepped down as party president.

Those sobering statistics are well known and were replayed even in the parting rant of Ghulam Nabi Azad, the latest in a series of Congress leaders who abandoned ship when career ambitions trumped any loyalty they might have had for the party or its ideological moorings.

Rahul Gandhi has been called many disparaging names by his political adversaries. He has been accused of being a part-timer in politics. He has been trolled incessantly, and been the object of the kind of media scrutiny more reasonably trained at those in power. He has impassively witnessed a steady erosion in the ranks of the party — and has not once badmouthed those who left.

But even those who wish the Congress well and know its counterpoising worth in the Indian polity will concede that the party is in crisis. Rahul acknowledged it fairly early, and even made a push to rebuild the Congress from the ground up, but he also found out that despite the leverage he had in the party, it wouldn’t be easy to make the Congress reinvent itself.

Why, then, does he matter?

Before we get to that, let’s take on board another detail that may alter our perspective on Rahul’s supposed ‘failure’. Even apart from the fact that anti-incumbency in 2014 was directed at the Congress—it had been in power for a decade before that—and the party, therefore, was at the receiving end of a desire for change, other opposition parties, less directly in the line of public ire, were also given a wide berth.

From Kashmir to Maharashtra, no party north of the Vindhyas has done much better in elections, certainly not in the Lok Sabha. Even in state assembly elections, rarely has a state been wrested from the BJP after 2013. The Congress, under Rahul, did it thrice.

For all the accusations hurled at him, of being an entitled dynast and wielding power without direct responsibility, people in the party have felt free to openly criticise him, without inviting any real consequences. Do a quick survey of the Indian political landscape and ask which other top leader of stature might stomach that kind of open dissent.

Now take a moment to consider the media-manufactured clamour about the procrastination of organisational elections in the Congress. Inner-party democracy is a fine thing and should be encouraged, but shouldn’t the same standards apply across the board? Which other political party of note in India has ever held an election to choose its leader? Given the broad support Rahul has of leaders with a mass base in the party, it is not really in doubt who would win if he chose to contest the election for Congress president—now scheduled for October 17. (Word is that the party high command wants Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot to step into the role).

Or turn your attention to the ongoing Bharat Jodo Yatra. Which other national leader in the Opposition ranks has that kind of pull, that visible connect with the people across the country? If people’s minds and hearts must be won before their votes, the Opposition will need Rahul Gandhi to challenge the BJP/Modi juggernaut.

Much, though probably not enough, has been said about the takeover of our democratic institutions—the judiciary, the media, the central investigative agencies, the Election Commission. It is impossible, in this situation, to keep our faith in the electoral process, to believe that the electoral verdict we get is really the will of the people. Analyses based on electoral results thrown up by a dubious exercise, under the aegis of a seemingly compromised institution, also become questionable.

Even more worrying is the attitude of India’s opinion-making, educated middle class, which has no real skin in the game—and yet has disproportionate influence with an emerging, predominantly Bahujan, lower middle class, which often takes its cues from that elite. What makes the current divisive, majoritarian socio-political drift even more scary is the fact that privileged Indians of means and influence, who have a fair sense of how bad the situation is, are not really bothered because their little lives are not affected.

When the social fabric is so badly damaged, the solutions no longer lie in cobbling together seats and vote percentages and elusive majorities. They lie beyond those possibilities, in the social, economic and ideological realms. At the turn of the twentieth century, a debate started in Maharashtra, on whether to prioritise social reforms or political independence. Gandhi settled the question with the assertion that they had to go hand in hand—that a political struggle must be moored in social and economic realities but equally social reforms couldn’t be effected without political independence.

Rahul is no Mahatma but he is certainly trying to walk in his footsteps. He is the only pan-India leader who is looking at the crisis in India’s democracy and possible solutions through a wide-angle social lens—not just in party-political or electoral terms. He can see that India needs healing, that the country needs to renew its commitment to social justice. He knows people have to be heard and assured that they are not simply votes. Rahul Gandhi matters for the quality of his moral resistance—and for his intuitive understanding that it takes more than electoral arithmetic to take down totalitarian regimes.

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