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Prince of all he surveys: Rahul is party leader

The Congress on Saturday formally announced Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the post of party president. The 47-year-old won the contest unopposed; he steps into his mother Sonia Gandhi’s shoes. Rahul’s coronation comes in the middle of an electoral conflict with the all-winning BJP. The results of the Gujarat and Himachal elections will be known on Monday and will set the tone for Rahul’s leadership of the Congress into the state elections of 2018 and the Lok Sabha contest of 2019. Party president Rahul has embarked on an all-new journey. Here’s the Lokmarg report on the story so far.  

Prince of all he surveys

Thirteen years after his jump into politics, Rahul Gandhi appears ready to take on the Gabbar Singhs of the world, including taxes. With Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s slow-paced withdrawal of recent years from her once active role at the head of India’s oldest political outfit no other time could have been better.

Early Years

Born in 1970, Rahul was almost 34 when he announced his candidature for a Lok Sabha seat in the May 2004 elections. It had been a rather cloistered childhood, passing through Delhi’s St. Columba’s School and then The Doon School. He would have stayed there till at least 1989 but for the assassination of his grandmother Indira Gandhi in October 1984, five months after she ordered the army into the Golden Temple as the first step of her war on Sikh extremism. His father, Rajiv Gandhi, quit his regular job as an airline pilot and his relatively low-profile life to become prime minister. A picture of the young Rahul at his grandmother’s funeral pyre was the first time all of India got to see him; bespectacled, in a white kurta, Rahul reminded many of the iconic Stan Stearns photograph of three-year-old John saluting his father JFK’s casket during the US president’s funeral in 1963. Homeschooling it was then, till 1989, the year his prime minister father Rajiv Gandhi lost a general election to one of his own—VP Singh— when Rahul Gandhi became a student of Delhi’s St. Stephen’s College. He was admitted because he was good at shooting, but the naysayers would not let go. It is, however, a little-known fact about Rahul—he is a rather good shot with a firearm, and practices regularly. The Delhi college stint didn’t last. But as Rahul moved to Harvard, a second assassination changed things again for the Gandhi family. Rajiv Gandhi was killed by a suicide bomber during the campaign for the 1991 elections. Rahul moved to a Florida college—under an assumed name for security reasons—and then to Cambridge, completing a masters degree and picking up a job with a consulting  firm in London before starting a BPO company in Mumbai.

The Plunge

It was the worst of times to take to his family’s calling. The BJP-led NDA had tested nukes, won a war with Pakistan, the economy was looking up after almost a decade of structural reforms punctuated by political uncertainties, and all the pundits saw the lotus shining its way back into government in the 2004 elections. The fear of losing, even from the family’s nurtured constituency of Amethi was pretty real when Rahul announced his jump to the front ranks of the political battle being joined across the nation. It was a surprise; everybody expected Indira-lookalike Priyanka to be the one. Rahul won, and by a very healthy margin. His mother Sonia, Congress president since 1988 shifted to the adjacent constituency of Rae Bareli. She won too, as the Congress defied opinion polls and assorted punditry to win the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. In 2006, Sonia Gandhi struck back at her opponents who were baying for blood over her holding an office(s) of profit along with her Lok Sabha seat by resigning from everything she was part of. The bypoll from Rae Bareli saw Sonia return with a near-400,000 vote margin. The campaign was managed by Rahul and Priyanka. Rahul continued to star on the campaign trail, leading his party into the 2007 Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. In the see-saw journey that Rahul’s political career has been, it was a loss: the Congress didn’t even get a tenth of the vote.

The party leader

Two years before the next general elections, Rahul Gandhi was appointed general secretary with charge of the party’s youth wing and its student organisation. He did a Rajiv then, making it known that he was out to refresh the organisation: young blood in and old powerbrokers out. Rahul’s energy ensured that the membership of the youth and student wings went up by many times but the stranglehold of the old powerbrokers remained. The 2009 elections—which the Congress won largely because of economic performance and strategic sops at the end of the term— saw Rahul campaign vigorously, with special focus on Uttar Pradesh. Again, up followed down, and Rahul was credited with the Congress revival in India’s most populous state as the party took 21 of the 80 seats. The next big step was inevitably down, as the Rahul-led Congress floundered in the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2012. The party got only 28 seats in the 403-seat state Assembly. It seemed like the end of the road; Rahul stayed away from the Gujarat election campaign later that year. An implacable foe was rising in the West and it seemed the Congress prince was afraid of taking on Narendra Modi. By the 2014 General Elections, Sonia Gandhi had more or less stepped aside though she remained party leader. Rahul, made a party vice-president the previous year, led the party against Modi’s juggernaut campaign. The Congress lost big-time, its worst performance ever not even giving it enough seats to stake claim to the position of Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha. The Hindi belt went almost entirely to Modi in a steroidal replay of the post-Emergency elections of 1977 that had wiped out Indira Gandhi. Modi’s party now talks of a Congress-free India, and has been working with manic diligence to win every election after its 2014 triumph.

Looking ahead

Rahul has charisma; that comes naturally to the Gandhi family. He doesn’t have the intellect of Nehru, or Indira’s iron will, or Rajiv’s easygoing sagacity, but he is a Gandhi from India’s first family of politics. Rahul has age on his side. Modi was all of 51 when he first became Gujarat chief minister and has had to fight every inch of the way, his own party included. The younger Rahul has a direct shot at being prime minister less than two years from now. The old guard of the Congress has faded away; only a few veterans are left in the party hierarchy now. Rahul may well get the clean slate he’s wanted, and he won’t have to wait too long. The new leadership of the party remains committed to the Gandhis, and Rahul won’t have to look over his shoulder too often. All he’s got to do is vanquish Modi, but that’s a tall order indeed. The Gujarat and Himachal state elections, plus next year’s big ones, could reveal the chinks in the saffron armour. A little will be known by the new year, and the biggest battle is to be joined a year or so after, possibly even in 2018.
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