Rahul Gandhi took over the presidency of the Indian National Congress party on Saturday morning, 16 December, in an emotional ceremony that marked the passing of the torch from the party’s longest-serving president, his mother Sonia Gandhi. In a short but effective speech he assumed office in words that conveyed humility, determination, compassion for the downtrodden and a determination to pursue the path of harmony while preserving and protecting the inclusive India that generations of his predecessors had sought to establish.
As he takes over, the country is poised for the Gujarat election results and for a final year of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s term of office that is bound to be caught up in conflict and recrimination. It is a time of challenge and also one of opportunity. What are the main challenges Rahul Gandhi must confront in the lead-up to the General Elections of 2019?
In my view, the Congress under his leadership must:
Decide What We Stand for and Communicate It Effectively
The Congress' core message has been the values it has embodied since the days of the freedom struggle, in particular inclusive growth, social justice, abolition of poverty and protection of the marginalised, including minorities, women, Dalits and Adivasis. These have been distorted and portrayed as pandering to vote banks rather than as the sincere, indeed visceral, convictions they are.
We are the political embodiment of India’s pluralism and have been a strong and committed voice for the preservation of secularism as its fundamental reflection.
We need to reaffirm our belief in these values and keep reiterating them at every opportunity, especially as the BJP rule has made these issues all the more urgent.
Rahul Gandhi has dropped his old habitual reticence and spoken out more often and more boldly, especially on social media where his wit has made a genuine impact. He must double down on this approach and set an example of accessibility and transparency about our values, actions, motives and concerns.
If he shares his thinking with the people, we will all find it easier to bring them to our side. The media-driven mass politics of the 21st century requires open communication which the Congress in the recent past had shied away from. Rahul Gandhi is well-placed to drive the much-needed change.
Articulate a Vision That Embraces the Aspirations of Youth
A startling 40 percent of voters in 2014 were under 35. The figure will be even higher in 2019. They need to hear what the Congress has done and can do for them. When in power, our party has done a great deal of work in areas of education and skill development; we need to translate this into specific proposals.
Rahul Gandhi has rightly spoken of the failure of the BJP government to create jobs; we now need to offer our own job-creation strategies. Young Indians must believe we understand their aspirations and can be trusted to promote them in government.
Not Allow the BJP a Monopoly on Nationalist Narrative
As the party with the most experience in safeguarding India's national interests, Rahul Gandhi’s Congress must proudly articulate its own nationalism and remain vigilant on security and foreign policy issues that are being mishandled by the BJP government.
Though our tradition is that political differences stop at the water’s edge and that foreign policy is India’s, not any one party’s, we must not allow the BJP to use its governmental position to be identified as the sole protector of Indian national pride, which we may define very differently.
We should not shy away from claiming the legacy of the freedom struggle in which the BJP’s fellow ideologues did not play a significant part.
Be a Constructive Opposition Inside and Outside Parliament
This does not imply surrender to the BJP's majority. Rahul Gandhi has shown his capacity to stand up to the BJP’s bullying tactics. The country is increasingly desperate for an alternative to BJP misrule.
It is in our interest to cooperate whenever the BJP lives up to Modi's conciliatory pronouncements and truly governs for the benefit of all Indians, but to oppose him robustly whenever he pursues a sectarian or divisive agenda.
Devote Most of the Party's Attention to the Grassroots
The Congress is rightly accused of having lost touch with the grassroots in many states. We must focus more on panchayats and local governments, and not only during elections. Our party workers must pay more attention to the petty problems of governance and corruption that beleaguer most Indians and which voters blamed us for when they occurred under our rule.
We have to return to the ethos of politics as social work for those who cannot help themselves.
Promote Inner-Party Democracy and Rein in Internal Dissent
Rahul Gandhi has been consistently right on this. He should follow his instinct and open up the party to internal elections for its key positions, including membership of the CWC. Allow, indeed encourage, the emergence of local, state and regional leaders, ratified by periodic votes of party members.
At the same time, crack down severely on the disloyalty and dissidence stoked by those who put their personal ambitions above the party's interests, a habit visible in many places during the recent elections.
When such behaviour occurs against elected leaders, it is easier to discredit than when it is conducted against those who can be portrayed as unelected courtiers.
Explore Pragmatic Coalitions While Retaining a Unified Anti-Govt Space
It is clear that Rahul Gandhi needs to create a national-level mahagathbandhan to take on the BJP in 2019. Last time the NDA won an overwhelming majority of Lok Sabha seats with just 31 percent of the vote because the remaining parties were fragmented.
We must urgently start putting together a credible alliance that is capable of winning 40 percent or more of the national vote. We are the largest national Opposition party and must reach out to embrace them in our common efforts to resist unacceptable BJP policies.
Political arrangements and adjustments will also permit us to put up a stronger fight both in Parliament and Assembly elections. But we have to be careful not to let our own local party structures atrophy as a result of such understandings. In the long term, we must revive the Congress as a credible alternative in those states where we have not been in power for a quarter century or more – especially UP, Bihar, West Bengal and Tamil Nadu – and which account for 201 seats in the Lok Sabha that we can't just write off.
But in the meantime there is no shame in attaching ourselves to strong regional parties in these states that broadly share our values and have the strength to resist the BJP.
Rejuvenate the Party With Fresh Blood and New Structures
This process has already begun. I have no doubt there will be several new, younger faces in the top leadership positions around Rahul Gandhi. New initiatives to create new forms of outreach are also on the anvil. I have been privileged to be entrusted by Rahul Gandhi with the leadership of the new All India Professionals’ Congress, which provides tax-paying professionals a platform for them to play a role in politics.
Other entities are coming into being to work with unorganised workers, fishermen and other neglected sections of the population. A revived Congress must reach out to more people, including many who have moved away from us in recent years.
These suggestions by no means make an exhaustive list. But in my view, they offer some pointers to the way forward for Rahul Gandhi. He spoke on Saturday of making “the Grand Old Party” a “Grand Old and Young Party”. A youthful Rahul Gandhi can lead India's oldest, most inclusive and most experienced party to restore its past glory.
(Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram in the Lok Sabha and Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs.)