Dear Rahul, Reinvent Yourself – You Can Still Revive the Congress 

Open letter to Rahul Gandhi from Sudheendra Kulkarni, ex-aide to A B Vajpayee, after the former’s resignation.

9 min read
Dear Rahul, Reinvent Yourself – You Can Still Revive the Congress 

Dear Rahul,

My hearty congratulations to you on your principled decision to step down from the office of President of the Indian National Congress, taking responsibility for the calamitous performance of your party in the recently-concluded parliamentary elections.

The letter you issued on 3 July, came straight from the heart. And precisely because it was a communication from the heart, it has touched the hearts – and not just the minds – of millions of Indians, not only Congress workers and supporters (like me), but also its unprejudiced critics.


Rahul Gandhi, You Have Shown The Courage To Listen To Your Heart

In my tweet, soon after I read your letter, I had written: “My dear @RahulGandhi, you have won my heart even more fully with this letter. Each word in it has the aroma of sincerity, nobility and devotion to MOTHER INDIA. But let it be clear: #Congress must transform itself completely for its revival. I am here to work with you. JAI HIND!”

The heart knows many fundamental truths about life that the mind fears and suppresses. There are very few leaders in politics, in India or anywhere in the world, who are willing or able to listen to the language of the heart, and fewer still who have retained the courage to speak in that language to the people, including one’s own opponents.

You, Rahul Gandhi, have shown that willingness and courage not only in your statement, but also during the frighteningly divisive and diversionary campaign that the BJP mounted to win the elections.

You are the only politician in recent times who has dared to introduce the word “love” in the lexicon of the electoral battle. True, it confused and confounded many people in India, including leaders, workers and supporters of your own party. Yet, in today’s cynicism-filled political atmosphere, when the purveyors of hate in the ruling establishment began to see adversaries as one’s enemies (also as ‘Enemies of the Nation’), your repeated references to the “politics of love” were rare acts of moral courage.

Thank You For Living By “Give Up All & You Gain All”

Of course, you must admit that you have so far not elaborated on the idea and practice of love in politics. In the absence of thinkers and practicing leaders educating the people consistently and persistently about the need to make “love” the operative system of politics and social life, we will continue to live under the illusion that love is just a weak romantic glue that temporarily binds young men and women before marriage. The deeper and wider meaning of love in all walks of life has been elucidated in Erich Fromm’s classic The Art of Loving.

As for its impossibly difficult practice in politics, our world has not anyone greater in the modern era than Mahatma Gandhi (“love is the active form of nonviolence”), who, I have heard, has greatly influenced you.

Another influence on you, as you often said during the campaign, has been the book I Am That, a compilation of talks with Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj. The great spiritual leader who lived in Mumbai (1897-1981) says something profound about the dual nature of love. Love for “me and mine may be small”, as is the case with most human beings caught up in the coils of power, money and fame, or it “may explode and embrace the universe”, as is true about evolved members of the human species.

If politicians can infuse in their profession even an ounce of selfless love for the larger good of the collective, India would become far better for all, especially the poor and the oppressed. Those who practice this variety of politics of self-abnegation know the worth of another spiritual gem of your guru Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj – “Give up all, and you gain all.”


Leaders Become Great Not By Their Positions, But Through Their Struggles For Justice

Dear Rahul, you have now given up a very important political post. I am sure you will gain much more in the coming years – not for yourself, but for the Congress movement and our beloved nation – if you go back to the people, learn from them, and also educate them. Leaders become great not by the post they occupy, but by the struggles they wage for justice to the powerless and voiceless millions.

You have given hope and inspiration to many by affirming that “I am a loyal soldier of the Congress party and a devoted son of India and will continue to serve and protect her till my last breath”.

Going forward, you cannot escape from the many harsh realities of Indian politics. The practice of politics requires not only love, but also its apparent opposite. One has to be as soft as a flower, but also, oftentimes, as hard as steel. It takes extraordinary vigilance and self-control to protect oneself from the corrupting and corroding effects of the pursuit of power; yet, there can be no politics without pursuit of power.

In January 2013, when you were named Congress vice president at an AICC session in Jaipur, you were candid enough to admit: “Last night each one of you congratulated me. My mother came to my room and she sat with me and she cried... because she understands that power so many people seek is actually a poison.”

In your letter yesterday, you have said: “My fight has never been a simple battle for political power.”

But this is where you expose both your enigma and your weakness. You have never been able to adequately and effectively explain, either to your own army of Congress workers or to the people at large, the goal for which you are battling for political power.

As a result, your opponents mocked you for a long time (they still do). Others began to admire you for your earnestness and hard work without, however, understanding your mind.

Rahul Gandhi, You Must Help Congress Rediscover Its Mission & Vision

It seemed that even after you became Congress president in 2017, you never could adjust yourself to the demands of your job – and especially to the compulsions of taking on an adversary as formidable as Narendra Modi. Hermann Hesse, the Nobel laureate who authored Siddhartha, perhaps had you in mind when he wrote: “A man who is 'ill-adjusted' to the world is always on the verge of finding himself. One who is adjusted to the world never finds himself, but gets to be a cabinet minister.”

Now the task before you is not only to find yourself in your inner quest, but also to help your party rediscover its vision and its mission. In short, you need to re-invent yourself without ceasing to be true to your inner self. 

Not easy. But here are some thoughts.

You have said in your letter that the “Congress Party must radically transform itself”.

Truer words about the mission before your party have not been spoken. However, you have not been specific about how it should transform itself. To begin with, it would have been better if you had shared your reflections on the role and place of your own family in the Congress party.

Specifically, you should have categorically stated that the Congress party is far greater than any family, because this would have silenced your critics.

It would have also compelled your party to think of building its future outside the shadow of your family.


Dear Rahul, Your Letter Is Rather Silent On Your Own Mistakes

As per my understanding, the Nehru-Gandhi family is a source of strength and also a source of weakness for the Congress party. Both you and your sister Priyanka (a person of great potential) are indispensable to the Congress party’s revival during the period of transition. However, your party’s weakness so far has been its failure to acknowledge that India has changed enormously from the times when the Nehru-Gandhi Family had a nationwide appeal.

New India has shown its abhorrence for politics of entitlement, and its support for politics of performance and competence. 

Modi has many shortcomings, but in the people’s perception, you were no match to him in qualifications to govern India. Let me tell you what a friend of mine, an astute observer of politics (and also a Congress supporter) said to me after the election results were out: “Rahul Gandhi is undoubtedly a good-hearted person. But if people think he does not know driving, will they entrust the key to him to run their car? The same is true about their perception of who can run the country better – Modi or Rahul. And they have made their choice.”

This point prompts me to observe that your letter is rather silent on your own mistakes and shortcomings. 

It would have been better if your honesty had extended to admitting the many past sins of the Congress party, because of which the people have punished it. Let me cite three examples.

Can Congress Claim That It Always Respected Institutional Integrity & Independence When It Was in Power?

First, you are right in sounding the alarm bell: “It is now crystal clear that our once cherished institutional neutrality no longer exists in India.” Recent years have witnessed the alarming erosion of neutrality in the way the press, election commission, governors of states, enforcement arms of the state, and even the judiciary have functioned.

Nevertheless, can the Congress party claim that it always respected institutional integrity and independence when it was in power? No, it cannot.

Second, you have also sounded the right warning by saying, “Nor can an election be free if one party has a complete monopoly on financial resources.” Never in the history of Indian elections has a ruling party amassed, and spent, such obscene amounts of money as the BJP did this time. How did it get these funds? And how is it that the opponents received far less? If this trend continues, what will it do the health of our democracy? These are absolutely the right questions to ask.

Many conscience-keepers of Indian democracy have asked these questions in the past, including the venerable C Rajagopalachari, who wrote a book on the subject − Rescue Democracy from Money-Power.

However, you should be honest enough in admitting that, when in power, the Congress party never showed any interest in introducing transparency or fairness in electoral funding. 

Having worked in the BJP for many years, I know that both Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani were at the forefront of demanding deep-going electoral reforms in the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s. Sadly, they received no support from Congress governments at the Centre.


If India Is ‘Symphony of Voices’, Did Congress Accept That One Of The Legit Voices Belongs To RSS?

The third point where you are not sufficiently introspective, pertains to your observations about the RSS. You state that the RSS and BJP are “systematically crushing the voice of the Indian people”. Therefore, “it is the duty of the Congress Party to defend these voices.” It is impossible to disagree with what you say: “India has never and will never be one voice. It is and always will be a symphony of voices. That is the true essence of Bharat Mata.”

However, please ask yourself: “If India is always a symphony of voices”, did the Congress party (when in power or out of power) accept that one of the legit voices in this symphony also belongs to the RSS? 

True, anti-Muslim bigotry constitutes a large part of the voice of the RSS and its advocacy of Hindu nationalism. This is why its Hindutva ideology (which is an antithesis of true Hinduism) must be fought vehemently, and the Congress’s ‘Idea of India’, based on secularism, inclusiveness, empathy, tolerance, respect for diversity, peace and harmonious progress of all, must be defended.

But as someone who has seen, and studied the RSS closely, I can say that the truth about the RSS, and why it has grown to be so influential in today’s India, is far more complex than is evident from your one-sided criticism of it.

The RSS has several positive and commendable features, discipline, selfless service and devotion to the nation being some of them.

Instead of summarily criticising everything about the RSS, the Congress would do well to learn from what it is good in its ideological opponent, while at the same time persuading the opponent to acknowledge all that is good in the party of Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Sardar Patel, Abul Kalam Azad and other great freedom fighters.

After all, both the Congress and the RSS-BJP belong to one indivisible family – the Family of Mother India.

Congress Should Develop Its Own Approach of Sangharsh & Samvaad

In this context, let me remind you of the fine words you spoke when you took over as Congress president in December 2017. “I want the Congress to become an instrument for dialogue between all of us. From all corners of our great country. And our dialogue will always be led by light and affection.”

If this is your true nature and conviction, how can you exclude the RSS from the national dialogue the Congress needs to conduct? Permit me to be frank: You should shun the communist approach to the RSS.

Instead, the Congress should develop its own approach of sangharsh (struggle), samvaad (dialogue) and sahayog (cooperation on national issues).

It is for this reason that I had wholeheartedly welcomed the visit of Pranab Mukherjee, the most experienced Congressman in India today, to the RSS headquarters last year. In an article in The Indian Express, I had also given you unsolicited advice: “Following Pranab da’s fine example, Rahul should visit Nagpur or, better still, invite Mohan Bhagwat to his home in New Delhi. He should know that even Mahatma Gandhi had visited RSS congregations, not once but twice, and even appreciated some of its good qualities, without ceasing to remain Mahatma Gandhi...”

Before I conclude, here are, once again, my heartfelt best wishes. God is never wanting in His support to persons of courage, conviction and mission.

(The author was an aide to former Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee. He has recently founded ‘Forum for a New South Asia’, which advocates India-Pakistan-China cooperation. He welcomes comments at He tweets @SudheenKulkarni. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed are the author’s own.The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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