Rahul Gandhi’s elevation may galvanise the Congress rank and file, but that alone is not enough for reviving the party’s fortunes.

T

he most natural response to Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the No. 2 position in the Congress would be: So what? Wasn’t he anyway that? Those making this point, as well as expressing outrage at such blatant exhibition of dynastic power and sycophancy, are not wrong in doing so. But to the extent Rahul’s formal ‘coronation’ as Vice President – next only to his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who heads India’s Grand Old Party – galvanises the Congress machinery, it could have some impact. To put it differently, a party heading a government beleaguered by allegations of corruption and ineptitude needs something to lift the spirits of its rank and file. The 42-year-old fourth-generation Nehru-Gandhi family scion’s projection as prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 national election could, perhaps, provide just that morale-booster. And here it helps that the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is in no great shape either, with its own President, Nitin Gadkari, who is set to be re-elected, accused of financial irregularities. Moreover, the man whom most in the party – and many corporates too – would want as their Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is not acceptable to the BJP’s alliance partners.

That said, one cannot really see Rahul in his new role being able, beyond a point, to reverse his party’s declining fortunes, linked to the performance of its Government at the Centre. In 2009, the Congress won 206 Lok Sabha seats, more than any single party since 1995. It did well mainly on the back of high economic growth, which also generated revenues for the Government to launch a plethora of vote-garnering welfare programmes. But its current tenure has seen growth slowing down alongside persistent inflation, made worse by the virtual policy paralysis of the first three years. These have led to a drying up of investments and also revenues that can no longer sustain populism or open-ended subsidies. While the Anna Hazare movement and various scam revelations may have dented the Government’s image particularly among the vocal middle class, the current economic situation has not helped its cause either.

Rahul, in a sense, has a tough job ahead. Without growth returning, this Government cannot hope to come back because, unlike five years back, there is simply no money for expansive schemes. It is in the party’s interest, therefore, to invest everything in growth and provide the political backing to the Government’s recent reform efforts. That includes recasting of expenditures by focusing on select flagship schemes and scrapping/merging others, besides moving to a regime of targeted direct cash transfers even for subsidies. By projecting sincerity of purpose in this direction and demonstrating the Opposition’s lack of any viable alternative vision, Rahul can aim at his party regaining lost political ground in the coming one year. His acceptance speech at the recent Congress conclave in Jaipur did sound good; but he now has to walk the talk.

(This article was published on January 21, 2013)
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