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Rajdeep Sardesai
Friday , July 13, 2012 at 00 : 10

Rahul, step in now and don't step out


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Salman Khurshid is easily among the brightest politicians in the country: a former Oxford don, he became a Union minister at 38. When he speaks, it is with a certain elegance and intellect that is all too rare in public life today. Which is why when Mr Khurshid suggests that "Rahul Gandhi has only been seen in cameos of his thoughts and ideas, but he has not woven it into a grand announcement. This is a period of waiting," his remarks must be taken seriously. Mr Khurshid has since been forced to clarify his statement, claiming he was only urging the Congress's younger leadership to play a more central role but his reflections lie truly at the heart of the UPA's present dilemma.

A fortnight ago, in these very columns, I had written on the NDA's leadership crisis: who will be their leader in the next general elections in 2014? What is true of the NDA is equally applicable to the UPA. If the battle between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar threatens to open a chasm within the Opposition, Rahul Gandhi's seeming reluctance to take greater responsibility within the Congress has left the ruling alliance in a state of growing uncertainty.

What are the options if Rahul were to decline to take up the challenge of being the UPA's prime ministerial nominee? Manmohan Singh will be 82 in 2014, and while being an octogenarian is no disqualification in the ageing world of Indian politics, there is a general belief that after two full terms as Prime Minister, Dr Singh may finally be ready for voluntary retirement. Of the other Congress leaders, AK Antony is an option in a period where the search is on for an 'incorruptible' politician but doubts persist over his ability to take charge of a Union government. P Chidambaram has the skill to lead but the 2G case has shadowed him and whether he can be a consensual politician in the age of coalition politics is still an open question. Of the rest, the most logical choice, Pranab Mukherjee is set to be safely ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan while none of the so-called 'dark horses' (Sheila Dikshit, Meira Kumar, Sushil Shinde) really have the stature to be readily accepted by their peers.

Which brings us back to Rahul who remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. At 42 years, Rahul is no longer a 'youth' leader. In a young India, 40 signals the age of arrival. Across the world, leaders are getting younger. David Cameron became prime minister of Britain at 44 while Barack Obama could soon become a two-time US president. Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister soon after his 40th birthday, arguably in even more challenging circumstances.

In 1984, the Congress was still the pre-eminent force in Indian politics, blessed with an array of powerful regional satraps and Union ministers who had spent decades in public life. There was as a result a competitive edge to the leadership issue and Rajiv's acceptability to the older guard nurtured in the Indira era took a while. By contrast, today the Congress is a party that has been reduced to a marginal player in several parts of the country with very few mass leaders who can claim to have an independent power base. Its tallest leader by some distance remains Sonia Gandhi and she has made it amply clear that her 'inner voice' will not let her become Prime Minister.

That leaves, frankly, Rahul Gandhi as the only mascot available to a party in crisis. Unfortunately, rather than see opportunity in adversity, Rahul has chosen to play it safe. He has barely spoken within or outside Parliament on matters of urgent public importance, has stayed away from sustained media interaction, and preferred to focus on the Youth Congress elections when the crying need is for the entire party to be given an organisational overhaul.

The closest Rahul has come to taking a leadership role was in this year's Uttar Pradesh election. Perhaps guided by his core team of advisers, he initially pitched the elections as a barometer of the Congress's revival in the crucial Hindi heartland. But after a robust campaign, when it came to the crunch of defining his future role in Uttar Pradesh, he pulled back. By then, the rising expectations that had been set off by his initial enthusiasm appeared to stand in sharp contrast to the reality on the ground. In defeat, he was gracious, even taking responsibility for the Congress debacle and promising to stay the course. But then, instead of re-igniting the challenge to the new ruling arrangement in UP, he once again did a bit of a disappearing act.

This is where Salman Khurshid's reference to a 'cameo' role being played by Rahul becomes relevant. A cameo in itself is not always undesirable. But when your party is pitching you as the superstar in waiting, you can't afford to make a special appearance. To take the Bollywood analogy further, Rahul cannot afford to be an Amitabh Bachchan in a film like Anand when his audience wants to see him as a Rajesh Khanna-like lead artiste in the same film.

Rahul, of course, may well believe that he has time on his side and that he can wait for a more propitious time before making his move. But as the UP elections confirmed, the new political forces that have changed the national map will wait for no one and there is no sense of entitlement left in Indian politics. The time for waiting for Rahul to make up his mind is slowly ending. Either he must make the effort to fill the leadership vacuum in his party or risk being seen as a reluctant politician. As a start, how about becoming the party leader in the Lok Sabha, a post lying vacant with Pranabda's exit?


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More about Rajdeep Sardesai

Rajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, IBN18 Network, that includes CNN-IBN, IBN 7 and IBN Lokmat. He comes with 22 years of journalistic experience during which he has covered some of the biggest stories in India and the world. Prior to setting up the IBN network, he was the Managing Editor of both NDTV 24X7 and NDTV India and was responsible for overseeing the news policy for both the channels. He has also worked with The Times of India for six years and was the city editor of its Mumbai edition at the age of 26. During the last 22 years, he has covered major national and international stories, specialising in national politics. He has won numerous other awards for journalistic excellence, including the prestigious Padma Shri for journalism in 2008, the International Broadcasters Award for coverage of the 2002 Gujarat riots and the Ramnath Goenka Excellence in Journalism Award for 2007. He has won the Asian Television Award for best talk show for the Big Fight on two occasions and his current flagship show on CNN-IBN, India at 9, has been awarded the best news show at the Asian awards for the last two years. He has been News Anchor of the year at the Indian Television Academy for seven of the last eight years and won more than 50 awards in this period. He has also been the President of the Editors Guild of India, the only television journalist to hold the post and was chosen a Global leader for tomorrow by the world economic forum in 2000. An alumni of St Xavier's College, Mumbai, he has done his Masters and LLB from Oxford University and has also played first class cricket for the Oxford University team. He has contributed to several books and writes a fortnightly column that appears in seven newspapers.
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