It is the longest thriller I have sat through; it has often stressed me unbearably. The suspense was overwhelming, but there was nothing I could do about it. No, I am not talking about when Rahul would take over the Congress; I am talking about his beard. Is he growing one? Or is he just too lazy to shave? Would he smarten up and start shaving every morning? Would he follow the lead of the prime minister and never shave? Or would he continue in his indecisive ways, growing one stubble after another without converting it into a beard? Well, he may have made up his mind and gone a notch up the Congress hierarchy, but that does not relieve my suspense. He makes or unmakes his mind about the stubble every morning; he may well do so about leading the Congress. He will have a famous exemplar in Manmohan Singh, who never had to change his mind because he seldom made up his mind; and no one can deny that his indecision — or shall we say antidecision? — has taken him far. Rahul has a shorter distance to cover, for he did not start even half as far as Goh in Pakistan. But if he does not aim to achieve any more, he does not have far to go.
That, I must admit, is unfair, for Manmohan Singh has some solid achievements to his credit. The most celebrated one has been bringing India out of nuclear untouchability into minor superpowership. This, actually, is not much of an achievement. India lost international caste because of Vajpayee’s nuclear ceremony; but given India’s burgeoning economy and strategic location, the Western world could not ignore it. India’s rehabilitation had already begun; Jaswant Singh would have accomplished it in a year if the Bharatiya Janata Party had not lost power. Manmohan Singh completed what Jaswant Singh started — and probably took twice as long as Jaswant Singh would have.
Manmohan Singh’s biggest achievement has been to keep Congress in power for almost a decade; and he has done it by making just enough friends to achieve a bare majority in Parliament. His first ally was the Communist Party of India (Marxist) — very convenient because it did not ask for ministerial positions. When it was stupid enough to leave on account of Manmohan Singh’s fraternization of George W. Bush, he got hold of Trinamool Congress and Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam. Mamata Banerjee was an obvious choice: she had been in the Congress, her opportunist ways were Congress ways, and a few ministerial positions were enough to keep her happy. DMK too was an obvious choice. It wanted lucrative ministerial positions; once it was allowed to mint a few crores, it was perfectly happy. And finally, when Mamata left in umbrage, he found Mulayam Singh — another regional satrap with no national hopes. Coalition politics or opportunism — it does not matter what it is called. It is the art of making political deals and not ruining them with ideology or pride. Manmohan Singh has practised it masterfully.
This is the first art that Rahul will have to master. Manmohan Singh will hand over the reins to him at an opportune time — probably after the 2014 elections. It is most unlikely that the Congress will win a majority; it is equally unlikely that the BJP will emerge a serious rival. So the circumstances will be favourable. Rahul will have to work out his own equations; but he will take over a sound ship in still waters. Cabinet formation will be a challenge. There will have to be the same compromises with allies, and since the election will bring in quite a few youngsters (in their forties and fifties), keeping the Congress together may be a challenge. But it is likely to be doable. In the longer run, Rahul will have to worry about how to bring the Congress out of the corner it has painted itself into. It has acquired indispensable allies in the south and the north, and thereby undertaken not to compete with them. It has also thereby condemned itself to be a minority party. That is not compatible with its history as the dominant national party, and will not give Rahul the freedom of manoeuvre he would need to leave his mark on history.
If he were ambitious, Rahul would want to remove the shadow of Hindu communalism that has hung on India since the demolition of Babri Masjid, and to make India a truly secular nation. He probably does not lack the passion for this, for he has been witness to the BJP’s vile attacks on Sonia Gandhi. At the same time, this should not be a personal vendetta. As Atal Bihari Vajpayee showed, it is possible to be a secular Hindu. The Indian brand of secularism lets everyone completely free to practise any religion, however outlandish, as long as he treats all Indians equally if he comes to power. And we are very far from achieving that ideal. The Congress tried in the past decade to counter Hindu communalism by courting the poor. But despite the lakhs of crores it has spent on Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme, the Public Distribution Programme and the dozen-odd other programmes targeted at vulnerable people, it has not created a solid constituency. Buying votes is never a durable strategy; the way to create an impregnable fortress is to give people the feeling that India is safe under you. How to do it cannot be described in a few hundred words, but this is the challenge that will face Rahul.
Apart from this, he will inherit the cloak of an international wise man from Manmohan Singh. He will have to go to meetings of G200, G20 and G2 and work with world leaders. More important, he will have to promote India’s international interests. Manmohan Singh did this well in the nuclear affair, but his economic performance has been undistinguished. This may sound shocking when it refers to the renowned reformer. But it is my view that the reforms could not have happened without Narasimha Rao, that many of those reforms were proposed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, that most of them had to be made to deal with the payments crisis, and that the government did no reforms once the crisis passed. In the last decade, the economy soared because of the circumstances it found itself in at the end of BJP rule; now that that stimulus has exhausted itself, the economy is floundering, and the government has no clue about what needs next to be done. The economy needs a new set of initiatives if it is to get anywhere close to China in prosperity and size. Old-style liberalization is not irrelevant, but it will not be enough. Nor will the Congress dogma of redistribution in various forms do the trick. The present circumstances call for new thinking. I am not saying that Rahul should do it. I have no idea who can do it. But whoever it is, Rahul would have to find her, and find the political muscle to implement her ideas. After all, he is still unmarried.