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The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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The long wait for the Congress to announce the successor to its leadership is over. Something significant has happened in India. Political leaders are not in the habit of stepping aside to anoint a successor while they are still active, even if the successor is a member of the family. Charles De Gaulle, and, more recently, Margaret Thatcher went on for one election too many, retiring unloved rather than a national hero. In that sense, Sonia Gandhi has been smarter. She has, in effect, announced her retirement while she is the unchallenged leader of her party.

That succession would have been more convincing had Rahul Gandhi not been her son. It reinforces the notion that unborn Indians still have to choose their parents very carefully if they are to succeed. Rahul has recognized this explicitly and almost apologetically as his advantage; his key advisors are also inheritors of their fathersí political domains.

This acquires greater importance in the political demographics of India where the median age is in the late twenties. This is a generation that has shown last month that it is restless and irreverent. The key to understanding that anger is the denial of opportunity, of academic qualifications earned but unrewarded, of an ignored and growing middle class which feels that it is being bypassed at the expense of affirmative action programmes which do not touch it.

National parties have a responsibility towards nation-building. In particular, the Congressís tendency to regard regional leaders and regional parties as necessarily fissiparous has to be refashioned. In a vast swathe of the country stretching from Uttar Pradesh through Bihar, West Bengal, Odisha and Tamil Nadu, the parties in power are regional entities. As an occasional resident of West Bengal, I am acutely aware of the alienation from the Central government of not only political leaders in this state but the thinking public too, and if it is true here, it is likely to be true in the adjoining states as well. Although the Constitution recognizes the countryís federal character, Congress governments after Nehru have regarded regional leaders as challenges rather than points of strength. Rahul will either redefine the Congressís equation with regional ambition or condemn it to decline and irrelevance.

The strength that the two major national parties have is their organizational structure which gives them stability and continuity. They have a phalanx of possible leaders who could join the succession queue. That is not evident in, say, the Trinamul Congress, the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Samajwadi Party or either of the Tamil Dravidian Parties. The Congress has to use this to its advantage to build longer-term strategies in contrast to short-gain tactics.

It follows that the Congress must choose its electoral battleground and not be seduced by the easy pickings of caste, community, and religion. There were early signs that Rahul appreciated this. Maybe it is time to refocus secularism to a modern context so it becomes more intelligible to better educated and increasingly urbanized young people. Last monthís nationwide agitation suggests that todayís youth is more sensitive to issues of gender and so are likely to be more amenable to social change.

The most difficult electoral task would be to balance economic prudence with populism. It would be impractical to expect regional parties to subscribe to what they regard as a problem of the Central government.With only a year left for the United Progressive Alliance, the pain of subsidy reduction is likely to cast a long shadow on next yearís election prospects for the Congress. If, as is believed, Rahul supports this, then he will have to mount a massive communication project to explain the long-term benefits, starting with convincing his own foot-soldiers.

The press regards Rahul as an unknown quantity and dwells mostly on his electoral failures. Expectations are low. Like buying a good stock, that may be his advantage. It can only go up.