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Congress tries to make sense of Rahul
Lower rung let down

New Delhi, Jan. 28: Rahul Gandhi’s first television interview has evoked mixed reactions within the Congress. While one section felt he came out as a sincere politician interested in changing the system instead of grabbing power, another section frowned upon his theoretical and convoluted responses.

What should be worrying for the party is that the negative assessment is coming largely from ordinary workers and lower-rung leaders who strongly believe that Rahul would need to change his approach to connect with the masses.

They lamented that the emphasis on long-term structural changes, vague ideas about empowering elected representatives and the reluctance to boldly confront the principal challenger would pay little electoral dividends.

Pleading for anonymity, one leader who has won several elections summed up the mood of this section: “Rahul was spot-on when he stressed the dire need for reaching out to the people in his first speech at the Hyderabad AICC plenary (in 2006). He said the Congress was weakened because leaders stopped going to the people and raising their concerns. Had he focused on this problem in the last decade, the Congress would have been expecting 300 seats today. But Rahul got confused and failed to understand that reforms are just one part of politics.”

A low-rung Delhi leader delivered the same message with his grassroots wisdom: “Indira Gandhi could do so much because she had the people’s support. For bringing change, you need the mandate. Rahul should have been toiling in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh instead of doing drawing-room planning. He should know Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy gave us power because he was out on the streets. Kejriwal grabbed power because he was out on the streets. Rahul should understand what is democracy before trying to deepen it and for that, he should learn from his grandmother.”

Senior leaders, however, tried to rationalise his approach, saying Rahul’s politics was not “post-based, election-based and personality-based” and his commitment to empower every citizen and truly democratise and cleanse the system got clearly reflected in his answers.

One general secretary said: “Rahul avoided being accusatory and harsh but clearly explained that the Gujarat riots were fundamentally different from the anti-Sikh riots. People would understand that he is sincere, he has a vision and he is not hungry for power.”

But there were different views on his handling of the riots, too. One party MP said: “Rahul should have shown greater conviction and clarity about Narendra Modi’s communal persona. He appeared tentative and said ‘I didn’t see, your colleagues told me about the Gujarat administration’s involvement.’ That’s not a leader’s language. He should have clearly said Modi’s communal persona and philosophy could not be compared to the liberal Rajiv Gandhi.”

The party’s official stand reflected this sentiment. Responding to questions about the anti-Sikh and Gujarat riots, spokesperson Abhishek Singhvi today said: “What happened in 1984 was a terrible thing and nobody has ever justified that. Party president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have apologised for that. And the reconciliation that has taken place over the years is more than apology. But what happened in Gujarat? The Supreme Court had to transfer trials out of Gujarat en masse. Bodies of kar sevaks were taken out in procession, provocative speeches were made and there was a free-for-all for three days.”

Rahul’s reluctance to contest the perception that Modi had got a clean chit from courts also attracted criticism. Singhvi asserted there was no clean chit as the lower court’s rejection of Zakia Jafri’s petition was only related to an SIT closure report.

The Congress spokesperson added: “We have anyway never said Modi is criminally convicted. That’s like putting words in our mouth. But what about Atal Behari Vajpayee’s advice to Modi for observing rajdharma? Vajpayee was obviously not referring to Modi’s conviction.”

Singhvi claimed that even Rahul’s worst critics would have to concede that he has honesty of purpose, commitment, passion and humility. “He is committed to his ideas without worrying about an adverse fallout. Others who aspire for the top job speak with forked tongues, abuse others and only talk about themselves.”

He added that Rahul had just begun his journey and it would not be right to make a conclusion at this stage.

But one positive that every Congress leader talked about is Rahul’s readiness to lead from the front and hoped that he would be more political in the coming days.