One of his key tenets of leadership Nelson Mandela had grasped from the pastoral practices of his ancestry. He used to call it leading from behind, just like herders of the African bush would daily lead their buffaloes and kine. Such translation of native mores to political doctrine probably dropped on him during his Robben Island ruminations, and his inability to physically lead the anti-apartheid struggle from the front; internment meant he could only ever have done it from behind, from the remove of prison. Someone in the Congress, someone of worth and influence in the party, should give Mandela’s principle a serious ponder — the principle of leading from behind. For if the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, is to effect the dare he made so volubly and unequivocally on the evening his party snatched Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, leading from behind may be his most workable — even probably only — option. “Hum inko jeetne nahin denge,” Rahul had said, freshly flushed from his breakthrough breach of the BJP fortresses, “Hum inko harayenge.” (We shall not let them — the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah regime — win, we shall defeat them.)
That, even on a day the tempo suddenly seems yours, is easier said than achieved. Tempo requires gas. For a fair length of time now in vast lengths of the country, the Congress has been so out of gas the stretch of ground has left it gasping. Nowhere more than in the two states that haul the largest number of seats to the Lok Sabha — Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Of the 120 seats that reside in the two states, the Congress, on current form, should be ecstatic to secure a tenth on its own steam. Boom! There’s a gaping hole there that the Congress can no more than ruefully shrug at and move on. But it isn’t as if it is the master of what remains to be surveyed. Far from it. The Congress will require drastic corrections of aspect and attitude if its boss is to come anywhere near making a reality of his public vow. Or of his mother’s and predecessor’s; Sonia Gandhi, too, had remarked to the nation with a ring of conviction last March that Narendra Modi will not get a second term. “Today we are being presented with an alternative and indeed regressive vision of who we were as a people, what we are and what we should be. This re-imagination is based on a distorted perception of our history and it is a fatally flawed view of what will secure our future... Our society, our freedom, all are now under systematic and sustained assault. Make no mistake about it. Vigilante mobs and private armies have been let loose with state patronage... This is a well thought out project long in the making to refashion the very idea of India. We will not let [Narendra] Modi come back to power,” Sonia had told a widely-broadcast conclave in Mumbai last March.
The assembly victories of the Congress in the heartland states may have given Sonia’s conviction a shot of credibility, but that isn’t going to be nearly enough. Assembly elections and Lok Sabha contests can very often be chalk and cheese. Especially when Prime Minister Modi determinedly parades about in presidential mode in a parliamentary election: if not me, who?
The trouble for Modi’s Opposition is it has answers, one too many answers. The competition is a field eddying with competing ambitions, most of them undeclared yet but foregrounded and seeking nonetheless. Witness, just for instance, the swift and astute alchemist enactment by Mamata Banerjee at the so-called Metro Channel in central Calcutta. Duller brains would have employed bureaucratic paperwork to fend off a quasi-administrative, quasi-judicial crisis; Mamata made a full-blown political adaptation of it, such that even the reluctant cast were obliged to want to be seen to be playing a role on her stage. Suddenly who had become the spearhead of battling the ‘anti-constitutional, anti-federal, high-handed, mad’ Modi regime? Mamata had. At least for the moment, she was the mistress of momentum; who knows where she could head from here?
But there isn’t Mamata alone, is there? There is, not too far away, that long-stymied but simmering aspiration called Mayavati and the thwarted desire she best represents of the many who believe they’ve been forever tricked with too little. There is, down south, the newly-spawned thrust for a larger stage — KCR, post his stupendous success in Telangana, unabashed about wanting to move on from the menagerie and inhabit a meatier character. H.D. Deve Gowda might yet have something to rekindle off his somnolence — another opportunity, somehow, just how his first opportunity had come about, somehow. Never discount the wily and widely-networked Maratha, Sharad Pawar, who has played at possible prime minister so long he may think it yet possible. Never discount Mamata’s immediate neighbour, Nitish Kumar, who keeps a fire for power squirrelled away in his belly and won’t hesitate slaking his nearest with it if that should serve. Are we being a little unfair here to omit the mention of Akhilesh Yadav? Perhaps. What’s he done wrong other than not to have so far publicly affected a shot at Delhi?
There is Rahul Gandhi too. His pretensions to future prime ministership have, so far, been conspicuously and correctly flagged with ‘ifs’ because there are big ‘ifs’. His equivocal candidacy has been endorsed thus far by no more than two on his flanks — Stalin of the DMK and Tejashwi Yadav of the RJD. The rest float free of obligation to him or to the Congress. And the rest make up far too many for the Congress yet to even begin imagining pole position as chief challenger to the Modi-Shah tandem. Boom! Many other holes gaping at the Congress courtesy potential future allies.
It is credible to argue that most of those loosely ranged against the NDA are provincial players whose footprint is emphatic in their boroughs but remains geographically limited. It is credible to argue that the Congress, despite the raucous railing over ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’, retains an all-India presence, although it is not an electorally effective presence in most parts. It is credible to argue too that its recent assembly successes may have imparted the Congress a boost of both space and spirit. It is probably even credible to argue, nearly five years into Modi’s egotistical, and often destructive, romp on the debris of the conjured dreams of 2014, the febrile ‘Abki baar, Modi sarkar’ mood has turned a little cold on the ‘messiah’. It is still not credible to argue the Congress has turned rival front runner.
Lead from behind the Congress must if it genuinely wishes to achieve civilisational rather than merely political goals, the restoration of the idea of a pluralist and liberal India as opposed to merely the restoration of political power to itself. It needs allies with a desperation they do not need the Congress. The Lok Sabha acreage of forty-odd seats, after all, is not a vast improvement on a Robben Island cell.