The moment of promise

The process of formalizing the foregone has begun with Rahul Gandhi filing his nomination papers for election as president of the nation's grand old party. With only one set of nomination papers filed, Rahul Gandhi's declaration as president of the Indian National Congress on December 11, 2017 is a mere technicality. His de facto leadership of the party since his elevation as vice-president is now de jure.

By Ashwani Kumar
  • Published 8.12.17
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The process of formalizing the foregone has begun with Rahul Gandhi filing his nomination papers for election as president of the nation's grand old party. With only one set of nomination papers filed, Rahul Gandhi's declaration as president of the Indian National Congress on December 11, 2017 is a mere technicality. His de facto leadership of the party since his elevation as vice-president is now de jure.

The passing of the baton of leadership to the sixth scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family is expected to herald transformative changes in the organization and arrest its decline since 2014 as India's premier political party. Rahul Gandhi's elevation as the party boss is expected to identify the organization with the aspirations of a modern, progressive and democratic India.

With growing national disenchantment with the Bharatiya Janata Party under the Narendra Modi dispensation, the need for an urgent and clear political alternative is deeply felt. In this context, Rahul Gandhi faces the daunting challenge of restoring the Congress to its pre-eminence and of repelling a frontal assault on the republican conscience of India. This would require of him leadership of the head and heart that inspires both the respect and affection of the people.

The president designate will be called upon to make difficult choices between what is right and the demands of momentary political exigencies. While taking necessary decisions in the Gandhian tradition which he has pledged to uphold, he must constantly remind himself that what is morally incorrect cannot be politically right. He must remain steadfast in adherence to principles rather than yield to the temptation of short-term political gains. Indeed, his leadership must "spring from a compulsion to do what is right", investing him with moral authority to muster the support of the people across the nation.

He must benefit from Mahatma Gandhi's advice that a leader is measured "...by the purity of his life, the unselfishness of his mission and the breadth of his outlook..." Rahul Gandhi's strength will lie in his steadfast adherence to idealism notwithstanding the repeated assertions of practitioners of realpolitik in favour of political 'pragmatism'. He can draw strength from the examples set by his great-grandfather and father who anchored their politics in the highest standards of rectitude and political morality.

As he grapples with managing the complexities of a 132-year-old party and resolving intense intra-party rivalries, he is expected to be seen as an impartial arbitrator ensuring a voice for and the dignity of all party persons. He must build on his mother's unceasing quest for the broadest democratic inner party consensus which enabled Sonia Gandhi to keep the party together in difficult times and under trying circumstances.

Above all, in his judgment of people he must discern between those who honestly express the truth and those who prefer to be frugal with it. Rahul Gandhi will need to encourage dialogue, discussion and contestation of ideas without fear of political repercussions for those who choose to express a conscientious dissent in the face of a contrarian majoritarian view. This would require that the party president be easily accessible so that he may have the benefit of a wide range of views for decision-making. Like his father, he should be loved and not feared. Affability, humility and compassion must define his leadership, à la Allama Iqbal:

" Nigah-i-buland, Sukhan dil-nawaz, Jan pursoz/ Yehi hai rakht-e-safar, mire karwan ke liye (...soaring vision, dulcet speech, a feeling heart, that is all the baggage of the caravan's chief leader)."

A young president will be assuming leadership of the party, hopefully to be transformed into the leadership of the nation at a time when the core values of the republic are under siege. Institutions of our libertarian democracy are under stress. The liberal conscience of the country in which freedom remains an "unending frenzy" is wounded as never before. Casteist, communal and regional considerations along with social and economic inequities have resulted in a fractured polity.

The challenge before Rahul Gandhi's Congress is, therefore, to become an instrument for bridging these divides and to redefine the rules of political engagement. For starters, he must raise the level of public discourse and set an example for others to follow as he did during his vigorous campaign in Gujarat and elsewhere. Evidently, we need to embrace an idiom of political discourse centred on inclusion, liberalism, secularism and social justice and move away from the debilitating rhetoric anchored in rancour and calumny.

Rahul Gandhi must become a symbol of leadership that is powered by selflessness and an unswerving commitment to the cause of national renewal. As leader of the nation's umbrella party, he is expected to embrace the moderate Centre and shun ideological extremes. His endeavour should be to locate the larger purposes of politics in the dignity and esteem of our people. His leadership should be about bonding that offers hope for the marginalized and the oppressed. He should become the interlocutor to awaken the will of the nation and lead to accomplish it. In this task the nation must wish him well.

The author is a former Union minister for law and justice