Gandhi exit strategy- A speculative analysis

Rahul Gandhi’s “election” to the President of the Congress Party came as a surprise to many. The surprise was not that he became the president of the Congress Party, that was expected, but the timing of the announcement. The announcement was made in the thick of a hard-fought election, in which neither Congress nor Rahul Gandhi tried to hide who was in charge of the election campaign. This was rather surprising because in the past, Congress has not exposed Rahul Gandhi without a safety net. In this election there was none, and if Congress loses these elections, the substantial blame would fall on Rahul Gandhi. Congress did try to divert some attention from Rahul Gandhi after the first phase, in the form of some really retarded comments from some of it’s senior leaders. However, that was pretty much it.

There were a few other interesting developments. Rahul Gandhi’s and Congress’ seeming endorsement of so-called “soft Hindutva”. In the past Congress has resolutely tried to avoid such an endorsement. Rahul Gandhi’s declaration of being a Hindu and offhand endorsement of some “Hindu” “causes” made by some of Congress’ leaders meant that they were again taking a huge risk of alienating the Muslim voters who in the past have generally voted for Congress. This indicated that Congress might have something else to offer it’s offended voters. Sonia Gandhi’s decision to quit politics just before the election results meant that Rahul Gandhi would face the full force of the fallback of the results (if Congress didn’t do so well in these elections, and it didn’t).

The question that should have been asked is why Congress took such huge risks? Generally, the Gandhis have been very risk averse- be it refusing to take any public office, or actively find scapegoats for defeats. It could be as media tells us that this is a new confident, grown-up Rahul finally leading Congress or it could also be an exit strategy for the Gandhis.

When Shehzad Poonawalla resigned from Congress, many people thought of it as a drama to divert attention from a possible election defeat. The usual Congress strategy…  like the Akhilesh-Mulayam fight before the UP elections. Ideally, Poonawalla should have apologized by now, and gone back into the fold. But that has not happened, Poonawalla seems to have been quite vocal in his opposition to Rahul Gandhi and the “dynasty”. He has made it clear that he wants to be the next President of Congress Party and wants to bring major changes to the Congress Party.

If the past few elections (excluding recent Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh elections, as their results were declared after Rahul Gandhi became the president of his party), are any indication, all familiar Congress ploys failed. Congress is largely viewed as a corrupt directionless party. Dynasties survive on loyalty of powerful satraps. It appears that the first level satraps are still very loyal to the dynasty, but they are ineffective elderly folks with no mass appeal.

However, they are very familiar with the system and can still conspire away from the public eye. So, what Congress needs is a mass leader. Rahul Gandhi is not that man, any advertising man could tell you, that selling Rahul Gandhi from his current position is next to impossible. And Congress probably has many such advertising analysts working for them. Rahul, once he quits politics will probably become the most popular man in India, and could exert considerable influence through his network. However, he seems to have failed as a mass leader.

It appears to me that these were the last elections that Rahul Gandhi fought and so exposed himself. Congress lost, and he may graciously offer to resign and probably resign. This would be the biggest news since Sonia Gandhi’s ‘Balidan”. After a few days, a new leader could be chosen and Shehzad Poonawalla fits the bill. He has already shown himself to be an independent headstrong leader, taking on the Congress leadership and in the process making many enemies with Congress and making new friends elsewhere. If Shehzad is “elected” the leader of the Congress Party, Congress’s recent “Hindutva” transgressions will be forgiven and Congress may ultimately embrace some sort of soft Hindutva front. There are many advantages to this approach.

Politically, this will be a huge win for Congress. First, it will generate a sympathy for Congress Party, a real “Balidan” and a big one. Second, Congress gets a fresh face, untainted by past associations. If Congress does elect Shehzad as its next president, the familiar elitist faces associated will disappear and a “brand new” Congress will be born. These familiar patriarchs would still be around but relegated to background, and that would be good, as the only thing that they have been good in the “new” India has been to alienate voters.Third, Shehzad will be an acceptable candidate for all the other parties and so called Third Front parties will flock to Congress and UPA-III will become a very realistic possibility. Fourth, Congress will be able to break free from the election practices of the past, and will most likely adopt an agile Modi-Shah type of election politics. Fifth, Congress will become palatable to many undecided voters and even some BJP supporters. Sixth, lest anyone forget, Poonawalla is a Gandhi loyalist and through him, the Gandhis will want to continue to influence policy and protect their interests. Whether, he becomes the Congress President and a remote control one at that is something that we will need to wait and see.

This scenario is the best of all the options that Congress has – this provides a face saving exit for Gandhis and a Gandhi loyalist in their place. An acceptable political leader who could unite the opposition and unsullied by past sins of the party. The last couple of weeks could very interesting if this happens and BJP will need to adjust rapidly if this happens.

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