• Thursday, October 30, 2014

BYLINE

The absentee landlord

M.J. Akbar

A tough fact of democratic life is that you cannot quite unmake a statement after having once made it. Good politicians therefore shade what they say with as much care as they devote to what is left unsaid. The best ones might dangle the temptation of interpretation to journalists, but they will not be caught off-guard on the record.
But if you have nothing much to fill a day with except talk, even a mature politician like Digvijay Singh of  Congress can let an unmentionable truth slip through the many internal security barriers of prudence. This is precisely what happened when he revealed that his leader, Rahul Gandhi, was not temperamentally suited for power. The reason why this error got traction is everyone believed this to be the case. A mistake can always be amended; and a lie will, exceptions apart, generally die a natural death. But truth will  bob back into public discourse no matter how hard you try to slap it away.
Since Rahul Gandhi is not in politics to be a Mahatma, it is legitimate to ask why Congress has decided to invest its future in Rahul Gandhi stock.
When did Digvijay Singh arrive at such a conclusion? Was it before the 2014 elections when hopes were riding high, during the campaign when they got tempered, or after the miserable results? Did Digvijay Singh begin to get this hollow feeling when he realised that Rahul Gandhi was the only leader who took a Sunday off in the midst of such a campaign? Or that Rahul Gandhi simply could not connect with voters?
Depressed Congressmen are asking themselves, since they cannot ask anyone else,  whether there is any hope Rahul Gandhi can improve, or even reinvent himself as a political mind with communication skills. So far Rahul Gandhi has opted for radio silence, with antenna grounded. The electoral calendar can probably live with Opposition inertia for a year or so, but a fadeout has significant dangers. If Rahul Gandhi simply does not like the politics of power, and there is no other politics on his horizon, then he might actually prefer the comforts of being supine.
It is hardly a secret that a growing number of Congressmen would be delighted if Rahul Gandhi found a life outside politics, and allow his sister Priyanka Vadra to replace him. Since Congress now belongs to the Sonia Gandhi family -- instead of the other way around -- the party cannot imagine a leader outside the genetic circle. Whispers thrive in the grey area of deniability, which is why they are exciting. Some went to the extent of suggesting that Digvijay Singh's remark was not totally innocent, and could be a prelude to a palace coup that would see the emergence of Priyanka Vadra as the public face and voice of Congress, with Rahul Gandhi relegated to his dream-assignment of party reorganisation.
The crisis within Congress should be familiar to any historian of the zemindari system. We are dealing with the problem of an absentee landlord. It is not only a question of being physically absent from the scene, although there is that too, given the frequency with which Rahul Gandhi tends to go abroad. But he seems psychologically absent even when in India. A leader has to be available to his party colleagues, down to grass root levels, particularly after a colossal defeat. The anxiety in Congress right now is about survival; revival is a later chapter in the story. Leadership is vital as much in victory as in defeat, and you can only lead from the front. Advisers can occupy the sidelines; and the second rank remains in its allotted place, which is the second row. But nothing works if there is a vacuum on the front line. This surely is what is gnawing at men like Digvijay Singh, who have the interests of Congress in their heart.


Perhaps Rahul Gandhi has bought into the theory of complacence, which has its share of advocates: do nothing for a couple of years, wait for the credibility of the present government to collapse and then offer yourself as the saviour. The catch is that this argument assumes that voters will be complacent as well. The evidence is against such assumptions. There are other parties waiting to pick up Congress space, as they have done in so many states. Leaders like Mamata Banerjee and Jayalalitha survive defeat to fight another day because they never leave the battlefield.
Digvijay Singh spoke to two audiences: the public as well as to the family which has taken possession of Congress. He does not mind the takeover, but he wants the landlord to preside over a harvest. Since the zemindari system is based on a permanent settlement, it is not easy to change landlords. But neglect has driven great estates into insignificance. As a former prince, Digvijay Singh knows this only too well.

The writer is Editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London and Editorial Director, India Today and Headlines Today.

Published: 12:00 am Tuesday, July 08, 2014

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