It did not come as much of a surprise – either to the media or the aam admi – Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the Congress’ No. 2 position. Gandhi was formally named the vice president, making him the second-in-command of the party on Saturday, paving the way – as most newspapers and news channels described – for him to lead the party in the general elections next year.
The declaration, The Times of India said, set the stage for a possible showdown between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, who is widely expected to be the main Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014.
The TOI said that as the Number 2 in the Congress, “he has been, for all practical purposes, pitched as the prime ministerial candidate of the party… thus setting the stage for a showdown with the Gujarat strongman”.
On similar lines, The Hindustan Times, in a front-page article headlined ‘Congress sends 2014 signal by elevating Rahul to Number 2’, wrote that Gandhi becoming No. 2 in the party was in line with Congress’ “shift of focus to the youth and the middle class”. The daily, while pointing out that the party had stopped short of naming Gandhi as the prime ministerial candidate, perhaps “out of consideration for its sitting octogenarian PM Manmohan Singh”.
Newspapers like Mail Today were more direct and focused on Gandhi’s elevation. Over a fullpage spread of the smiling Gandhi, the Mail’s headline read “Party finally crowns prince”.
The Berliner said the move indicated a Congress strategy and that it is “not averse to pitting him against Narendra Modi and fielding him as its prime-ministerial candidate”. The BJP is yet to reveal the name of its candidate for the top post to take on the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance at the Centre, but there’s been a growing demand for Modi to be fielded, particularly after he won key Gujarat polls last year.
By and large, the media has given a grudging thumbs-up to Rahul Gandhi. Forgotten were his conversation with the US as revealed by the Wikileaks ablegate, his denial of audience to village leaders of Anna Hazare’s Ralegan Siddhi, and other such faux pas, when he said in his post-anointment speech that power in India is too centralized and must change. “A handful of people control the entire political space. It doesn’t matter how much wisdom you have. If you don’t have position, you have nothing. That’s the tragedy of India,” he said as Congress workers cheered.
Gandhi said change could be possible only if those in power started respecting and empowering people for their knowledge and skills. “All the public systems – administration, justice, education and political – are designed to keep people with knowledge out,” he said. “We only empower people at the top of the system. We don’t believe in empowering all the way to the bottom.”
Political commentator Arathi R Jerath wrote in The Economic Times that “it’s his role rather than his position that will determine whether he is the game-changer the Congress so desperately seeks in the run-up to a challenging general election. The task before Rahul is not just to shed his reticence and provide leadership upfront, but to craft a new idiom for his party that will give shape and substance to his promise of change”. Even as the Indian media speculated on how the pitch is being readied for the Gandhi-Modi battle in 2014, its foreign counterpart saw the emergence of a new style of politics in reaching out to the aam aadmi and a clarion call for the departure, from what The Washington Post called, of “elitist politics”.
The New York Times hinted at the emergence of ‘youth politics’ aimed at the polls. The daily, while pointing out that Gandhi has for years headed two youth organizations, the Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India, connected his stature within the Congress to Sonia Gandhi’s recent remarks that a key strategy for next year’s election was to find ways to appeal to India’s young population. “Half of India’s population is under the age of 25. Her remarks raised expectations that she would push her son to assume a greater role in the party’s leadership,” it said.
Clarifying further, NYT pointed out: “At 42, Gandhi is no longer a young man, but he is much younger than much of the rest of India’s leadership class, whose average age is 65.”
Even for the die-hard Congress loyalists, it’s apparent that the General Election 2014 is not going to be one of the easiest the Congress has ever experienced. All the difference that will be made is based on how hard the party works and on behalf of one single representative. As Sruthi Gottipati in her India Ink blog on NYT said, it’s like “Obama, Axelrod and Plouffe rolled into one” - a reference to US President Barack Obama, the president’s campaign adviser David Axelrod and political strategist David Plouffle.
Gandhi has made it obvious to the Indian youth that he knows where it pains him the most. One can hardly find fault in his understanding of what is wrong and what needs to be fixed. And change was his call. At the same time, one wonders as to what newness he and his party has to give, considering that it had had nearly two full terms to make the changes. The media is speculating; and speculations will perhaps continue even if Gandhi becomes the next PM of India.
For now, he will have to revitalize the youth wing of the party and do more to promote democracy within the party, of which he often talks.