Sometimes one speech can do wonders to lift the mood and morale of a nation. And certainly for one of its immediate target audience which is meant to facilitate the change, orchestrate its execution. Rahul Gandhi’s speech at the Congress Chintan Shivir at Jaipur, in retrospect, was not just about expressing repressed angst and deep personal anguish, but about a nation in turmoil and turbulence amidst galloping change and consumed often by irrational expectations of instant change. It was also about a government and party under an inexorable backlash and persistent scrutiny, and a people, or at least large sections of vocal urban population, that is getting increasingly impatient. For any emerging young leader of an established political organization a terribly daunting task indeed. But true to character, Gandhi seems to thrive when the going gets hot. It is good news for the Congress party, and for India. All management books on leadership have one common thread, the real leader shines in the hour of impenetrable overpowering crisis; in calm waters after all, every ship has a great captain. This is one of those moments.
The fact is that between 2009 and till now India has undergone a visible extraordinary churning, a transformation, evident in every aspect of our daily lives. It is not just about the much ballyhooed social media which has ballooned to over 80 million hyperconnected users and the incessant probing by the mainstream channels , but the sheer magnitude of diverse challenges we face as a nation. Income inequalities, wobbly infrastructure, problems of rampant graft, slothful bureaucracy, poor scores on human development indicators, disturbing law and order, and sometimes a nihilistic civil society that instead of ameliorating conditions has itself metamorphosed into an ambitious cunning caucus. The menu-list is long and intimidating. Contrary to popular perception about an inevitable dissipation of its reputation, it offers the Congress (the largest constituent of the UPA) an opportunity for redemption. Because when the maddening hullabaloo dies down and certain emotional equanimity returns, which is a natural human response to relentless barrage, the silent voter is usually a discerning one. Don’t believe me? Then just go to a few election results to understand that the Indian voter is fairly unfathomable ; 1977 ( an unexpected historic rout) , 1980 ( a resurgent comeback amidst ruins of an ideologically-conflicting coalition ) , 1984 ( an overwhelming vote for change under a youthful leader ) , 1989 ( disappointment at shattered dreams following a spate of charges ) , 1991 ( faith partially rekindled after another disastrous arrangement flops ) and thereafter in 2004 ( uncertain under a disingenuous, shifty communal party with misplaced economic priorities and the horrors of Gujarat 2002 behind them ) .
The fact that is often nonchalantly overlooked is that the UPA-II has functioned under the worst global financial crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. In a worldwide integrated economic cauldron, the downsides for the emerging markets have been huge. Much is made about our GDP slipping to 5.6—6% but China relatively has had a nastier dip. The ultimate cliché in our political lexicon, the “compulsions of coalition politics” is a truism, but in an egregiously cynical world, is seen as artful dodging of failures. And while everyone talks of policy paralysis as the latest orthopedic affliction, the parliamentary obstructions of a schadenfreude cussed opposition; hell-bent on stymieing reforms is now a grandiose, epic tale of opportunistic power-games. Could the UPA-II have done better despite the laundry-list of imponderables? The answer is a resounding yes; it would have helped to have smarter political management, better communication strategy and being pro-active in reading the voter’s mind.
Despite the above cripplers, UPA –II may well end up with the most structural, landmark legislations in our political history; amongst others the Lok Pal bill to add to RTI and MNREGA, Land Acquisition, Direct Benefits Transfer. RTE, NRHM, Food Security, Aadhaar, and FDI in multi-brand retail. It is a sumptuous list, not a single government has successfully created such epochal changes that will have a long-lasting impact. The need of the hour is to make architectural modifications in our governance systems, the rest will instinctively improve in response.
There are two significant lessons for the UPA-II; as the arresting alacrity with which public opinion was sought and an Ordinance against rape was passed, it showed that when pushed to a corner, we are capable of dusting cobwebs off our bedraggled jackets. It helps in government to anticipate change, not wait for a public protest to make amendments. And secondly, as the result from tiny Himachal Pradesh showed ( the world was obsessed with Gujarat), despite the most tsunami-like anti-government tirades by all and sundry over four years , there is no anti-Congress wave; in fact, the grand old party’s core constituency is holding tight, refusing to give up hope. In a straight contest with the BJP, HP could well be like Iowa or Ohio is to Democrats and Republicans in the US elections. It is that hope that Rahul Gandhi talked about at Jaipur, the hopes of millions awaiting a Congress renewal.
They say a week is a long time in politics; we have close to 60 weeks to go for the next visit to the electoral hustings. With a splintered, fractured opposition in virtual disarray, the hope rises. Margaret Mitchell famously said, tomorrow is another day. It is, but it is important to make the day count.