Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi, during his first-ever press conference in the Capital on Tuesday, surprised everyone by openly praising Bihar chief minister and political rival Nitish Kumar for his administrative acumen. The timing, a day before Bihar went to polls, as well as the implications of the remark left everyone, including estranged ally Lalu Prasad, railway minister and former Bihar chief minister, perplexed.
Similarly, on Friday, Congress party spokesman M. Veerappa Moily, who had been seated next to Gandhi on the stage at the press conference a few days earlier, surprised everyone with his contradictory comments. “I do not think Congress is going to make a hero of Nitish Kumar. The manner in which he has aligned with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party)…is pollution of his secular credentials with the communal.” The very next day, Moily was removed as the party spokesperson.
Two clear strands emerge from the episode. One, it highlights an evident transition of power within the Congress, with the 38-year-old Gandhi calling the shots. Second, it reveals how crucial Kumar is to the political arithmetic at the Centre. Moily’s statement and subsequent exit was the culmination of a series of events that saw the enunciation of the Rahul Gandhi doctrine. It began the previous Friday when Gandhi met a few journalists, as reported by Mint on 4 May, and laid down what he felt were the first principles of his politics. During the press conference on Tuesday, he expanded on these themes and added a few more. Simultaneously, in an interview to Outlook magazine, Priyanka Gandhi Vadra, his only sibling, signalled in no uncertain terms that her brother possessed rare clarity of thought and was ideally placed to lead the party.
The rapidity of the transition has caught most people, including the rank and file of the Congress, by surprise. Especially, since Gandhi has, till the last few weeks, preferred to stay on the periphery. Reading the tea leaves can at any time be hazardous for one’s career in the Congress; all the more, when a general election, in which there is no clear winner apparent, is under way.
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Officially, there is no word on the transition. Gandhi continues to be the party general secretary and his mother, Sonia Gandhi, remains the Congress president. But in politics, what you see is not what you get. Again, since there is no official word, one can only hazard a guess as to why these moves have been effected now.
Tactically, it may be the best moment. If the party does well and succeeds in holding onto power, the stage would be perfect to elevate Gandhi to bigger things. Alternatively, the transition is pre-emptive in nature. Effecting a change in the leadership after a political defeat, which is bound to trigger internal rumblings and strife, may not be so smart. But in this case, after announcing upfront that he is the “marathon man”, Gandhi is ideally poised to move ahead and implement his long-term political strategy.
At the same time, by reaching out to Kumar, despite the falling out with Prasad, the Congress is implicitly admitting that the opposition may do better than expected, or at the least putting in place a “Plan-B”. Clearly, the expectation is that Kumar will play a key role in the numbers game that will unfold after results are announced on 16 May. It is a common refrain that a political formation can assume power at the Centre only if it has either Uttar Pradesh or Bihar firmly in its grasp. With UP expected to be carved up between four political parties, it is clear that Bihar, where the fight is largely between Prasad and the combination of Kumar’s Janata Dal (United) and the BJP, is the battleground state. Further, Kumar, because of his assiduously cultivated secular credentials, is, despite his association with the BJP, not a political untouchable. So, if the Congress succeeds in weaning him away, it will not just improve its own chances, but more importantly, dent the BJP’s aspirations as the leader of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA).
For the last few months, political circles in Delhi have been buzzing with talk that a political combination led by Kumar will be most acceptable, including to the corporate entities that unofficially bankroll political campaigns. Not surprising, therefore, that Prakash Karat, the general secretary of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the moving force behind the so-called (non-BJP, non-Congress) Third Front, too, has been making overtures to Kumar, who himself has denied being in contact with anyone outside of the NDA.
While it will not figure in the current calculations, it is important to acknowledge that Kumar has emerged as a key political factor based on his ability to deliver development to the people of a state that had been stranded in the vortex of backwardness and poverty for so long. Few will recall that till the 1970s Bihar was one of the most economically forward states in the country. By changing status quo, Kumar has laid the ground for a new political order in Bihar. The question is whether he can do the same at the Centre after 16 May.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org