Monday, September 20, 2010

Power & Politics / Mail Today, September 20, 2010

WHEN he was appointed general secretary of the Indian National Congress three years ago, Rahul Gandhi was given charge of the party’s youth wings — the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students’ Union of India. The unmistakable spring in the steps of these frontal organisations is proof that he has made a difference.

Something similar is happening in the parent organisation and in the government. After leaving the party and policy matters to the old guard all these years, Rahul is suddenly taking a string of initiatives and making statements that are sparking debate in the Congress and setting the agenda for the UPA government, leaving many of his senior party colleagues standing.

Rahul was in Kolkata on the day of the allparty meeting on Kashmir convened by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, but he was all the while being updated about the goings- on at Race Course Road during the five- hour session. His keen interest may have something to do with the fact that after the last assembly elections in Kashmir, it was his support that helped friend Omar beat his father Farooq Abdullah for the chief ministership.

So, when he came to know that Omar was being pilloried not just by the Opposition BJP and the PDP but even powerful elements in the Congress at the all- party meeting, he addressed a press conference in Kolkata to reiterate faith in his friend. “ Kashmir is a difficult place and Omar is a youngster doing a tough job. We have to give him time and support him in his job,” Rahul said.
With Rahul backing Omar to the hilt, Congressmen were quick to fall in line while Mehbooba Mufti, who fancied her chances of replacing Omar with the Congress’s help, saw it slip by.

It was the first time that Rahul had expressed himself publicly on a contentious political issue but it may have far- reaching consequences which are difficult to predict now. But it is no flash in the pan and the young general secretary has been preparing for this for long.

A casual glance at the schedule of this itinerant traveller over the past 16 months of UPA- 2 would reveal that there is hardly a place in the country that Rahul has not visited. He has made no less than 46 crosscountry trips during this period. This, of course, does not include the frequent private tours that he is known to make in the company of sister Priyanka and her family.

Though in the beginning, he limited himself to subjects related to the young generation, he was soon taking on larger local issues at the state level and Omar Abdullah even the biggest of political enemies such as Mayawati . The UPA government may seem like a bundle of confusion and contradictions but there is none of that in the young man’s mind. Many states are due for assembly polls in less than a year and in some, as in West Bengal, the Congress has to take on the Left as well as do the delicate balancing act of trying to win votes while at the same ensuring that a powerful ally like Mamata Banerjee is not annoyed. Rahul went to Kolkata and Shantiniketan last week to convey the message that after 33 years of communist misrule, Bengalis deserved a change.

He was equally forthright in telling the Trinamool Congress that “ allies we may be but some home truths need to be told”. Retribution was swift as Mamata compared him to a “ cuckoo” whose visits are seasonal. Instead of retorting in the same language, Rahul expressed his respect for Mamata while reiterating that the Congress would not bend before her. The party cadres in West Bengal could not have asked for a better booster shot.

The “ environment versus development” debate that had been raging in the government and the Congress for some time now seems to have been put to rest after Rahul’s visit to the Nigyamgiri hills earlier this month where he battled for the rights of the tribals.

The seal of authority was rubber stamped when Sonia Gandhi, in her letter to Congressmen in the party mouthpiece Sandesh, wrote: “ The Congress party’s commitment to the welfare of the underprivileged and weaker sections was reinforced after the decision to protect the Nigyamgiri region from mining by party general Rahul Gandhi, who assured the tribal people that their fundamental interest would not be sacrificed in pursuit of development of natural resources.” I don’t know if synchronised swimming is included in Commonwealth Games aquatics but if they were handing out medals for synchronised politics, we know around whose necks the medals will hang.

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