Rahul, Only A Congress Leader?

What is Congress party’s plan? One is naturally tempted to raise this question following two recent developments. One is the reshuffle giving a new emphasis to including more Muslims in the cabinet. The second is projecting Rahul Gandhi as a “national” leader at the Congress rally held earlier this month at Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan. For the first time, Rahul shared stage with Congress High Command Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at this ground and delivered a speech. He had shared stage earlier too with the two. But this was the first occasion when he was given the opportunity to give a speech from Ramlila Maidan sharing the stage with senior party leaders. Within a few hours after the rally, several senior Congress leaders started saying that Rahul was an important leader, number two in the party, with Sonia being number one. Clearly, the nature of reshuffle followed by the rally and publicizing Rahul’s image as an “important party leader” are developments projected towards one direction. The Congress is virtually readying the political platform for Rahul to take over the reins as the next prime minister, if the party returns to power after the next general elections.

The Congress may appear to be totally willing to accept Rahul as the next prime minister and is clearly working in this direction, but it is as yet too early to speculate on the success of this strategy.  The Congress has not refrained from using the Muslim card during the cabinet reshuffle. This is reflected by elevation of Salman Khursheed to the coveted external affairs portfolio. The Congress clearly chose to snub “activists” who had recently levied charges of corruption against Khursheed. Rather than drop him from the cabinet, the Congress decided to give him a more important ministry. With Indian parliamentary elections due in 2014, Khursheed and the other new entrants cannot be expected to achieve much in roughly a year’s time. Thus, it would be more appropriate to describe this reshuffle as more of an electoral necessity for the Congress.

The Congress has less than two dozen members in Lok Sabha from Uttar Pradesh (UP), the state which is represented by 80 members in this House. Of these, only three are Muslims, including Khursheed. The Congress’ political strategy is thus double-edged. It has sent the message that corruption charges levied against its members are not going to dictate its political strategy. Secondly, the party is hopeful that Khursheed’s elevation will be welcomed by Muslim voters in UP and they will respond by helping the Congress gain more seats in forthcoming Lok Sabha elections.

Elevation of Khursheed reflects just one major card exercised by the Congress to attract Muslim voters. The same is suggested by inclusion of three new members in the union cabinet. These include K. Rehman Khan as Union Minister (Minority Affairs), Tariq Anwar (Minister of State, Agriculture & Food Processing Industries) and A.H. Khan Choudhary (Minister of State, Health & Family Welfare). Of these, Tariq Anwar is a member of Congress ally, Nationalist Congress Party (NCP). Their inclusion almost doubles the number of Muslims in the cabinet. The others, included earlier, are Ghulam Nabi Azad (Union Minister, Health & Family Welfare), Farooq Abdullah (Union Minister, New & Renewable Energy) and E. Ahamed (Minister of State, External Affairs). Of these, while Abdullah belongs to a Congress ally from Jammu and Kashmir (National Conference), Ahamed is from a regional party in Kerala (Indian Union Muslim League).

The Congress has also exercised a carefully manipulated regional strategy in this reshuffle. This is indicated by 22 new inductions having increased the representation of their respective states in the Union cabinet. The states which have benefitted most are Andhra Pradesh (AP), Kerala, West Bengal and Gujarat. The reshuffle brings the headcount of ministers from AP to 10 and from Kerala to eight. Besides playing regional and religious cards, the Congress has given greater importance than before to including younger members in this cabinet reshuffle. Nevertheless, it cannot be ignored, overall the cabinet and even the Congress party are still dominated by senior members.

Undoubtedly, his party members and Indian public regard Rahul as an important Congress leader. However, so far, except for winning from his own constituency (Amethi in UP), Rahul’s campaigns have not helped Congress gain significantly. Acceptance of Rahul by Congress as an important leader does not indicate that he has been accorded the status of a major national leader by the entire country, including Muslims. Nor does this suggest that allies of Congress in UPA share this view. In this context, use of the Muslim-card in the cabinet reshuffle followed by projection of Rahul as an “important” leader only reflect the strategy being apparently exercised by the Congress. Till date, this has not had much appeal for the Indian Muslims. Success, where the Muslims’ support is concerned, still eludes Rahul. Now, it is to be watched whether he and his party workers succeed in turning the political tide in their favour or not! .

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 16-30 November 2012 on page no. 11

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