Testing times ahead for Rahul

Jaipur, Jan 21 (IANS) A special Congress session over the weekend formally launched Rahul Gandhi as the official number two after party chief Sonia Gandhi, making him the presumptive prime ministerial candidate of the party for the 2014 general elections, but the battle is half won and testing times lie ahead for the 42-year-old fifth generation leader of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

The Jaipur Declaration, that emerged from the three-day Jan 18-20 introspection cum strategy session Chintan Shivir appeared to have lost significance once Rahul was made the vice president, converting his de facto status into de jure one.

But the road ahead is paved with umpteen obstacles and uneasy will lie the head that is likely to wear the crown of thorns, that Gandhi alluded to when he talked about the "poison" that came with such heavy political responsibility and the personal risks that come with it. And his mother, who came to his room and cried on Saturday night, understood it better than anyone else.

Nine assembly polls - five big ones in Delhi, Rajasthan, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and Chhatisgarh, where the Congress will have direct contest with the Bharatiya Janata Party, and four in the northeast - will test his leadership skills.

The return of the third edition of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance in 2014 will also depend on how the Amethi lawmaker is able to restructure and re-energise the party for the big political fight. He heads the party's coordination panel for the 2014 polls.

Rahul Gandhi is also expected to restructure the organisation and give key roles to younger leaders so the party is able to reach out to the voters, 70 percent of whom are below the age of 35. Reaching out to the youths of the country, who are angry over corruption in the system and other social issues, crave for better systems of governnance and want accountability from the politicians and the government, will be a major task for the new Congress vice president.

The Nehru-Gandhi family scion would also be expected to spell out his position on various national issues clearly as he now holds an official post in the Congress.

While any success in the elections will bring him credit, he would also have to accept the blame in case of a failure.

"Rahul Gandhi faces enormous challenges during the coming polls as his leadership skills would be tested," Zoya Hasan, who teaches political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, told IANS.

"His speech after being made vice president pointed out many wrongs in the party. Now he has to set things right," she said.

The move to make him vice president, which marks a generational shift in the 127-year-old party, is significant and has mentally prepared the senior leaders to accept Rahul as their leader.

Party insiders said the decision was getting postponed for a while due to reservations among some senior leaders on giving him the official number two position in the grand old party.

But the members of the Youth Congress and National Students Union of India and the younger leaders in the party - who comprised a third of the 350-odd delegates at the session - made strong demands for his elevation, keeping in mind that 70 percent of the voters in the country are under 35 years of age.

Over 50 senior leaders who shared the dais with Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh at the session, not only heard Rahul with rapt attention, but stood up as soon as he finished his speech and were seen competing with one another in congratulating him.

Rahul had arrived.

In an impassioned speech, Rahul made it clear that he does not hanker for power and stressed the need to transform the party's systems and develop new leaders at all levels while saying the youths must be involved in decision making.

Rahul struck an emotional chord when he related how his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi cried when she met him after he was made the vice president and moved many leaders to tears.

The question now is whether he will be able to bring the middle class, especially the "restless and impatient" young, to the Congress camp from which they stood quite alienated over perceptions of corruption, misgovernance, inflation and insensitivity to issues that concern them.

(Amit Agnihotri can be contacted at amit.a@ians.in)

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