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A Little Bit Of History

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 Dear Rahul,
Or Shri Rahul Gandhi, if that is more appropriate. Congratulations on being made the vice president of the Congress Party, and being anointed as the person who will lead it in the 2014 national elections. This is a country of young people, and needs young leaders. Let me take this opportunity to share with you a bit of history.
At 40 years, two months and a few days, your father was younger than you when he took over as the prime minister on 31 October 1984. He was younger than you when he called a national election and when the Indian National Congress won 404 seats in the Lok Sabha — a feat that never happened before in the history of Indian elections, and not repeated since. The party won 10 more seats in 1985 when Punjab and Assam went to the polls. In effect, the nation gave Rajiv Gandhi an incredible mandate to change its destiny.
Your father did many positive things during the first couple of years in power. He signed the Punjab and the Assam accords, and got both states to the polls; these were followed by the Mizoram accord with Laldenga of the Mizo National Front. And he let it rip in a speech in Brabourne Stadium commemorating hundred years of the Congress. Here are parts of it:
“Political parties, state governments and social organisations promote policies, programmes and ideologies which divide brother from brother and sister from sister… Our legislatures do not set standards for others to follow; they magnify manifold the conspicuous lack of a social ethic…”
 “We have government servants who do not serve but oppress the poor and the helpless, police who do not uphold the law but shield the guilty, tax collectors who do not collect taxes but connive with those who cheat the State…” 
“Millions of ordinary Congress workers… are handicapped, for on their backs ride the brokers of power and influence, who dispense patronage to convert a mass movement into a feudal oligarchy.

They are self-perpetuating cliques who thrive by invoking the slogans of caste and religion and by enmeshing the living body of the Congress in their net of avarice… Their lifestyle, their thinking or lack of it, their self-aggrandisement, their corrupt ways, their linkages with the vested interests in society, and their sanctimonious posturing are wholly incompatible with work among the people… Corruption is not only tolerated but even regarded as the hallmark of leadership.” 
He did more. His bête noire, V.P. Singh, produced two excellent budgets and set the framework for the value-added tax; Sam Pitroda created the first revolution in telecom; Rajiv made successful forays to Moscow and the US. A young India was opening up.
Then came the fall. The first was the Shah Bano case. Backed by a progressive Supreme Court judgement, your father had the opportunity to demonstrate that all were equal in the eyes of the law. He initially went that way. And then got cold feet and swung to the opposite side. The Muslim Women (Protection of Rights on Divorce) Act came into being in May 1986. It removed Muslim personal law from the Criminal Procedure Code, thus diluting the judgement of the SC and denying even destitute Muslim divorced women the right to alimony from their former husbands.
This was followed by Ottavio Quattrocchi and Bofors. Then the dismissal of V.P. Singh as the defence minister in April 1987. Then a surge of terrorism in Punjab and Kashmir. And finally being sucked into Sri Lanka by Junius Jayawardene to participate in a brutal and bloody military operation which saw over 1,200 Indian soldiers needlessly lose their lives. It was India’s Vietnam.
The 1989 elections saw a young photogenic leader lose more seats than he won. That is true. The Congress won 197 seats in 1989. The number of seats it lost — 217 — was 20 more than it won. 
There are three lessons from this tale. First, you must focus on winning at least 230 seats in the next elections, so as to form the government. You can’t reform a nation nor a political party while in opposition. Second, focus on things that you wish to change — things that matter and will be immediately apparent — than a big shopping list. In this, focus on areas where you have the executive, legislative and administrative bandwidth to execute and measure. Make these your key electoral planks. Third, realise that the rhetoric favoured by your party’s veterans will no longer work in a new India. The vote bank is the nation’s under-30. They think differently. 

You have the mandate. Don’t fritter it. I wish you well.
The author is chairman of CERG Advisory. 


For more columns by Omkar Goswami click here

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 11-02-2013)