Rahul Gandhi turns 45: Will he lead Congress's '20-year pattern' in 2024?

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Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi turned 45 on Friday. Forty-five is not an age to worry about in politics but in case of Rahul Gandhi, he has allowed so many years to pass by without really doing any solid work that voices backing him as a young leader have begun to shrink.

Is 45 really a big age?

But Congress is a party where members of the Nehru-Gandhi family have always stolen the limelight, irrespective of the age factor. Hence, if Rahul Gandhi continues with his groundwork that he has been doing with quite an intent after returning from a mysterious two-month sabbatical in April, he and his party's supporters will not really have to worry with age.

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Congress has a 20-year pattern

The Congress is a party which has a close connection with a historical pattern. It is a party which sees a turn of events every 20 years.

Jawaharlal Nehru had passed away in 1964

After 17 years of stable governance, Jawaharlal Nehru had passed away in 1964, raising a question over the succession in the party. It was a moment of uncertainty for the entire country and with the sudden death of Nehru's successor Lal Bahadur Shastri two years after, the future of the Indian democracy was at stake for there was no alternative to the Congress then.

But Indira Gandhi's rise as a powerful leader had shelved those fears. In the next 11 years, the country had seen the best and worst of Indira Gandhi's leadership.

The best and worst of Indira Gandhi in the 1970s

In 1971, India annihilated Pakistan in a war and helped in liberating Bangladesh. Four years after that, the same Indian leader had imposed an Emergency, the darkest phase in the history of the world's largest democracy. The Congress was toppled in the very next election but Indira Gandhi was a leader who couldn't be kept away for long.

In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated

She returned to power in 1980 after the alternative to the Congress failed to deliver and she ruled till the last day of her life. In 1984, the Punjab problem had left its biggest national impact when Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her own Sikh bodyguards.

It was exactly 20 years later since the Congress had faced the question on post-Nehru succession.

The post-Indira Gandhi period turned out to be an unhappy one once the euphoria around Rajiv Gandhi was killed by the Bofors scam. The Congress lost again at the Centre, the second time in 12 years, and an era of unstable coalition politics took over.

Rajiv Gandhi, who was born 20 years before Nehru's death, was killed in 1991 and Congress received a body blow

Rajiv Gandhi, who incidentally was born 20 years before Nehru's death, was looking favourite to come back to power for a second term but a human bomb took his life during the election campaign in Tamil Nadu in 1991. This was a decisive blow for the Congress as it lost three of its main political faces within a span of 11 years (in 1980, Indira Gandhi's younger son Sanjay Gandhi, who was seen to be her successor, was killed in a plane crash).

They were the Gandhiless years of the Congress. PV Narasimha Rao took over as the first non-Nehru/Gandhi prime minister of India and although he made some important moves, he was never treated at par with the Gandhis by the loyal keepers of history.

But there was no another Gandhi to take up from where Rajiv Gandhi had left it. Sonia Gandhi was too reluctant after she saw a series of deaths while her children, Rahul and Priyanka, were too young for politics.

Entered Sonia Gandhi and Congress was back in power in 2004

However, it was after the Congress found the ground beneath shaking following Narasimha Rao's tenure that Sonia Gandhi was compelled to join politics and lead it from the front.

The elections of 1998 and 1999 weren't satisfactory under Sonia Gandhi but she helped the Congress return to power in 2004, which was completely unexpected for Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the nation's favourite in those days.

It was again after 20 years since Indira Gandhi's death that her daughter-in-law brought the party back to prominence.

But Sonia Gandhi refused to become the prime minister and chose Manmohan Singh instead. The first term of the Congress-led UPA government was still a decent one and Singh even had his moment of pride when he resisted the Left on the question of nuclear energy agreement with the US. But the second term of the UPA was a pathetic affair as it was hit by a series of corruption.

The steady rise of Narendra Modi from 2012 when he completed a hat-trick in Gujarat was too much for Sonia Gandhi's corruption-hit Congress to tackle and it was decimated in the 2014 Lok Sabha election.

Rahul Gandhi's slow rise

In 2015, Rahul Gandhi, who has looked quite a non-starter so far, has started making some steady steps forward. The words that he has been speaking are still not extra-ordinary, but his politics of mobility that is aimed at aligning with the fringe sections has generated some positive energy for the Congress and put the Modi-led BJP on the defensive at times.

Gandhi has arrived on the Twitter, a very important medium in today's politics and making public approach, turning the tide around on the perception about him as a leader who is out of sync with the demands of modern-day politics. The presence of Modi all over the media made Rahul Gandhi look all the more irrelevant. But he has started making a correction, even if late.

A positive thing about Rahul Gandhi's actions of late is that he has not projected his cause based on divisions like caste, religion or region. He has been running around to highlight the plight of communities not as vote-banks but as economic or social sections.

Rahul Gandhi is trying to capture the space outside Modi's shadow

If Modi has captured all the space in the middle-class's mind, Rahul Gandhi is targetting those sections who are yet to be included in the prosperous middle class, like farmers, fishermen, sanitation workers and others. He is even backing victimised middle-class and former soldiers in the One Rank One Pension controversy.

Former Union minister Shashi Tharoor, who is an MP now, said this about the Congress vice-president in an article on his 46th birthday: "Once I was seated next to him at a dinner in Jaipur and what he was happiest telling me was about his then recent lunch with Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the inventor of the concept of the Black Swan, who had come to Delhi the previous week. This is the side of Rahul Gandhi that the public doesn't know -and that he never chooses to show publicly. I believe, over the next four years, that we will get to see more of the thoughtful, reflective person he is, as well as the quick-thinking politician with a clear vision for the country."

The man suddenly looks a promising one for the Congress, which is facing one of their worst phases in politics. He has started it late but still he has done it which will make a lot of Congressmen happy.

Can he bring the party to back to power in 2024, again 20 years since Sonia Gandhi's success?

The next Lok Sabha election looks to go to Modi's way as the country will not reject the man who was given such a massive mandate last year, no matter what happens. But apart from the benefit of doubt, Rahul Gandhi can aspire to bring the Congress back into the reckoning in 2024, which will be again 20 years since the Congress's last stint in power.

Rahul Gandhi will be 54 in 2024. That is not too big an age in politics.

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