Rahul Gandhi is 43, and the Congressmen have been saying for a while that he is all grown up and ready to venture forth. Just a year ago, in January 2013, he took on the mantle of vice-president of the Congress party amidst a tearful, emotional drama at Jaipur. Now, he’s poised to take another step forward to becoming the face around whom the Congress campaign for the 2014 general elections will be fought, though not quite the prime ministerial candidate outright. But a few questions remain. Does Rahul have it in him to represent anything more than the idea of dynasty that the Congress is so dependent on? Also, was the plan to name him the PM candidate abandoned in the teeth of strong political currents?
Rahul became a Lok Sabha MP at 33 and in the decade since has been engaged in his very own discovery of India and his inner world. A year ago, he spoke of balance and the need to avoid power “that is actually a poison”. Unlike his great grandfather, he does not have the talent to write wonderful prose about such inner journeys or outward discoveries. What we do know is that this is not a good moment for the Congress that has so defined India’s history. Instead of an author-backed ‘Son-rise’, powerful currents could actually rescript 2014 as a son-set year.
There would always exist a poignant, tragic air around Rahul, whose personal life has been so marked by the brutal assassinations of his grandmother and father. He has always seemed to be a man trapped by his destiny—the fortunes of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Even though he has famously supped in Dalit homes and tried to link himself, though not quite convincingly, to causes related to tribals and people resisting land acquisition, the young crop of leaders closest to him are also the well-heeled children of other senior politicians.
What some others had achieved around Rahul Gandhi’s age
|Rajiv Gandhi: At 43, Rahul Gandhi’s father had been prime minister for three years, having taken over following Indira Gandhi’s assassination
||Mayawati: Before she turned 40, the BSP leader had been chief minister of India’s largest state. Twice. She has since been CM three more times.
|Omar Abdullah: At 43, the Kashmir chief minister has been in charge for four years. He was a junior external affairs minister 13 years ago.
||Mamata Banerjee: Before she turned 30, she had toppled Somnath Chatterjee. By 43, she was walking out of the Congress to form Trinamool.
|Kumar Mangalam Birla: The chairman of India’s third largest corporate house was all of 28 when he succeeded his late father Aditya Birla
||Sachin Tendulkar: The world’s highest run-getter turned Rajya Sabha member turned Bharat Ratna, is retired, but still three years from turning 43
It is human nature, after all, to seek out similar people. Thus, Jyotiraditya Scindia became the CM candidate in Madhya Pradesh; now, Sachin Pilot has been made PCC chief in Rajasthan. And after the defeat in MP, 39-year-old Arun Yadav, son of party veteran Subhash Yadav (who too had been PCC president), was made PCC chief there. All this is being seen as part of a generational change—certainly, the relative youth in charge of some key positions is undeniable.
The idea of generational change occupies a central position in the world according to Rahul Gandhi. After he became general secretary in 2007, he spent over five years trying to democratise the stagnant Youth Congress. At its core, the idea was sound, yet ultimately Rahul was up against entrenched interests in the party, and a support base not driven by any ideology. Without any ideological pull, only charismatic and driven leadership can inspire youth. Yet, Rahul has often appeared to be a part-time politician.
Trapped by family history, the idea of being an outsider to the system appeals to Rahul. Yet he’s the face of the system.
The high point of Rahul’s political life must have been the general election of 2009, when the Congress scooped up 22 Lok Sabha seats in Uttar Pradesh and he was credited for being the catalyst for that change. But the dream of recapturing the Hindi heartland evaporated in 2012, when the Congress received a drubbing in the UP assembly elections, as Akhilesh Yadav rode to power on a wave for change against the Mayawati regime. With that humiliation, the idea that Rahul would restore the supremacy of the grand old party evaporated.
As he heads towards 2014, Rahul will more than ever be at the mercy of regional players. Mayawati, bouncing back to prominence after the continuing disaster of the Akhilesh government, has so far spurned all Congress overtures for a pre-poll alliance. For many regional parties, the national party must appear to be a liability. In Bihar, however, the three-cornered contest does make the Congress a useful add-on to the alliances Laloo Prasad Yadav and CM Nitish Kumar are both trying to tie up. Sources say the party will probably go with the RJD chief, as he is one of the critical poles of the secular political discourse.
All these calculations are being made even as party leaders admit they could be headed for a disaster. Congressmen put up a good defence when they say they won’t slide under 100 seats, as is being touted. Privately, some peg it around 80. In such a scenario, whether Rahul is the PM candidate or not is not really relevant. What would be politically more important is the manner in which the Congress starts negotiating with regional forces. One of the more likely outcomes of the next election is likely to be a completely hung Parliament, where parties will group together. If their numbers are dismal, Congress could be the tail of such a formation. At this stage, it seems unlikely they could be the centre of one.
Where does that leave Rahul Gandhi, the man who tried in spurts and starts but never seemed to plunge into the hurly-burly of politics with gusto? He has of late expressed admiration for Arvind Kejriwal and some of AAP’s policies and tactics. He also has the habit of speaking like the outsider to the system.
It is often said that to the human psyche, the grass always appears a little greener on the other side. Born to privilege and encircled by family history, to Rahul the idea of slumming it out in Dalit bastis, or storming Delhi as someone outside the system, a brilliant maverick, must appear appealing.
Ironically, Rahul is the face of the system. And this time round he must enter the forthcoming race as the underdog on whom no one will bet any money. So low does his stock ride on the bourse that the media now places him at third spot below the CMs of Gujarat and Delhi in popularity. If Kejriwal has become the symbol of ordinary people, Modi too is marketed by many as the face of a resurgent nation, an enabler for growth.
What does Rahul stand for? There is no message to back the image. Not a success on his own steam, he is known as the son of Sonia, the grandson of Indira. That is why he will continue to get many chances in the typical Congress belief that it is just a matter of biding time before the wheel turns full circle and a member of the first family must wield power yet again.