Like his mother, Rahul Gandhi rarely interacts with journalists, the silence amplifying the mystique. But on the few occasions he has deigned to meet New Delhi’s hacks, the phrase “transformational politics” has tripped off his tongue. The manner in which the 43-year-old languidly unveils his blueprint, says an editor who’s been to an early-morning AMA (ask me anything), it is as if the Congress vice-president is in a time zone of his own, as if he has an eternity to work around what faces him and his party—as if politics is played without a scoreboard.
There’s a decidedly theoretical air on the lawns of 12, Tughlaq Lane, as the muffled whir of a Coffee Day blender whipping up an espresso strives to keep everyone awake. When the “youth icon”—Rahul is pertinently 20 years younger than Narendra Modi—makes a long, oral presentation of a 12-slide spreadsheet his backroom boys have worked on, there’s a palpable timelessness to the proceedings; almost no urgency. “Your idea of the long-term is not my idea of the long-term,” he once brusquely told a 45-year-old editor whose short-sight prevented him from looking beyond 2014.
Indeed, with UPA-II reduced to a nightly caricature of scams in the air (2G), on the ground (Adarsh, CWG) and down below (coal); with ministers quitting in ignominy and poll defeats piling up for the Congress from Bihar to UP to Gujarat, there seemed nothing “transformational” about Rahul Gandhi’s politics, slow-cooked in the cauldrons of the Youth Congress. There was little to show beyond sleeping in the villages or being caught gassing about “Hindu terrorism” on WikiLeaks. His most famous intervention in Parliament (where his attendance is sketchy)—on the Lokpal, in 2011— dissolved into nothingness as the old dogs swooped down to protect their turf from M/s Hazare and Kejriwal.
However, as the Manmohan Singh government, with legal wisdom inversely proportional to the professed IQ of the Ivy League lawyers on its rolls, dangerously misread the national mood—of unvarnished outrage at mounting corruption—the inflection point for Rahul Gandhi’s “transformational politics” may have come on Friday, September 27, 2013. The party’s media maven, Ajay Maken, was holding exactly three still-photographers in post-prandial thrall at the Press Club of India with his stout defence of the indefensible—an ordinance drafted by Union law minister Kapil Sibal to circumvent a vigilant Supreme Court and keep convicted MPs in business—when Rahul made the phone call of his life, and gatecrashed into the high table of realpolitik.
“My opinion of the ordinance is that it is complete nonsense. It should be torn up and thrown out. That’s my opinion. My personal opinion. Whatever the government is doing on this ordinance is wrong. I repeat before you, it should be torn up and thrown away, OK?” Rahul said in a four-minute cameo appearance and vamoosed. He had correctly read the writing on the wall: online polls, TV panel discussions, newspaper editorials had torn into the ordinance, moved to flagrantly bypass the SC. But the Manmohan regime, with an advertised dislike for the media, had hunkered down and pretended the storm didn’t exist.
Even the BJP, whose talking heads put on a self-righteousness that’s not always been earned, had happily played along. With the urban, educated, TV-viewing, newspaper-reading, social media- consuming middle classes drifting away from the Congress in droves, ‘The Inheritor’ probably reckoned there would be little to inherit at this rate. Rahul decided to poop the party of opportunism and hypocrisy. “He reacted late, which shows a little immaturity, but it was for a good cause,” says CPI general secretary Sudhakar Reddy. The CPI and the BJD were the only two dissenting parties to question the UPA haste in moving the ordinance.
For long, Rahul had been accustomed to being asked why he didn’t speak up on the key issues of the day. Indeed, shortly after the FDI in retail bill had first been scuppered in Parliament, he was asked why he had waited for the bill to fail before speaking up in its favour. “How do you know I haven’t spoken up? Everything I say needn’t be public,” he shot back. But now that he had done so, and so noisily on the most key issue of the day—corruption—another set of questions came his way: why was an insider playing the role of a rebel? Was he taking on his mother, who was keen to protect her most loyal ally, Laloo Prasad Yadav, before the fodder scam verdict was out? Was he cocking a snook at the prime minister’s dignity, especially when he was on foreign soil? Was there an unresolved disconnect between party and government for which he was doing a course-correction? And most importantly, was he imperiously undermining a cabinet decision like the dynast that he is?
Congress insiders say Rahul wasn’t just against the ordinance to protect criminals—and apparently there are more of them in Parliament (one in 30) than in public (one in 1,061)—he was also against the move to keep political parties outside the purview of the Right to Information (RTI) Act. But the impending convictions of Laloo Yadav and Rasheed Masood were weighing heavy on the minds of the party high command. “Even some senior BJP leaders were keen on the ordinance. They are close to Modi and they knew what the conviction meant for them,” says one source. While some amount of criticism for the ordinance was expected, they hadn’t factored in the Congress No. 2.
For Manmohan Singh, Rahul’s inter-continental missile was the second to slam home inside 24 hours. A day before, in Frankfurt, the early morning calm had been disturbed by his political secretary Vikram Misri, who had walked into the prime minister’s hotel suite to inform the 81-year-old about the terror attack in Jammu that killed 10. “What a terrible start to the day,” lamented Manmohan, before scampering with national security advisor Shiv Shankar Menon to draft a boiler-plate statement condemning the “enemies of peace”. But in Washington DC, the Rahul missile hit where it hurt most, hours before the prime minister, who has a sense of history about such moments, was preparing to go to meet an embattled president to put the “fizz” back in Indo-US ties.
While key members of the PM’s entourage stayed glued to the TV screens, as anchors and analysts—including Manmohan’s former media advisor Sanjaya Baru—broke into a sweat on whether the PM should resign, out came a calm statement from the man who just 20 days earlier had said he would only be too happy to work under Rahul’s leadership. He said Rahul had written to him on the issue before going public with his criticism. He said he would meet Rahul on his return and the “issues raised will be considered” after “due deliberations in the cabinet”.
When a third missile—Nawaz Sharif comparing the Indian prime minister’s decision to raise the issue of Pakistan-backed terrorism with Barack Obama as a “dehati aurat’s penchant to run to the village maulvi”—hit Manmohan on the third day, his wry comment, “Ten years in the PM’s chair has made me thick-skinned”, seemed to capture the TV studio storm set off by Rahul’s statement. To no one’s surprise, on the plane ride back home, Manmohan put it simply and plainly. “I’m not resigning...I have learnt to take all these things in my stride.... I am not the master of what people say.”
Since the basic thrust of Rahul’s move was beyond debate, two things happened. On the ruling party side, Congressmen (like Maken et al) who had backed the ordinance in the first place did the kind of flips that would get hurrahs in a circus. On the opposition side, it was the style and language he employed that was quickly up for interpretation. “Of course, this is not the right way to do things,” thundered the BJP’s Venkaiah Naidu. “This clearly shows the lack of exposure and expertise, there is no conviction or commitment.” Here’s ally NCP’s D.P. Tripathi: “In nine years, this is the first time. I hope this will not be repeated and matters will be discussed at UPA coordination meetings to avoid such situations in future.”
When the ordinance and the bill were both withdrawn within hours of Manmohan’s return, and when the BJP was quickly reduced to claiming credit for the UPA U-turn following its representations to President Pranab Mukherjee (who’s said to have had second thoughts anyway about signing on the dotted line, evidenced by his summoning of Kapil Sibal, Kamal Nath and Sushilkumar Shinde), it was clear that Rahul had played a clear game-changing role. Little wonder then, when first Masood and then Laloo were convicted for crimes committed between 17 and 22 years ago, the heat on the Congress suddenly seemed a lot more tolerable.
Just what Rahul Gandhi has achieved and how long it will last and how far he will take this high-minded idealism is a matter of conjecture, depending on which side of the ideological fence you sit on. After all, he has still not spoken out on several other key issues. And after all, despite his exertions, the Congress backed the 2G scam-tainted Kanimozhi. Also, there is the bigger question of political pragmatism. In an age of coalition politics, the Congress needs allies, many of whom are tainted. But there is no denying that in wrecking the conspicuous feast of the crooked and the corrupt, it’s a new RaGa India is suddenly listening to.
One outcome of the ordinance and bill being summarily junked lock, stock and barrel because of Rahul’s intervention is that all debate on the bill, which had after all been unanimously accepted by all parties, has come to an unceremonious end. The SC order of July 10 was seen as intervention by the judiciary into legislative institutions. Some legal experts ask if an ordinary man who is not satisfied by a verdict has a right to appeal in the higher court, how can people’s representatives be embargoed from taking recourse to this legal arrangement? Says D.P. Tripathi: “The judiciary is not taking action against members of the judiciary who are convicted. Ditto bureaucrats and journalists. Why the outcry against politicians?”
There’s also the question asked of Manmohan: why does a seemingly upright, honest gentleman and two-time prime minister to boot, take these furtive insults hurled at him without much of a fuss? Some would say it’s the resolve of an ‘honest soldier’ of the party who is constantly aware of the fact that it was only because of Sonia Gandhi’s “supreme sacrifice” in 2004 that he got to occupy the coveted PM’s chair. Others would argue that since he himself was not comfortable with the ordinance in the first place, he found it difficult to defend it once the Congress vice-president publicly criticised it and demanded it be “torn apart”.
But there could well be a third reason for Manmohan to accept the evolving situation without fighting back. Perhaps this is because he fancies that he has a very good chance of becoming the prime minister for a third term—equalling Jawaharlal Nehru’s record—if the Congress manages to nose ahead of the BJP in 2014. So are we looking at a scenario where the search for ‘Rahul’s Manmohan’ actually stops at Manmohan Singh? To some, it may seem a little far-fetched. But those who are aware of the twists and turns of “transformational politics” may not be surprised if that indeed becomes a reality.
If Rahul Gandhi is really serious about being a ‘game-changer’, how about breaking the omerta code on these issues?
- Robert Vadra He should demand an independent inquiry into his brother-in-law’s shady land deals.
- Scams He should urge Prime Minister and his aides to come clean on the 2G spectrum and coal allocation scams.
- Lokpal He should seek to make Lokpal Bill effective and strong, instead of being party to attempts to water it down.
- Party He should demand open elections at all levels in the Congress, including for the post of party president.
- 1984 He should demand justice for victims of all communal violence, including the anti-Sikh riots of 1984.
- FDI He should explode the myth of FDI being ‘anti-farmer’, ‘anti-trader’ and support investment for job creation.
- RTI He should publicly demand that the Congress and other political parties should come under the RTI’s purview.
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By Panini Anand in New Delhi with Pranay Sharma in New York & Washington