04 February 2013 National rahul gandhi

Just Prince Charming?

Beyond emotion and his surname, does Rahul Gandhi have it in him to work Indian politics and lead his party and the nation?
Just Prince Charming?
P. Anil Kumar
Just Prince Charming?

The Scorecard

Hits Misses

  • Rahul is MP at the age of 33 in 2004. Elected from pocketborough Amethi.
  • Made Congress general secretary in 2007, democratises Youth Congress, NSUI
  • Boosts Congress campaign in 2009 poll; scoops 22 Parliament seats in UP
  • Takes on Mayawati by dining in Dalit villages in 2010; flags off yatras in Ambedkar Nagar 
  • Backs tribals from Orissa fighting for their land and rights against mining giant Vedanta
  • Backs retail FDI in 2011; pushes for Direct Benefits Transfer through Aadhar card
  • Abysmal attendance in Parliament, even poorer record of speeches 
  • Party wins 22 seats in UP assembly in 2007, three fewer than in 2002
  • Insists party go it alone in UP in 2012 assembly poll; Congress tally: 28 seats
  • Makes OBC quota for Muslims poll plank in UP. His wooing of Dalit vote back too backfires.
  • Diligently ducks Gujarat in 2012 polls, familiar visage absent from Congress posters
  • Remains a one-man show; parachutes in and out of the political hinterland, allowing others to pick up the pieces.


Seeking balance in his life and avoiding power seems to be the result of the inner journey and contemplations of Rahul Gandhi. He is now supposed to be leading the Congress into the future. But hear his Jaipur speech carefully and we must contemplate what Rahul will possibly do or not do, and how his dynastic turn at leading the affairs of the nation’s pre-eminent party could turn out. We must ask: is Rahul Gandhi for real or is he just the latest strand of an idea of a national beginning once made by his great grandfather? Is he just the emblem of a party now structurally tied at the Centre to the strings of dynasty? Or the apprenticeship over, is he rolling up his sleeves to get into the nitty gritty, the dirt and the grime, of politics in the age of coalitions?

At the end of his speech in Jaipur, largely seen as his coming-of-age address, Rahul Gandhi spoke of balance. He said that he loved to play badminton as a little boy because it gave him balance. He learnt the game from two security guards who later shot his grandmother and took away the balance in his life. Having moved the captive audience to emotion and some tears, he then went on to speak of power. He said that his mother understood that “the power so many seek is actually a poison”. The only antidote to this poison, he said, “is to not become attached to it. People should not chase power for the attributes of power.” Three days later, Rahul, now vice-president of the Congress, showed up at the party headquarters on Delhi’s Akbar Road and met all the functionaries. He told the media he only intended to raise “positive issues”.

“Whenever a vice-president has been appointed, historically there have been problems in Congress.”
D.P. Tripathi, General secretary, NCP

The quasi-philosophical, quasi-political, part-emotional, mostly vague-about-specifics speech delivered by Rahul at Jaipur was effective and one of his best yet. The Congress is naturally hopeful that the charisma of the dynasty survives and says it will now be showcased with greater clarity about the line of succession. As Sonia retreats, Rahul comes forth. He is young for politics at 42, and as a Youth Congress cadre from Tamil Nadu said in a state of tearful emotion at Jaipur, “so fair and handsome”. But for all the real and simulated excitement about his latest coming and the endless speculation about him being posited as a prime ministerial candidate against Narendra Modi, Rahul actually seemed to be saying that in the search for balance, he does not see power as an end in itself. He has given every indication in his words that the exit route of not trying for office remains. Yet it is also clear that Rahul will be the main campaigner for the Congress in the next general elections.

Critics call the charming vagueness and apparent shunning of power a deliberate tactic. If the Congress does well, he’s the face of party and government; if they do badly, he tried his best! That is why Pinaki Misra, BJD MP, says Rahul has learned the art of wielding power without responsibility. “As long as the prime minister of India reports to him, why would he choose to take that responsibility and come into the direct line of fire? He enjoys his private life as well and I don’t think he wants to compromise with the space of his private world.”

Talent Pool? NSUI members celebrate at AICC headquarters

But a veteran Congressman stresses that Rahul has never been inclined towards any government post and even in the future he does not see him as hankering after becoming the PM. “That is why other senior leaders still hope they can be the Manmohan Singh to his Sonia,” he adds. Perhaps having learned from his mother, Rahul too would seek no office, but he already has great power. And if Modi does indeed emerge from the other corner with his unbridled ambition, Rahul would be showcased as the contrasting figure reluctant to have power but with all the noblesse oblige instinct of a dynasty that has always used rhetoric about the poor and the powerless. If the plan around Modi is to highlight his corporate-friendly credentials, show him as the efficient epitome of an aspirational leader, the supporting plan for Rahul is the direct cash transfer scheme and pushing the food security bill. In short, he will be showcased as the gentle Prince of the Poor.

“Nothing will change at the ground level. He was never a charismatic leader, nor will he be in the future.”
Ram Achal Rajbhar, UP state chief, BSP

But it is between the Congress and the BJP that the real politics of India may be played in the multiple regional parties of India. Rahul has shown no inclination or ability to deal with them and it’s a skill he will have to develop. Till now, he has been a strong votary of the Congress going it alone in the Hindi heartland states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where the party performed poorly in the assembly polls. Within the party, though, the argument is that the pattern of voting is different in a Lok Sabha contest. The Congress, with Rahul leading the campaign, did get a good tally of 22 seats in UP in the 2009 Lok Sabha polls. But there are already voices in the Congress that the party should be open to a tie-up with Mayawati’s BSP, which is expected to bounce back dramatically in the general election after losing to the SP in the assembly poll a year ago. There is also a “demand” from some BJP units in UP that Modi stand from a seat in the state with the largest number of Lok Sabha seats. Were this to happen, Congress leaders say, they expect a counter-polarisation around Rahul.

Yet there are many who believe Rahul can deliver nothing on the ground, just a sense of well-being at the Congress headquarters. Congress functionaries at times say this off the record, other parties say it openly. Ram Achal Rajbhar, the UP state chief of the BSP, says that the Congress has celebrated Rahul’s new role with crackers and sweets in Jaipur but there is no welcome or warmth for his new role, “at least not in UP, the state he claims he belongs to. Nothing would change at the ground level. He was never a charismatic leader nor do we see any possibilities in the future.”

The first step Rahul filing his papers at Amethi in 2004

Before the general elections next year, there is a slew of assembly polls where the Congress takes on the BJP and its prospects are not believed to be good in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Delhi. It does fancy its chances in Karnataka, though. The reality of politics also is that the impact of central politics on the states is diminishing. A former Congress minister from the state attending the Jaipur meet told Outlook, “At the state level, Rahul campaigning or not will not matter. But it is important in the context of the Lok Sabha if he proves himself by then.”

“He has learnt how to wield power without responsibility. He wants no compromise on his personal space.”
Pinaki Mishra, BJD MP

And there is a lot he has to prove. At Jaipur, Rahul spoke of the need to groom 50 to 60 leaders in all the states. However, the problem the party faces in MP and Chhattisgarh is the various factions that make it difficult to project a single leader. Still, after the success delivered by Virbhadra Singh in Himachal Pradesh, the argument to try to build a campaign around an individual has gained currency. It would be interesting to see if Rahul, who has been applying himself to structured elections in the Youth Congress, can actually apply some of those lessons to the parent party. Or will it be foolish to employ Youth Congress tactics when it is still an old warhorse like Virbhadra who delivers? The questions are many, and sources say that Rahul is still searching for the answers. Like his mother, he will listen to advice and possibly have back-to-back appointments.

D.P. Tripathi, the general secretary of NCP, makes an interesting point. “It is very good that Rahul Gandhi has taken bigger responsibility in the party,” he says, “but please don’t forget that whenever a vice-president was appointed there were serious problems within the Congress. I am merely drawing your attention to the history of Arjun Singh and Jitendra Prasada who were given those posts by then Congress chiefs Rajiv Gandhi and Sitaram Kesri respectively.”

Rahul rebelling against his own party is an interesting prospect as his speech was rather unusual in critiquing a system largely created and upheld by the Congress. For instance, he spoke passionately about people who are kept out of the system because they are not connected and on the need to empower them. But surely, the Congress across India has perpetuated the rise of clans while its most prominent younger leaders are all children of political heavyweights?

Rahul also spoke of a more decentralised system, and power being shifted to the states. Again, it is the Congress that has been the most resistant to this and strong regional leaders have traditionally been cut to size by the national leadership, most famously during the reign of Rahul’s grandmother Indira Gandhi, but also by his mother Sonia—for instance when Jaganmohan Reddy was shortchanged in Andhra Pradesh.

Still, we must take Rahul’s word for it that he is inclined to break some old patterns in the Congress. But whether he will be able to do so and if it will all add up to anything really new or transformative remains to be seen. As of now, he has merely changed the mood in the party and lifted its spirits at a troubled time when opinion polls predict a slide for the ruling party. Rahul’s long-overdue coronation is only the beginning of a story that presumably will have more substance beyond the token presence of a dynast.


Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook 04 February 2013

Coming Up Next: Rahul Vs Modi?
Neither the Congress nor the BJP has announced their prime ministerial candidate for the next general election yet, and probably won’t, but the hot money is that it is going to be a head-to-head encounter between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi.

What Works For Rahul And Doesn’t What Works For Modi And Doesn’t

  • A full 20 years younger than Modi but no administrative record after nine years in politics
  • Touted as a youth icon, but inaccessible; silent when UPA went after Google, Facebook, bloggers
  • Has travelled to every nook and cranny, but stand on key issues of the day still a mystery
  • Gandhi surname still works, but its acceptability showing diminishing electoral returns
  • Hits the right notes against sycophants, powerbrokers, but banks on and encourages the children of Congress scions
  • Brain behind key social initiatives, but defeats in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat imply he is a tried and failed commodity.
  • Three-term CM with a demonstrated record of governance, but seen as a one-trick pony
  • Older than Rahul, but has emerged as an icon of urban youth through tech initiatives
  • Travels the world (except the US), but 2002 ensures he can’t
    campaign in parts of India
  • Unlike Rahul, enjoys grudging acceptance in his own party; anathema to present and potential allies
  • Rare OBC leader with national appeal, but long-term support of the Sangh parivar not very certain after he sidelines VHP, RSS men
  • Gujarat’s progress inspires awe, but Modi’s ability to work with
    colleagues, opposition, allies unknown. Hasn’t said sorry.

By Saba Naqvi in Jaipur with Panini Anand

Next Story : 40% Back Rahul, 49% Want Modi
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