Trying to read young Rahul Gandhi presents us with a conundrum. The signals he sends out are not the signals we want to get. He talks of harmony, we wait for policy prescriptions. The young Gandhi uses words like inclusiveness, we want to know if he has suggestions to boost growth. Does he have anything to say on corruption, on rape, on FDI in retail? If no, why not? The more he waves away plans to become the prime minister of India, the more we insist he must take up his inevitable legacy. Even those who decry the dynastic principle have come to expect, almost hope, that he becomes the next PM. Why else would an ordinary MP, with a not-so-stellar record in Parliament, be invited to address the great and the good, the rich and the powerful?
From this paradox emerges the somewhat bogus Rahul Gandhi vs Narendra Modi narrative that has now taken on a life of its own. Every breath they take, every speech they make gets compared, right down to all their allegorical references. White horses, beehives, Kalavati, Jasuben and her pizza, all are discussed minutely by the commentariat and, of course, on social media. Neither has been ‘officially’ named by their respective parties as prime ministerial candidate, but as far as the media and the chattering classes are concerned, the two are locked in a gladiatorial contest.
Modi, we know, is ambitious, but why is Rahul Gandhi being slotted into the role despite his persistent denials? If we believe that dynastic success is a wart on democracy, shouldn’t we welcome his decision? Are we burdening him with our expectations? A Nehru-Gandhi taking over as the PM is no longer the natural order of things—Sonia Gandhi declined the post and it is possible that Rahul may do the same. Congresswallahs are programmed to sycophantically ask for the nearest Gandhi to take over; why should we join the clamour that Rahul join the family firm?
In India, politicians routinely say one thing and do quite the opposite, hence our scepticism. Here’s a tantalising thought though—what if he actually means what he says? Keeping that in mind, one could begin to look at Rahul Gandhi in a completely different way, as a young and sincere, if somewhat naive, MP trying to do something good for his country. He has travelled around the country to understand the Real India and wants to bring about some real change. His ideas are still in the process of being formed, but he is convinced technology (and technocrats) will change things. And he also hopes to transform his party, somewhat like his father had hoped. Trying to apply all that into measuring whether he is prime ministerial material is pointless.
It is an unprecedented situation in Indian politics—the reluctant heir unwilling to take charge of his legacy. So far, there has been no example of a son, daughter or even a wife refusing to move effortlessly into a parent’s or spouse’s chair. And for all our disgust with dynasties, we have come to accept them as inevitable. Now we are faced with a new situation: the Insider who is behaving like an Outsider; except that we want him to start playing the Insider.
Of course, all this may be just a strategy: the Congress may be protecting him from direct attack from the opposition during the pre-election season and may yet unveil him as the prime minister if and when the opportunity arises. Why expose him to ridicule at this stage? The Congress will hope that Modi’s campaign-on-steroids will peak too early, besides alienating potential NDA allies. Meanwhile, a new UPA can quietly take shape and when the time comes, Rahul will be presented to the others as the nominee from the Congress.
Yet, there is an equally good chance that Rahul has made up his mind—he will not be the PM if his party wins. The cynical interpretation is that Sonia Gandhi has understood the benefits of remaining behind the scenes, where it is all power and none of the headache. Rahul will carry on the tradition and remain a backseat driver while the day-to-day job of running the country can be left to a reliable partyman.
He has instinctively realised that young India now has a different take on politics as it has been practised in the country. The old style, run-of-the-mill politician is without credibility, almost D ‘class’. A lot of real constructive work can be done outside mainstream politics, by kickstarting new initiatives and creating more robust processes that actually bring about real change. Non-government organisations are seen as more trustworthy than the government. Rahul may well be in tune with this new-age mindset, which is why the PM’s chair holds little attraction for him.
(Sidharth Bhatia is a Mumbai-based journalist)