Courtesy: – TOI Crest
Author :- Subodh Ghildiyal & Rajeev Deshpande
It was October 2007. The anxiety among Rahul Gandhi’s aides was palpable as their young boss sat in an auditorium in Pauri, Garhwal. It was still early days of Rahul’s reaching out to the country’s youth. His aides were nervous and they sensed so was their boss. Sure enough, the trick question came: “Why has Afzal Guru (convicted of the December 13 Parliament attack) not been hanged?” asked a boy. Was this a BJP sympathiser seeking to trap the Congress’s heir apparent on an issue the saffronites would want to milk to the full? Rahul took the mike and cleared his throat. He began softly: “My grandmother was assassinated; you know Indiraji…” He looked straight and added: “My father was killed 19 years ago… but I have still not got justice. Don’t you think it grieves me? Don’t you think I cry at night? But this is our system…the judiciary may be a bit slow, but everyone gets justice.”
The moment had passed and Rahul’s team let out a collective sigh. Phew! They also began to realise that their youthful leader, then 37, was slowly but surely coming into his own. The young man was never given to anger – the only time he appeared to have got really edgy was when a Congress sycophant was laying it out embarrassingly thick.
But Rahul could be rash at times. Like a year ago, when he had said, “You know that when any member of my family decides to do anything, he does it. Be it the freedom struggle, the division of Pakistan or taking India to the 21st century.” Pakistani leaders tore into him, claiming they knew all along it was an Indian conspiracy to vivisect their country, and Indian opposition leaders lost no time to lambast Rahul’s “immaturity”. But his Pauri performance told a different story. The apprentice was not only learning; there was a touch of the consummate politician in him now.
DISCOVERY OF INDIA
The learning curve has indeed been steep. The young man (born June 19, 1970), whose widely acknowledged destiny is to be the country’s leader, has taken to a painstaking discovery of India. For the last few years, no politician of stature has made the kind of effort Rahul has to gain a first hand of knowledge of how India works. Be it the nights spent with the poor in the hardy terrain of Bundelkhand, or the meals he shared with socially ostracised Dalits of Amethi and Shravasti, or breaking heads with social scientists, activists and scholars in the big cities, Rahul’s self-avowed objective is to “learn till my last day”.
It has been a study in progress. In a classic throwback to his familial predecessors, Rahul, too, is driven by the need to know and internalise the strengths and weaknesses, genius and handicaps, naivete and guile of a people he is expected to lead. He is the king-apprentice. Rahul’s great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, had done the same on returning to India from England at the age of 21. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, did it under the tutelage of her father. Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi, too had embarked on a similar enterprise – one that proved abortive, thanks to Indira’s assassination and his sudden elevation to the top job. Once you are up there, life takes on a very different course, as Rahul well knows. Which is why at the moment he is focused on earning his spurs.
And the rewards seem copious. When, last week in Mumbai, Rahul stepped out of his well-secured car, ostensibly to visit an ATM, and then suddenly hopped on to a local train at Dadar, working the crowds in his characteristically unassuming way, he won the hearts of not just those in the city, but also that of India.
TV footage showed him shaking hands and listening carefully to a gentleman sitting to his right. Though it would be tempting to speculate on what they discussed, it hardly matters. The young leader did what he is training himself to be good at: listening. But what really comes across is the rich symbolism of the moment. Rahul Gandhi, the “outsider” had turned “insider” in a city ever forcibly appropriated by the violently insular Shiv Sena and its leader, Bal Thackeray. He was taking the battle into the enemy camp.
It was a political coup executed with ruthless grace. The Sena had targeted him on the “outsider” issue and dared him to visit Mumbai. Rahul had hit back, smooth as cream, white as vanilla, hard as brick. It’s not clear whether Rahul’s fellow traveller on the Dadar local was a “Marathi manoos”, but the repeated telecast of Rahul’s improvised “garib rath” ride certainly knocked the wind out of the Sena’s claim that its word is the law of India’s commercial capital.
Perhaps, more important, it discredited the Thackeray clan and their dictatorial affectations: when was the last time any of them had taken a train or mingled with commoners? When was the Sena’s last threat and shrill opposition so pointedly ignored? When was the last time the Tiger and his cubs were shown up to be toothless?
For most politicians, the Mumbai episode was not just a story of Rahul’s spontaneity or his youthful exuberance, it was an indicator of his acumen and his flair for out-of-the-box thinking. His political imagination was lost on none. Nor his willingness to wade into crowds and confront issues.
At a lunch hosted by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh the next day, the topic of discussion among chief ministers, who were in Delhi for an internal security conference, was Rahul’s Mumbai raid. Apart from Congress chief ministers like Sheila Dikshit and Ashok Chavan, also at the table was Bihar CM, Nitish Kumar. Each spoke of the drama and his daring, but what they were really seeking to grapple with was Rahul’s unpredictable idiom of political discourse.
It’s a thing that they have been trying to unravel for a while now – actually, ever since his famous anti-dynasty statement of 2008: “It is undemocratic that the Congress is still led by a Gandhi. But it’s the reality… My position gives me certain privileges . It is a fact of life in India that success in politics depends on who you know or are related to. I want to change the system.”
What was this man saying, wondered politicians. How could Rahul Gandhi, the man who will be king by virtue of being born into the Nehru-Gandhi family, attack the very basis of his political legitimacy? Says a senior Congress leader who has known the family for many years: “Yes, the statement does seem strange, unless you take it at face value – that Rahul really finds dynastic rule undemocratic (which it is), but at the same time recognises that it’s a fact in India. After all, dynastic rule doesn’t happen just because a family wants it, which they undoubtedly do, but because a people reposes faith in a dynasty.”
“Rahul Gandhi appears to recognise this, but more importantly, wants to change it. Whether he will actually do so, one cannot say, but the impulse is modern and the sentiment good for our democracy. It also betrays enormous confidence, which is something few opposition leaders can fully comprehend.”
WHO IS RAHUL GANDHI?
To be fair to politicians (and to most others, too), Rahul Gandhi is something of an unknown commodity. He is surrounded by security, doesn’t give interviews (he declined Crest’s request for one), isn’t close to anyone other than his immediate family , does unexpected things to reach out to the people , has few friends and hardly any classmates in India. In short, there are hardly any markers to gauge him by. He spent three years in Doon School but left it because his security cover annoyed school authorities. He left St Stephen’s College after doing history honours for a year. And then he studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, under the pseudonym of Raul Vinci – phonetically close to his name, but suggesting a continental disconnect with his identity. Other than his tutor, hardly anyone knew who he really was. He worked for Michael Porter’s consulting firm, Monitor Group, but his colleagues did not know his identity. With no real reference points to decipher the man, his every sentence and gesture tends to get over-analysed.
The scholars and analysts he sought out were not very forthcoming when it came to discussing Rahul. JNU professor Sudha Pai, who has written an acclaimed book on the BSP and Uttar Pradesh, says she got a call from Rahul in 2004, seeking her permission to drop by. He came with just one security guard, but with a lot of reading on UP, she recalls. “He asked me a lot of questions – about the reasons for the Congress’s decline in UP, why caste and identity politics played such a big role there, about BSP, about the future of Congress and how it could be revived in the state.” Pai found Rahul sincere, genuinely interested and concerned. She says she gave him a few books to read. “Nothing heavy,” she smiles.
Jean Dreze, another scholar-activist with whom Rahul has interacted, refused to discuss Rahul but put him on test: “I’m reluctant to make any public comment on the man. For me, his real test will lie in not what he says, but what he does. Time will tell.” Even bookshop owners in Khan Market, where Rahul often drops by, are wary about discussing him.
All this has only accentuated the young man’s mystique. There are only snatches of information about him. Like his phenomenal memory for detail. It’s said that a candidate for an assembly seat in Fatehpur, a former BJP member, told Rahul that he had lost the last time by 1,700 votes. “No, you lost by 1,980 votes,” Rahul corrected him.
Another time, during the 2009 LS ticket distribution, the name of an outsider-aspirant was being discussed when Rahul intervened to say that he had contested on a Congress ticket before. The senior leader was sure it was not the case. Out came the laptop and records, and the revelation that the man in question had indeed been a Congress candidate in the 1996 polls.
On the personal front, it’s said his bonding with sister Priyanka is quite extraordinary, perhaps a result of their childhood when access and interaction with the outside world were limited due to security concerns. Those who know the family say Priyanka plays the sheet anchor role for her brother. If there is need to de-stress or clear a doubt, a visit to the Vadra household is in order. The two and mother Sonia are tightly knit and the really important discussions among them are clearly off limits for everyone else.
Younger leaders talk of Rahul’s generosity of spirit. Jitin Prasada, whose mother lost a by-election after the sudden death of his father Jitendra Prasada, has vivid memories of the 2004 LS polls. He is convinced Rahul’s road-show in Shahjahanpur turned the tide and he romped home. Sachin Pilot, who was pushed out from the family borough of Dausa to Ajmer due to delimitation, says, “His was the last big push I needed to win.” Congress won Ajmer after 25 years as Hindus and Muslims came together to back him. “Rahul transcends identities,” Pilot adds.
After treating him with condescension, political heavyweights have moved to the other extreme – they rarely take anything about him lightly now. His penchant for the unexpected has left his opponents, including state governments wrenching their hair. First it was the Orissa police that wrote claiming it could not be held responsible for his safety if he chose to dodge the local escort and vanish into tribal forests. Mayawati said the same when he began to raid her territory, infuriating her with his Dalit night stays. But the leader was simply determined to break out of the security straitjacket. How else could he connect with the masses? Or win their affection?
ONE WITH THE MASSES
In fact, it’s probably a deeply-held belief of the Nehru-Gandhi family – that you cannot win the political game unless you have the masses with you. Neither Nehru nor Indira Gandhi was exactly the darling of their party organisation. Sardar Patel controlled the organisation when Nehru was PM, and Indira Gandhi found old leaders disdainful of her when she took over from her father. However, both held sway over the party on the basis of their popular support. As Sardar Patel once famously remarked to his camp followers after a spat with Nehru at the 1948 AICC meet, “Dudhila gai ki lath bhi khani padti hai (You have to suffer even the kick of a milch cow).” So, Rahul must be aware that so long as he has the people with him, the party will stay with him. And if he’s taking special interest in the party organisation, just as his grandmother did, there’s no contradiction. Without trusted party aides it’s not always possible to reach out to people, especially once one’s in the saddle.
So strongly has Rahul muscled in on the national agenda today that Opposition leaders are privately hoping that he does take over as Prime Minister after the next election. (The accompanying Crest poll shows that 56 per cent of the people, too, believe he will be the next PM.) The leaders reckon that it is best that he is in the ring sooner rather than later, lest his charisma not be put to the test, or his personality as a powerful symbol of change be diminished. Once in the hot seat, he will go through the kind of baptism that Barack Obama has had in his first year as US president. After all, the challenges facing India are not insignificant, nor are they likely to get any easier, given that it is today a country in the cusp of super-powerdom but located in a troublesome, if not hostile neighbourhood with Pakistan imploding and China becoming increasingly assertive. The internal problems are equally formidable. How will Rahul Gandhi handle it all, and while doing so, give the country the momentum of hope?
WHEN WILL HE MAKE HIS MOVE?
That is, of course, putting the cart before the horse. The big reality question is: When will Rahul decide to become PM? Party leaders say that he appears inclined to go for the PM’s post, but only on the basis of a mandate that he is seen to have delivered. Will that be in 2014, when the next Lok Sabha election is scheduled?
No one’s quite ready to wager on a definite ‘yes’ as yet, but a senior leader said that Rahul was aiming for a 320-plus mandate in the next election, and if he gets it, he would take the job. As of now, he wishes to continue with his long march, to know the country and its people better, try and get a better grip over the party organisation, and when necessary, make a difference with his interventions. Like he did after the 26/11 Mumbai attacks, when he dubbed it as a “slap on our face” in a burst of anger that blew union home minister Shivraj Patil out of office. Or the way he froze vacillating CWC members in their track when he came out strongly in favour of the Indo-US nuclear deal with a “whether government stays or goes” war cry to settle the issue once and for all.
These sharp interventions, as well as his forays into Uttar Pradesh and Mumbai, show Rahul as a determined man. As an aide said about him, “Faisla kar liya to final.” He does listen to others, although his impatience can sometimes see him grab a conversation. “You start talking of, say, China, and he will complete the sentence. He does read a lot, often till late,” says a party leader.
Some link his combative traits to his taking up boxing out of the blue last year. Boxing is the art of inculcating an eye-on-the-opponent habit and sets store by patience and endurance, tactical sharpness and stinging delivery of punch – qualities that he seems to display. Rahul trains at a gym regularly. And quite often he has been spotted cycling around India Gate and even jogging in Rashtrapati Bhavan. This is clearly a man who likes to be fit for any fight.
So, here we have an earnest politician of great lineage and upbringing. But beyond his sincerity, determination and good manners, what does he really bring to the table? What is his big message for India? Things tend to get fuzzy here. His great-grandfather spoke of socialism, his grandmother spoke of “garibi hatao” , and he and his mother Sonia Gandhi speak of inclusive growth. In different words, all of them seem to be saying the same thing: India’s endemic poverty has to be tackled. If the last general elections are anything to go by, that sentiment has found resonance with the people. But if the going gets rough, the same people could turn around and ask why poverty still remains endemic after 50-odd years of Nehru-Gandhi rule?
It will be Rahul’s challenge to answer these questions . His family has both made and unmade India. There is a poetic and political justice here that the loaded legacy has come to a scion to unravel. Although Rahul’s early past shows no great talent, he has proven himself to be a quick learner. And his life experiences have taught him the importance of being earnest. If the last decade is any indication, Rahul Gandhi is acutely conscious of the role he is destined to play in India’s future. The chances are that the next 10 years, when India is projected to rise to full glory, will coincide with Rahul’s personal ascent. This is by no means the end of the story.
With inputs from Akshaya Mukul, Diwakar & Himanshi Dhawan