By Sanjay Jha

( Published in TEHELKA FW on June 29 th 2011)

In early 2009, a revolutionary breakthrough, unprecedented in India’s democracy was quietly unfolding in Punjab. But Congress MP Rahul Gandhi’s team looked discombobulated ; their unique mammoth exercise for grass-root participation of young aspirants interested in a political career had found little media support. But Congressman Digvijay Singh’s utterances on Rahul’s 41st birthday about his future prospects as India’s Prime Minister predictably stirred a hornet’s nest. A bedlam followed.

To understand Gandhi, rewind to 2004. Popular opinion polls indicated a calamitous rout of the once venerated Congress, some sniggering at a historic double-digit low. Pramod Mahajan, BJP’s photo-shop man dismissed electoral prognostications of 330 seats for NDA as chaff, puffing away on a five-star treadmill.

Frankly, tell me, which perspicacious political analyst expected the Indian Shining hyperbole to be so rudely terminated ? When Atal Behari Vajpayee called millions of mobile numbers with his pre-recorded sales pitch, India disconnected. The rest is history. It was against such humongous odds that Gandhi made his political debut, fully aware that opposition benches perhaps beckoned. It was going to be a long hard journey. Even today, as UPA is in its second term, that’s how he looks at it. Gandhi has an inherent inner strength to take the bull by the horns; a fact, many conveniently overlook, or inadvertently ignore. They shouldn’t .

The BJP which committed harakiri borne out of either misplaced optimism, absurd logic or plain hubris in 2004 elections, was given a classroom lesson on cutting out its penchant for hyperbole. Again in 2009, despite dodging world-wide recession and recording stunning GDP growth during its first tenure, Gandhi stated the obvious truth: India is not shining. Because for him India had to look beyond just BPO jobs, FII investments, SUV sales ,shopping malls,the world’s biggest IPO and the super elite on the Forbes billionaires list. Too many Indians still exist precarioulsy on a survival help-line. For Gandhi, that is a high priority. It is difficult to argue with that economic rationale.

The new buzzword post-2009 was the Rahul Doctrine, but frankly Gandhi is not in any hurry to create private labels. He has a singular, uncomplicated agenda—national resurgence can only happen if economic polarization and political purification is addressed . For him, income redistribution is India’s paramount challenge, not dividend pay-outs to corporate shareholders alone. Even per capita GDP conceals lopsided wealth concentration.

The Youth Congress, for several years carrying cash-rich bullies with nefarious reputations, had to be promptly revitalized, re-ignited. For Gandhi, the transformational drive is a mission; Congress must go back to the people, like in pre- 1947 Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru days. Of course, there have been sporadic mischievous oddballs who have infiltrated the massive democratic exercise, but that hardly detracts from its substantial ground impact. The democratization of the Youth Congress is a bottom-up process of change, it will create values-based principled- political leadership in the future, is Gandhi’s fervent hope. To expect an overnight metamorphosis is being naïve, but its long-term impact could be tectonic. In 2014, the demographics will favor him by a wide margin.

By shunning cabinet positions, Gandhi has sent an unambiguous message; the Congress needs grass-root resuscitation, and that cannot be achieved by winning televised evening debates against animated lawyers on a vituperative roll from the saffron brigade. The real electoral battle is in the dusty interiors of rural India where electricity transmissions are still deemed as divine intervention.

The handicap of having an apolitical leader as Prime Minister in the UPA adversely impacts official communication. The UPA has been saddled with heavy baggage; corruption charges on coalition partners, price rise, Maoism, antiquated laws inhibiting infrastructural investments, and some silly faux-pas such as legitimizing self-appointed civil society members on an insatiable public relations drive. The fine line between party objectives and government compulsions becomes blurred; in an aggressive media world circumspection is seen as circumvention, silence is misconstrued to be guilt. Neither is true. Manmohan Singh in his most effusive state is intrinsically laconic; Mrs Sonia Gandhi genuinely prefers non-interference. Hence the media focus on Rahul Gandhi.

Bhatta Parsaul is a manifestation of the larger critical national issue of land acquisition, not just a western UP electoral ploy, one that Gandhi champions with passionate zeal. I think Gandhi’s critics are essentially flabbergasted at his steadfast adherence to larger complex issues as opposed to power-grabbing.

The problem with vociferous armchair critics with intellectual pretensions is that they cannot decipher the term “charisma” ( it is not easily quantifiable in statistical charts). They believe it is mere synthetic gloss/ruse borne out of congenital blue-blood; an erroneous conclusion. Rahul’s great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was a freedom fighter who graduated to be a perfect world statesman in a troubled global era, Mrs Indira Gandhi may have made some monumental blunders, but the emphatic victory in the Pakistan war in 1971 made her a Durga incarnate. Rajiv Gandhi’s much-caricatured laptop was a precursor to India’s IT revolution. Rahul is aware of his charismatic lineage. In a world prone to cosmetic confabulations, and instant assessments, he knows the power of magnetic appeal. It increases responsibility enormously on his young shoulders.

He is aware of the treacherous territory of Indian politics; his father Rajiv Gandhi’s cataclysmic collapse from 403 seats in 1984 is an irrefutable reality. The handling of Shah Bano case,shilanayas ceremony, were tactical mistakes that were to jeopardize Congress and help a non-existent BJP into becoming a monstrous nemesis. Hence, he has relied heavily on self-introspection and first-hand discovery of the real India that he stands for.

He candidly admitted that India has a “rotten system”, and that public disenchantment with politicians is disconcerting. Gandhi is not just helping Congress, but attempting to bring respectability to the abused political class commonly perceived to be a vulpine lot. Politician bashing is assuming dangerous proportions, which several interest groups are craftily exploiting.

The world’s most sophisticated democracy elected two of Bush and almost two Clinton’s to the White House. In India, we are flogging a dead horse by the ad nauseam reference to political dynasty. Rahul openly acknowledges his political head-start, but is himself attempting to break that asphyxiating stranglehold by bringing in new faces in a free democratic environment shorn of ancestral priveleges. He deserves the country’s fullest support in that genuine endeavor.

RTI, NREGA, Aadhar, ,Right to Education, the impending Jan Lokpal Bill, transparent dealings with civil society, arrests of corrupt corporate chieftains and political colleagues, voluntary disclosures of assets, have been extraordinary successes of the excessively criticized UPA. At its optimum, never a great marketing organization but this government has voluntarily executed democratic process of dialogue and transparency like no other before. I think Rahul needs to take the wind out of the sails of those who ridicule authentic accomplishments of UPA by a stronger counter-propaganda. The gathering whirlwind of speculation about a leadership vacuum needs to be smothered.

Finally, if and when the Congress finally asks him to take the big plunge, I guess he will. The drive from 12, Tughlaq Lane to 7, RCR is a short one.

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