New Delhi,April 17: Rahul Gandhi, who the Congress desperately wants as its head, has a unique luxury at his disposal – he can put on or take off his political hat at will. In independent India, he is the first part-time politician who can choose to head a 129-year-old party that ruled the country the most.
Every political analyst worth his or her salt has said this a hundred times – that Rahul is an on-off politician and that doesn’t work in Indian politics. Still, the party wants him to be its leader. Media reports suggest that his mother may hand over the mantle of presidentship to him soon. It doesn’t matter that he was meditating when the rump of party was fighting crucial political-policy battles with the NDA government.
Of course, these are the perks of a dynasty and unfortunately, the Congress doesn’t pay heed to what analysts point out or history tells them. There are enough indolent leaders who clamour for Rahul’s leadership. They cannot survive without the allure of the dynasty and its historical claim to the Indian nation state.
In anointing a furtive, taciturn Rahul as its supreme leader, what the Congress chooses to ignore is that times have changed in Indian politics and the party is in absolute ruins. It’s been marauded, almost entirely by the BJP, and the patches of its presence are likely to disappear in the next elections. The BJP, for the first time, is here for a long haul and the leader that Rahul has to face-off is a wily and seasoned Narendra Modi. During the assembly and parliament elections, he was woefully inadequate even in attracting decent crowds, let alone standing up to the opposition.
The biggest problem with Rahul Gandhi, as many have pointed out, is his casual approach to politics, lack of focus on issues and inability to work hard. Even after Indira Gandhi’s untimely death in 1984, when a massive sympathy wave swept the country, Rajiv Gandhi didn’t take it easy in the elections that he faced two months later. In less than a month, he travelled 50,000 km by air and road, and addressed 250 public meetings. He also personally reached out to about 20 million people.
He was tireless and aggressive and lost no opportunity to attack the opposition like a veteran, although he was an absolute novice in politics. The public grief would have anyway won him the elections, but he knew that political power was no entitlement and needed real hard work. As a Prime Minister, apparently he slept only for four hours. And this was from a man who had said in Parliament that he had no love for politics and treasured his happy family life.
In comparison, Rahul wants the best of both worlds and appears unencumbered by political responsibility. He is unwilling to consistently work hard and picks and chooses issues and drops them when he loses interest. By the standards of Indian politics, he is lazy, and most importantly, lacks the aggression and zeal a politician needs.
As Ramachandra Guha noted, in his nine years of parliament life, for every ten days the Parliament had been in session, he had been present only for four days. In the two full terms as MP, he had asked only four or five questions and made four or five speeches. “None of his questions or speeches have impacted governmental policy in any meaningful way. Nor have they endured in the public imagination,” he had said.
In the last several years, Rahul has made fleeting interludes such as Niyamgiri, Bhatta-Parsaul, the famous visit to a Dalit village with British foreign secretary and his dramatic Parliament speech on Kalavati, a Vidarbha farm widow. But he always failed to take flight because he was short on the fuel that politics need the most – interest and sheer killer instinct. For Rahul, who had nothing else to do, this was a perk of a dynasty and he could never fail as long as the party had its stable full of sycophants. Perhaps the best summary of Rahul as a politician came from Guha. In an article in Telegraph two years ago, he said that the “the nicest thing one can say about Mr Rahul Gandhi is that he is a well-intentioned dilettante. He has shown no signs of administrative ability, no desire to take on large, important, responsibilities, no energy or commitment to solving (as distinct from merely identifying) serious social problems.”
At 40, Rajiv Gandhi was the (youngest) Prime Minister of India, that too only with limited training after his brother’s death, and had famously said that he too had a dream of India and that he was “committed to realising that dream through dedication, hard work and collective determination of our people.” Indira Gandhi was older – 49 – when she became the Prime Minister, but at 30, she was the Chief of Staff of Nehru’s administration and chose to be a minister before she threw her hat in the ring for the party leadership.
In comparison, although everything was offered on a platter, Rahul has been shying away from responsibilities – he could have cut his administrative and political teeth as a minister in Manmohan Singh cabinet and taken up a few pet policies to fruition besides using the platform of the Parliament. Instead, he did nothing to capture public imagination or train himself except for those handful of cameos.
Not that Congress was not in ruins before, but it was brought back from the precipice of death by a tireless Indira Gandhi. Even at its lowest, both in terms of public rejection and lack of resources, she didn’t give up, but fought an epic battle. That’s the stuff politicians should be made of.
If Sonia Gandhi is really serious about the future of Congress, she should start thinking of alternative leadership. She should start dismantling the dynasty and the high command, and start democratising and decentralising the party. Rajiv Gandhi’s tragic death did provide a brief opportunity, but the lazy elite preferred the dynastic short cut.
They still want it very badly. Unfortunately, it has reached a dead-end.