It’s about 8.30 am in Atanga Chandpur village in the Bareilly district of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state. Shayam Choudhary is reading a local daily as he sits at a roadside tea stall. He mutters as he reads, loud enough for the other customers to hear.
“Rahul [Gandhi] has changed the discourse of this assembly election,” Choudhary says. The others at the stall nod in unison at this assessment of the heir-apparent to the ruling Congress Party leadership, and the man seen by many as favorite to succeed Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. The party, all agree, has come in from the political wilderness it wandered in the state two decades ago. The big question now is how it will have performed in the ongoing assembly poll when it comes time to tally the votes on March 6.
“Rahul has been working in this state for the last three or four years,” says Choudhary, who admits that he has been highly critical of the Congress in the past. “He’s been visiting villages, staying with poor people, eating with them and sleeping in their houses to try to understand the problems of the common man. Tell me, which other leaders show this kind of connection with the people?”
Rahul Gandhi, the 41-year-old son of Congress President Sonia Gandhi, looms over the election like no other, and he has been credited by some as bolstering the fortunes of Congress, which leads the United Progressive Alliance government, in rural areas.
His mass contact program across Uttar Pradesh has been ongoing for the past couple of years, and many believe that it has had a huge impact on the public’s impression of both Gandhi and the party he is expected one day to lead. His visits to poor hamlets, often involving spending nights there, have set him apart from other politicians, who usually confine themselves to holding rallies and other pre-prepared programs.
Such an approach is in stark contrast to when Gandhi first entered politics, when he successfully competed for a seat in parliament in 2004.
“I hadn’t learnt in all my life what I have learnt in the past couple of months,” he says. “For me, this is the cause. And the cause is to change the fate of the people of Uttar Pradesh. I don’t care how many seats I get in the state. The important thing is to restore hope in the minds of the people who have lost any hope for the future.”
Badri Narayan, a fellow at the Govind Ballabh Pant Social Science Institute at the University of Allahabad, believes this approach has helped the dramatic turnaround in his image.
“His unconventional behavior – mingling with the common people, sharing meals and interacting with them – reveals an image of Rahul Gandhi as an honest, dedicated and conscientious leader…among people of every caste and class,” Narayan says.
Satish Sharma, a senior journalist in Varanashi,agrees. “This man has changed the whole political discourse in the country, particularly in Uttar Pradesh. He is different from his father (Rajiv Gandhi)”.
Indeed, such comparisons with his dynastic predecessors seem inevitable. Rahul Gandhi is the fourth generation leader of the Nehru Gandhi family to be in the thick of Congress politics.His great grandfather, Motilal Nehru, was Congress president back in the 1920s, an a leader of India’s struggle for freedom. Motilal’s son, Jawaharlal Nehru, succeeded him as party chief in 1929 and later became the country’s first prime minister after Independence, remaining so until his death in 1964.
Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, became prime minister in 1966 and, except for a brief break of two years, remained the premier until she was assassinated in 1984. Her son – Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi – ruled India for five years.
But after Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination in 1991, and with no one from the Nehru-Gandhi family at the helm, the Congress party started to fall apart. Although the party was in power from 1991 to 1996 under the leadership of P.V. Narsimha Rao, it started losing ground in crucial states like Uttar Pradesh. The party’s drift was compounded by the emergence of regional parties and the rise of rightists led by the Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP). With no charismatic leader to take the helm, the fortunes of the Congress looked to be on the decline.
“We had seven years without a Nehru-Gandhi at the helm of the party, between 1991 and 1998,” said veteran Congress leader Mani Shankar Aiyar. “We became weak and we were withering away. It was the only when Sonia Gandhi, against all her instincts, took over the presidency of the party…that the regeneration of the Congress party began.”
Such views underscore the reality that the party’s fate is closely intertwined with the performance of the Nehru Gandhis, a reality Rahul says he accepts.
“If I hadn’t come from my family, I wouldn’t be here. You can enter the system either through family or friends or money. Without family, friends or money, you can’t enter the system,” Rahul says. “My father was in politics. My father was in politics. My grandmother and great grandfather were in politics. So it was easy for me to enter politics.”
“This is a problem – I am a symptom of this problem. I want to change it,” he adds.
The question many are now asking, though, is whether circumstances favor the party’s crown prince the way they have favored his predecessors. Can the charisma of the Gandhi-Nehru dynasty revive the party as it faces a political onslaught from entrenched regional parties, an aggressive right wing and ever more vigilant civil society groups?
When Indira Gandhi became premier more than five decades ago, the Congress was the dominant party, and she faced an internal struggle just to climb to the top. Rajiv Gandhi, in contrast, was far from being a battle-hardened politician when his mother’s death saw power thrust upon him.
But the country’s oldest party is no longer quite the power it once was, and has seen its support in crucial areas ebb. Indeed, weak organizational structures in states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh, which alone send close to 150 members to parliament between them, has meant Congress has had to rely on other parties.
“Rahul’s predecessors had the luxury of being certain about something, but the young scion exists in different political surroundings, and in a world where he can’t be a dreamer like Nehru and doer like Indira Gandhi,” says Rashid Kidwai, a political analyst and author of 24 Akbar Road. “He has to be pragmatic, he doesn’t have that magic wand, so he will have to have a different kind of road map for himself and his party.”
A recent book entitled Rahul,which claims to be the first authoritative biography on the young politician and is written by journalists Jatin Gandhi and Veenu Sandhu, argues that “while there is no denying that political dynasties stand in conflict with the principles of democracy, it is equally important to acknowledge that they do not, and cannot, negate the foundation on which democracy is built.”
The Gandhi family, therefore, shouldn’t be seen as inherently undemocratic. But at the same time, it’s clear that Rahul will need to present his own vision if he is to lead his party and country. And, according to Yogendra Yadav, a senior fellow at the Center for the Study of Developing Societies writing in Outlook magazine, “in a climate of cynicism, he has presented something of a forward-looking vision. Eschewing the staple language of caste-community equations, he has raised issues of development. In a party that had given up on the poor and the disadvantaged, he has brought back the language of social justice.”
But not everyone is so enamored. Swapan Dasgupta, a senior conservative journalist, says that although Rahul Gandhi clearly works hard, that he is also “an untested creature, who has been parachuted from top. He is impulsive, combative. But this is not politics, and doesn’t give any idea of his political direction.”
Pratap Bhanu Mehta, president of the Centre for Policy Research, a Delhi-based think tank, agrees that many questions still linger about what Rahul Gandhi really stands for.
“In a way it’s good that he started talking about issues such as foreign direct investment and UID (the unique identity program),” Mehta says. “But I am still not sure about the big picture…What does he think about identity politics?”
As much as the general election result itself, then, all eyes will be on the impact of the “Rahul factor” in the Uttar Pradesh election. If Congress can pull off a good result, then it will mean not only that the rightist elements represented by parties like the BJP are struggling to gain traction ahead of the general election in two years’ time, but that Rahul himself has taken one more step on the path to power.