The Pulse

Rahul Gandhi: A Political Dynasty’s Enigmatic Son

The Diplomat spoke with Aarthi Ramachandran, author of Decoding Rahul Gandhi.

Rahul Gandhi’s appointment as Vice President of the Indian National Congress Party in Jaipur this January gave new hope to many in his party. As the youngest scion of the Nehru-Gandhi family, India’s most prominent political dynasty, many thought that Gandhi’s promotion was a precursor to the 43-year-old’s nomination to run as his party’s prime ministerial candidate in India’s 2014 general elections.

However, Gandhi has recently expressed reluctance about running, and insisted his focus is rather on strengthening the Congress Party. His hesitation to run for PM has added to the mystique associated with his personality, baffling not only other members of his party, but also political watchers who were predicting a race between him and Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) leader Narendra Modi in 2014.

Who is Rahul Gandhi? What kind of politics does he represent and what does he mean for the Congress Party? For that matter, is it even possible for him to rejuvenate a party structure with a history of more than 100 years?

To shed light on these questions, The Diplomat spoke to Aarthi Ramachandran, who has written an insightful book on the young leader titled Decoding Rahul Gandhi. The book traces Gandhi’s political journey since he entered the party in 2004. Further, Ramachandran tries to decode the man who displays a combination of political traits not generally found among his contemporaries.

What prompted you to write this book and why Rahul?    

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I began covering the Congress Party as a beat around the same time Rahul Gandhi made an entry into politics. Given his importance in the Congress hierarchy, it made sense to track his political progress fairly closely. I had written several pieces on Rahul. It struck me that there is a good story here about an extremely reclusive young man who could one day be prime minister. Incidentally, I had a chance one-on-one meeting with Rahul around the same time. This was the time when his rhetoric revolved around finding solutions for urban migration and deprivation.

I had written to him as a private citizen, putting aside my journalistic skepticism, urging him to do something about the issue of child beggars in Delhi. Oddly enough, his office wrote back saying he’d like to discuss the issue with me. I found him to be well intentioned, yet somewhat confused about his role in politics. He kept telling me that he needed to focus on fewer things.

In your book you seem to be highly critical of him in his political commitment and engagement.

Gandhi comes across as someone who is yet to develop a keen political sense and find a knack for translating his ideas into politics. Until now he has been operating on the margins of mainstream politics in his party (though this is changing slowly) and in the country at large. Yet, he has the clout to influence important policy decisions, as he has shown on occasion. He picks and chooses issues he wants to be engaged with. So while Rahul Gandhi may mean well, good intentions are not a substitute for sustained political engagement with national issues or the burning issues of the day.

His brand of politics appears opportunistic, or guided by election compulsions. For example, we have not heard him take up the land acquisition issue again after the Uttar Pradesh polls. On economic issues, there is no conviction or consistency in his views. He opposed Vedanta’s Niyamgiri mining proposal but did not do the same with Posco’s steel project and other projects. He also appears and disappears from the political scene at will, like he did after the 2012 Uttar Pradesh polls. There are many important issues facing India about which we don’t know what’s on his mind. Eight years in politics has not changed this.

How do you feel about the statement that Rahul reflects a malaise, not a panacea, for the Congress and the country?

I am not sure who has made this statement and am not convinced about the black and white terms in which it frames the debate. However, as far as the Congress party itself goes, I feel that Rahul’s attempt to rid the Congress of the influence of family connections and money through the “internal democracy” experiment in the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and the National Students’ Union of India (NSUI) is riddled with serious inconsistencies.

Rahul Gandhi has neatly compartmentalized his decision to continue the Gandhi dynasty’s hold over the Congress – he is the heir apparent to the top job in Congress. At the same time he has been elected to posts in the IYC and NSUI. This definitely weakens the attempt to usher in real grassroots democracy, The Congress continues to remain a party that is controlled at the top by the Gandhi family.

Why do you think he has failed to have wider impact on the party and the country so far?

Rahul has spent eight years in self-appointed political apprenticeship. Yet it has not brought him any closer to emerging as a leader of stature on the national stage. He will continue to be powerful because he is the heir apparent to the Congress’ top job and there is no competition to the Nehru-Gandhis within the party.

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Yet, that does not mask Rahul’s inability to have any meaningful impact on India’s politics. There are few deliverables associated with Brand Rahul. When you buy a soap cake to wash clothes, it comes with a promise that it’ll give you whiter washes. When you buy a Maruti car, it comes with the promise of fuel efficiency. So what does Brand Rahul stand for? I think that’s one question that has haunted his political image over the years.

In your book you are critical of Rahul’s working style – likened to the running of a non-governmental organization (NGO) – and his adoption of a corporate culture to train political cadres. On these points, has Rahul failed to see Indian political realities or is he ahead of his time?

There is nothing to suggest that he is ahead of his time, though some of his ideas like improving efficiency and accountability in the functioning of political parties are important in their place. But that does not mean a political party can be run like an NGO or a business corporation. A party needs a political program and sustained political engagement with issues.

The IYC and the NSUI, for a few examples, have treated the monitoring of social sector schemes launched by the Congress-led UPA (United Progressive Alliance) government as their main program. This is a limiting political plank on which to conduct politics. Similarly, a political party cannot ape a corporate or manufacturing industry model that seeks to improve efficiency in the most mechanical of ways. A party cannot function on the basis of a rule book, or in corporate terminology, standard operating procedure.

Rahul’s grandmother and former PM Indira Gandhi had a political epiphany when she faced opposition, while Jawaharlal Nehru honed his political acumen by being the voice of the anti-establishment. Has history not given the luxury of opposition to Rahul? If so, has this deficit clouded his rise to the political center stage?

A stint in the opposition may do Rahul Gandhi good. It would give him time to hone his political management and electioneering skills and put him face to face with the challenge of acquiring political power. It could cure him of his confusion about why he is in politics and whether he sees himself as a selfless political activist who wants to bring about fundamental changes in the political system or whether he needs to be focused on making the Congress a robust and electable political outfit.

What role do you think Rahul will play in the 2014 elections and how far do you think the Congress party’s fortunes in the coming elections are dependent on him?

Rahul Gandhi is likely to be the Congress party’s prime ministerial face in the 2014 general elections whether or not he wants the job himself. However, beyond providing a face for Congress, I don’t think he will have any significant impact on the Congress party’s fortunes in the coming elections.

That has been his track record so far, if you discount the Congress party’s performance in the 2009 Lok Sabha (lower parliamentary house) elections in Uttar Pradesh, attributed to Rahul. However, even that victory has now been overshadowed by the Congress party’s miserable performance in the Uttar Pradesh elections of 2012, with Rahul at the helm.