This book appears at a time when leaders across the political spectrum are facing moments of crucial decision. It is the home stretch towards a national general election and as this book’s subject – Congress leader Rahul Gandhi - pitches headlong into battle, scepticism about his adequacy to the task refuses to die. His opponent is a seasoned political player, who enjoys an unfair advantage because of his willingness to incite ancient animosities and dish out false promises. Rahul, whose leadership of the Congress is the weightiest of his “strange burdens”, presents on the other hand, a picture of innocence or incompetence, depending on who is doing the viewing.
Rahul’s burdens began when the Congress party pulled off an unexpected win in the 2004 general election. As the Congress-led coalition went on to a more emphatic win five years later, his imprint was seen on several of its key welfare policies. It was a matter of time before he assumed charge from his mother Sonia, always eager to hand over the baton to him.
That formal assumption of responsibility came three years after the Congress had been crushed in a national general election. Momentary wins came the party’s way in state assembly elections, but 2019 brought it another disastrous rout at the national level.
Failure seems not to have shrunk Rahul’s aura of indispensability as standard-bearer of India’s oldest political party. As Srinivasaraju points out in his introduction, he is “caught in the currents of history”, his personal and political selves deeply mingled. And with all the emotional investment the Congress has made in his leadership, there is still room to ask whether he will be “nemesis or saviour”.
Rahul has lived his life in the public gaze from teenage years. In a moment of grief, the country had an early view of him in a tight embrace with his father after his grandmother’s assassination. And then came his father’s violent end, and his withdrawal from the routines of young adulthood as security protocols took over his life.
Without anything like the same exposure to the grind of politics, Rahul’s destiny is now entwined with Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who mocks him as an irrelevant child of dynastic privilege. The future of the Congress, likewise, hinges on its ability to regain ground lost to Modi’s party, the BJP. Srinivasaraju writes engagingly about how the Congress’s early convictions to stay clear of confessional politics, were diluted through later years. That is when the party sought to brand a soft Hindutva, which ultimately recoiled on it. Rahul’s disavowal of confessional politics is an effort at retrieval, though at odds with his self-portrayal as a man of faith.
Messaging is an area Rahul repeatedly falls short on. He cites the sacrifices of his family to claim the trust of the nation, but seems guided by his own sense of loss rather than the suffering of the people he seeks to represent. Forgiveness is a constant theme in his public remarks. Yet in comparison to the wordless eloquence of his sister Priyanka’s visit to the prison cell of Nalini, sentenced to death for involvement in the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, and Sonia’s plea for clemency, he himself seemed hesitant and remote when talking about forgiveness at a Cambridge University event.
Rahul has frequently argued that Modi is far adrift of the “idea of India”, an identity construct which draws a large and diverse people into the harmony of a shared present and a future of promise. This, Srinivasaraju, finds is a work in progress, though perhaps at odds with Rahul’s effort to refashion the Congress as an ideological apparatus.
In his insistence that India is a “union of states” by its own lights as well as by the formal language of the Constitution, Rahul seemingly accepts diversity, though without being able to translate this belief into respectful rules of engagement with regional cultures. Srinivasaraju’s treatment of coalition politics refers back to the Congress’s ability through early electoral forays, to combine social factions into a winning national combination. That art was forgotten as the Congress ossified internally in upper-caste complacence.
Srinivasaraju’s early expectation was that his story would end with the padayatra from Kanyakumari to Kashmir. Rahul’s frequently incomprehensible utterances come in for attention, as during the yatra when he spoke of himself as a dead person whose corporeal appearance was deceptive. As he prepared to sign off, the author’s plan was upended by Rahul’s disqualification from Parliament after conviction in a laughably contrived defamation case.
This book does not get to record Rahul’s return after the Supreme Court’s stay on conviction but ends with a set of questions. Will Rahul’s self-portrayal as a caring soul, ever willing to comfort the afflicted with a hug, be a credible response to the politics of division? Will his attacks on Modi’s polarising discourse succeed in defeating the BJP’s standard riposte that the Congress in its time has done worse? These questions have no easy answer in doctrinal terms. But they will compel an answer in the realm of practice in the next few months.
(Sukumar Muralidharan is an independent writer and researcher based in the Delhi region.)
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