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Can Rahul Gandhi walk his talk?

| Updated on March 10, 2018

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He promises change. He believes the Congress can meet the demand for reform. But Rahul Gandhi will find it difficult to deliver, says Poornima Joshi

Silence can be used to convey profundity when eloquence is not a natural trait. In the Congress’s first family, this principle has been a tradition since the time of Indira Gandhi, whom Ram Manohar Lohia called a gungi gudia (dumb doll) early on in her stint as prime minister.

In the Congress, the leader resides somewhere higher up, in an invisible, semi-ecclesiastical order. He is hardly seen and rarely heard. Invisibility imparts a divine aura just as acquired stoicism can so easily be mistaken for wisdom. And it always helps to have the kind of patrician profile that only the descendents of the beautiful Pundits from Kashmir are blessed with.

But for Rahul Gandhi, the urge to mistake the imagined persona for real has been stronger than with his parents or grandmother. Perhaps it was just impatience of a decade of being cosseted by an extremely pragmatic mother and a charismatic sister. Although delusions about one’s own percipience can also be marketed, as is the case in Narendra Modi’s successful brand-building, Rahul Gandhi is decidedly not trying to be clever.

Changing the world

Unfortunately for the Congress, its Vice-President is sincere in his inadvertent belief in Karl Marx’s Theses on Feuerbach. Mainstream Marxists may have forgotten the dictum, but for the Gandhi scion, the idea is really to change the world. To compound matters, he ignores Marx’s dependence on philosophers to interpret it. He has taken it upon himself to interpret and change, almost entirely on his own.

It is a kind vision borrowing content from the Catholicism in his mother’s faith, her European ideas of welfarism and the populism of his grandmother’s Garibi Hatao slogan. But unlike Sonia Gandhi with her humility to discern between perceived wisdom and reality, Rahul Gandhi does not think something like a National Advisory Council is necessary in guiding him through his philosophical quest.

This is a marked difference between him and the Congress President, who displayed no delusions of grandeur even when she pushed the aam aadmi to the heart of policy-making. The role of activists and scholars was duly acknowledged in the idea of distributive justice that marked path-breaking legislations, especially MNREGA, RTI and the Right to Food.

Status quo marked her negotiations with entrenched interests that constitute the All India Congress Committee (AICC). She kept her party together by resolutely relying on the traditional wisdom to keep the gates closed and the mystique intact. She functioned from the mystical space and descended occasionally to address the in-house acolytes and charm the allies; a bouquet for Mayawati of the Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) and borrowed books from Sitaram Yechury of the CPI(M). So, while she straddled the stratosphere, the present Mrs G always had enough sense to never threaten the existing positions and power structures.

But Rahul Gandhi inhabits a grander universe, where he, like Mahatma Gandhi, wants to democratise and open the Congress’s party structure. He is the sole ideologue and executioner of his world view. While he may listen to the party’s wise men – Digvijaya Singh, Jairam Ramesh, P. Chidambaram et al – his is a solitary quest, except perhaps for a low-profile advisor.

The advisor

Mohan Gopal, a former President of the National Students Union of India and Director of the National Law School, Bangalore, is the Congress Vice-President’s closest consultant and ideological associate. The fact that he is invisible to the public eye makes Gopal an inscrutable influence although his friends in the law school in Delhi University remember him to be just the sort of liberal, Left-leaning intellectual who would advise systemic change.

“Gopal was always exceptionally bright and visionary. He is the sort of leader you looked up to when you were young. He wanted the system to change and even now, I presume he would not aspire for something as mundane as a position in Parliament or Government. He would look at the Congress as a vehicle of social and political transformation,” says a former classmate of Gopal.

He has found a kindred soul in the Gandhi scion, who wants social justice and structural change. “Processes need to be blown apart and we need to transform the way the Congress has been functioning,” he told members of SC/ST/OBC community organisations at a meeting on December 13, 2013.

Again, on January 17, during the AICC’s general session in New Delhi, Rahul Gandhi asserted: “This is a turning point in our nation’s journey. Nobody is in the mood to accept less than their full and complete right. No one is willing to compromise anymore. They want individual choice. They want participation. They want a fair deal and they deserve it.

“Either we wake up to their aspirations or we have no business to claim that we represent them. The change taking place around us is unstoppable. The imperative before us is not whether to change but when and how to change. What does this mean for us as a political party? It means responding to the immense demand for political and governmental reform in the revolutionary and dynamic way that only the Congress party is capable of.”

In all sincerity, the effort is to live up to these glorious ideas. So, besides occasionally breaking bread in Dalit homes, Rahul Gandhi holds a mirror to his party. On September 27 last year, he barged into a party press conference held by a bewildered Ajay Maken and tore up an ordinance perceived to have been drafted to shield convicted politicians. Maken, who had been engaged in an elaborate defence of the ordinance, watched in embarrassed silence as Rahul thundered to an excited crop of hacks in the Press Club of India: “I feel, personally feel, that what our government has done as far as this ordinance is concerned is wrong.”

Besides the irony of being a revolutionary when your very existence as a political being rests on the feudal notion of a dynasty, the more serious issue with this positioning is that it is still a position of power. No one else is accorded the privilege of insulting the Prime Minister with such impunity by tearing up a legislation cleared by his Council of Ministers. The Opposition, naturally, treats these heroic misadventures with a contempt that they spared even Sonia Gandhi.

“Rahul Gandhi’s public pronouncements exhibit a peculiar mix of ignorance, lies and corruption of ideas. After his mother, he has been the second-most-powerful person in the ruling establishment, which destroyed the economy, presided over an unprecedented number of corruption scandals and paralysed policy-making. And now he tells us that he will change the world because he’s brought RTI! It’s ludicrous,” said the BJP’s senior spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad.

Election plank

Nevertheless, Rahul Gandhi’s genteel revolution was tolerated, even welcomed while Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi perfected a symphony between the party and the government for ten years. He re-hauled and democratised the Youth Congress and the NSUI and no one quarrelled with it.

But now that the PM has announced his retirement and the Congress President wants to follow suit, the situation demands the leader to acquire his legitimate mantle. And the in-house radical has responded to the need of the hour by turning his structural reforms and revolutionary position as the main election plank for the Congress.

The Congress, therefore, is stuck with confused jargon about poverty and systemic change in an election where the BJP has projected its most effective campaigner, Narendra Modi. It started well with Rahul Gandhi delivering an impassioned speech in the AICC meeting, which pitched the Congress as a political vehicle with more inclusive, progressive and modern ideas against the conservative BJP.

What he seems to have forgotten since then is that in the time of social, print, visual media and Arnab Goswami, rehearsed passion should be restricted for a captive audience. Even Modi does not venture beyond that dotted line.

But Rahul Gandhi is intent on convincing the nation that he is an agent of change at a time when his party has come to symbolise all that is wrong in the system. Only sincerity in his beliefs could make him harbour such aspirations. Convincing the electorate is an entirely different matter.

Published on February 03, 2014

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