Seasoned hack and dynasty watcher Vinod Mehta is spot on in describing Rahul Gandhi as a “reluctant bride.” The ever fawning Congress-wallahs, who deprived of the dynasty’s charms tend to wilt like plants without water, had nearly given up on the young prince coming to rescue the grand old party.
The instantaneous emotional outpouring of adulation and rapturous welcome that Sonia Gandhi’s son received on being picked up as vice president of the party this week and in all probability its face for the top job in the race next year therefore is hardly surprising. This is how the rank and file and those in upper rungs of the largest political party on the planet always behave when it comes to the dynasty.
Within minutes of the announcement there were wild celebrations in Jaipur, the venue of the Congress’s brainstorming session, as well as in Delhi. The media described it as the “coronation.” It was a carnival of competitive loyalty, a fawning fiesta of gush-gush praise, as Sagarika Ghose memorably put it. It was as though the prince had already been crowned and enthroned. Some commentators saw it as the Congress’s Obama moment. Rahul doesn’t exactly come from the culturally impossible roots and background as the US president does though. Nor was Obama born with a silver spoon and a famous last name.
There was more exaltation and jubilation in the Congress when the prince finally spoke the next day, visibly electrifying a listless, down-in-the-dumps governing party which has found itself increasingly alienated from the governed and clueless in dealing with multiple crises battling for its attention on various fronts.
Even if the crass display of the blind, toadyish fidelity of the Congress-wallahs to the dynasty bordering on veneration makes one cringe, it’s rather refreshing to finally see a young, fresh face put forth fresh ideas from the party platform. Well, Rahul at 43 is not exactly a babe in the woods. He has been in politics and represented Amethi in parliament for nine long years. His father, Rajiv Gandhi, wasn’t a day older than 40 in 1984 when he stepped into the shoes of his assassinated mother.
Nevertheless, it’s hard not to connect and identify with what Rahul said at the Jaipur session of the party and more importantly how he said it. I am probably being unfair and uncharitable here. But after years of deadpan delivery of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the nervous, get-on-with-it, tone-deaf soliloquies of his own mother, this coming-out speech was like a whiff of fresh air.
Whoever wrote it (Was it Mani Shankar Aiyar, the eternal outsider in the Congress and often its voice of conscience who wrote his father’s speeches?) it was a clever piece of work. Even as Rahul sought to give expression to the sentiments, frustrations and aspirations of millions in his own party, he managed to touch the rest of the country and dreams and sentiments of a billion people.
I call it “clever” because he has strategically distanced himself from the government of the day which happens to be that of his own party headed by his mother and the mind-numbing mess and resultant public outrage that it increasingly faces on every front — from corruption and inflation to misrule and worsening security situation in the country.
By attacking the power elites and the closed-door decision-making process in the government, Rahul has sought to position himself as an outsider and anti-establishment crusader. “India’s governmental system is stuck in the past,” he thundered. “It’s a system that robs people of their voice, a system that disempowers instead of empowering.” Nirmala Sitharaman of the BJP got it right when she said that his speech sounded like that of an opposition leader. He asked: “Why is power so grossly centralized in India? We only empower people at the top of a system. We don’t believe in empowering people all the way to bottom. Why do ministries act like panchayats (village elders’ councils)? Why should politicians appoint university vice-chancellors? Why do a handful of people control the entire political space?” Why indeed? But being part of the same corrupt system and decision-making process and right at the pinnacle of power for the past nine years, Rahul himself owes answers to these questions to his countrymen. He may not have been part of the government in the strictest sense. But as the son of the most powerful politician in the land and heir apparent to the throne, can Rahul be entirely innocent of his own responsibility for the current state of affairs?
Besides, we have been here before. A lifetime ago, Rahul’s father delivered a similarly damning indictment of the political system at the centenary celebrations in Mumbai in 1985. Accusing his own party of having lost touch with people and being controlled by “power brokers and self-perpetuating cliques,” the young premier had declared: “In our preoccupation with governance we are drifting away from the people. We have weakened ourselves and fallen prey to the ills that the loss of invigorating mass contact brings.” When Rajiv delivered that unforgiving critique, he was truly an outsider and rather innocent. A distant highflier grounded, literally, by the killing of his mercurial younger brother and later the assassination of his mother. The same cannot be said of Rahul though. He’s been very much part of the system that he seemingly despises.
That doesn’t seem to excessively trouble the euphoric party faithful though. And he appears to have struck an emotional chord with the multitudes of the melting pot nation too. But is that enough?
Ultimately, what really matters is if he can translate his rosy worldview and dreams of a billion Indians into reality when and if the Congress returns to power. As Rahul himself has acknowledged, India and its multiplying middle classes are impatient for change. The track record of the UPA coalition isn’t particularly inspiring, especially when it comes to the oppressed and dispossessed communities.
Instead of acting on the recommendations of the two commissions mandated to look into the disturbing state of Muslims, the Congress rule has seen rising targeting of the community. On the one hand, Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde talks of saffron links to numerous terror attacks across the country, implicating at least 10 RSS functionaries. On the other hand, young Muslims continue to be routinely picked up as terrorists and disappeared for years.
The arrest of MIM president Asaduddin Owaisi for a routine protest held seven years ago, coming as it does soon after the detention of his younger brother on a litany of serious charges, even as the Togadias, Kamalanandas and Rithambras spread good cheer all around perpetuates the feeling that justice is selective. Isn’t it interesting that the law has started catching up with the Majlis leadership as soon as they parted ways with the Congress?
Still, given the alternative and the ominous chorus about the 2014 being a showdown between Rahul and a certain darling of the media and big business from Gujarat, there doesn’t seem to be much of a choice for Indian voters, especially for religious minorities. On the one hand, you have the stark, saffron-tinted worldview that excludes and targets everyone who bows to a different god. On the other side is a party that suffers from myriad flaws and has repeatedly failed yet mirrors the diversity of this diverse land. Take your pick.
n Aijaz Zaka Syed is a Gulf-based writer.