Like Arjuna of the Hindu epic Mahabharatha, Rahul Gandhi told a TV anchor last week he had his eye on just one thing in Indian politics: he wants to deepen democracy; oxygenate the system; dismantle the whimsy of patronage; and bring in some rules of play.
Nothing else distracts the vision of the scion of the Congress’ first family.
Gandhi has justifiably been scorched by commentators for this first formal interview of his career. His refusal to answer direct questions was not a healthy sparring, not a duel between big vision and specifics: it was inadequacy.
He did not steer the conversation, he stumbled through it. He was evasive, repetitive, dull. His refusal to apologise for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, for instance, and thus earn himself the moral ground to strongly condemn the Gujarat riots of 2002 was not just bad politics, it was a betrayal.
If he is to genuinely embody a new voice here’s what people would have loved to hear: No extended riots can happen unless the government in charge allows it. Justice is my core ideal. So, yes, I apologise for the mistakes of the Congress in 1984 and I condemn Narendra Modi for 2002.
That would have been a clear voice in the wilderness. That could have been the shape of a hand to hold.
But there’s already been enough richly-deserved criticism of Rahul’s interview.
To reiterate that stuff would be to duplicate his sin of repetition. It’s much more germane therefore to look at a widespread affliction in the Indian polity just now: the disease of the magic wand.
When Rahul compared himself to Arjuna, he wasn’t mistaken. His obsession with rationalising politics – who gets a ticket, how, and what rules should apply – dates back many years.
Two years ago, on a cold February morning, in the run-up to the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections, he had called a few top editors for a closed-door briefing over coffee.
For many months prior to this, he had been running a high-profile campaign to revive the Congress in the state, sleeping in Dalit homes, riding pillion on bikes to show solidarity with agitating farmers, tearing up lists of promises made by his opponents.
The curse of patronage
His political reputation was at stake in Uttar Pradesh. But when his guests quizzed him about the election, he deflected every question back to the eye of the fish: why is politics in India so arbitrary and driven by patronage, he asked.
How could he use his dynastic privilege to prise open the system so that young people could get tickets and enter politics based on merit, not money, caste and sycophancy? How could he catalyse a transformative political energy from the ground-up?
The journalists present were visibly exasperated with what they deemed his woolly-headed talk. And, of course, the Congress was dismally trounced in the election. As they have been in repeated elections since then.
But Rahul was not entirely wrong. His obsession did point to the heart of the matter. India’s politics has become hollowed out.
If the supremacy of dynastic leaders like him is to ever be challenged; if ever Indian politics is to change and replace identity with ideas, this is the only route possible. The gates have to be forced open. Power has to be decentralised. Good people must be able to enter Parliament.
Tickets must be given, won, and lost, on the basis of identifiable rules. This would not just impact the Congress party: it would elevate the general quality of India’s political players and debate.
Last week, in that debacle of an interview, as Rahul doggedly reiterated his desire to “open up the system”, it was evident he still has the eye of the fish in his vision. But the problem – and derision one feels – is not with Rahul’s vision, it is with his obsession.
He fails to understand that instead of Arjuna’s focus, he has acquired his blinkers. He believes he has located a magic wand. He mistakenly believes every riddle in Indian politics – pressures of coalition governments, policy paralysis, inconsistent decisions, tension between States and Centre, corruption, racism, communalism, indiscriminate use of natural resources, tightrope between environment and development, disagreements over welfare spending, absence of health care, education, et al – will be fixed with this.
Clearly, they will not. Rahul is trapped in the wrong metaphor. History has not tasked him to shoot a quarry down; it’s billed him to sculpt something new. He needs to stop staring at the eye, therefore, and see the whole fish. He needs to play both the short and the long term game.
The disturbing thing for India is, Rahul is not the only leader affected by the disease of the magic wand. Arvind Kejriwal – the common man’s Cape of Good Hope – seems to suffer from the same problem. He believes if he “goes to the people” and eradicates “corruption”, every other problem from the long list above will fall into place.
Rahul is trapped in the wrong metaphor. History has not tasked him to shoot a quarry down; it’s billed him to sculpt something new
But direct democracy can be a chaotic and unjust affair. Who is to judge which fraction of the people represents the voice of reason? Should democracy simply devolve into referendums and majority will?
We select leaders to lead, not merely to reflect the public mood. They are meant to craft our self-image as a nation, train us to look at the balance sheet of complex decision-making, and gift us high language and values to cling to. These over-simplified, single point agendas, therefore, are dangerous for India.
The belief in magic wands, after all, is an affliction that can affect different people differently. Rahul and Arvind at least have ideas they are fixated on. In the case of Narendra Modi, he believes the only wand India needs is himself.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.