The Halting Steps of the Pilgrim Prince

The Gandhi name can be both a burden and a gift. As Rahul Gandhi makes his debut and starts to tour rural India, the question to ask is: will he find his feet?

May 10, 2008 in People, Politics
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rahulgandhiIT’S 6 PM in Jagdalpur, 300-odd kilometres away from Raipur in Chhattisgarh. Four Scorpio-loads of journalists have travelled here from faraway Delhi, in search of an elusive moment with Rahul Gandhi. A surprising sense of order grips the air. Everyone seems to know what they have to do; things move with clockwork precision. Rahul Gandhi is due any moment for a small closed-door meeting with tribal representatives. A slow but efficient line of people are snaking their way through the door. A frisk, and a question: Are you a tribal? Where is your card? Several sundry enthusiasts want to get in, many have travelled long miles, but they are turned away: this is strictly a meeting for tribal representatives. The journalists are made to stand about a 100 metres away, resolutely cordoned off by a polite row of sten-gun carrying cops. Rahul does not want media intruding on his meeting.

A few minutes later, almost on the dot, Rahul’s BMW SUV pulls up in a convoy of heavy security. It’s hot outside. The mosquitoes are humming in maddening towers overhead. He does not wave at the media, but walks with single- minded focus into the room and squats on the floor with the waiting audience. Their discussions are impossible to overhear.

Half an hour later, he walks out. It is dark. There is a small surging crowd, straining against ropes, waiting for the chance touch, the sudden pause. Rahul walks up to the crowd and briefly makes contact with random hands. It drives everyone crazy with anticipation. A moment later, he’s gone in a cloud of dust, and a dancing row of tribals fills the vacuum in a burst of drums.

Elation among those who got to speak with him; a curious sense of anti-climax among journalists and others who didn’t.

Just one cameo from the recent Rahul Gandhi tours that the media has come to call, with some condescension, his ‘Discovery of India’. Why is Rahul doing these tours? Why are they so tightly constructed? Why would a man who, at a nod, could have the entire pantheon of Congress leaders lined up outside his door, crisscross the country in choppers with minimal fanfare — meeting groups as small as 50 to 500? Or sometimes, just a single family?

IMAGINE YOURSELF trapped in a labyrinth. Riddled with trick chambers, false starts and dead-ends. Imagine you are gifted a potent magic formula that holds the promise of everything: a clear path out of the maze, a hero’s life afterward. The formula can only be activated by a key though — and you don’t know which way to walk to find it. Still, walk you must, because without the key, the formula is nothing.

Just a tantalising promise of everything.

Rahul Gandhi finds himself in such a situation. He has the magic formula: youth, good looks, good intention. And most of all, the mythic Gandhi name. Unlocking its promise in India 2008, though, is to walk a labyrinth, made up of daunting imponderables. Rahul’s tryst with the Gandhi name — its burden and its gift — has come at a time when it is more difficult to grapple with than it ever was for those of his family who went before. The Congress has long lost its supremacy. In fact, it is at one of its lowest ebbs. The party is bled of both spirit and blood; its cadres have moved away; it is in power in barely 10 states, and at the Centre, it is at the tail-end of an embarrassingly hobbled, if largely scandal-free, innings. National politics is a minefield. Fractured mandates. Caste calculations. Uncomfortable coalitions. The gap between the rich and the poor has never been wider. Voters have never been more cynical. General elections loom in a year. The Gandhi name, in this scenario, maybe a powerful dynastic talisman, but it is not an automatic one.

There is the labyrinth to walk, the key to find. Historically, this is not the kind of ground in which a Gandhi has been launched, or made an entry.

Jawaharlal Nehru might have taken over the reins of independent India after a cataclysmic Partition, but he was the undisputed ‘Jewel of India’ — declared so by none less than the Mahatma himself. Indira Gandhi might have had to split the party to install herself, after Shastri’s sudden death catapulted her to centrestage, but the Congress was still the undisputed custodian of India and her challenges, for the most part, were intra-party stuff. Rajiv, of course, rode in after her assassination, on an

electric tide of sympathy and hope unsurpassed in the history of the country. Sonia had the advantage of the outsider, the non-Gandhi of whom there was zero expectation. She literally had to be coaxed into taking custody of the Gandhi legacy and a party that was falling apart at the seams.

In many crucial ways, Rahul’s tryst with the Gandhi name is different from his ancestors. It’s not just the circumstances that are different. His engagement is also both more voluntary and complex.

Five years ago, in a private conversation with someone on a flight, he said, “No matter how much I am prodded, I cannot make any claims or assertions. I am only feeding off the glow of my ancestors just now. I haven’t done anything myself. I will join politics only when I am ready.” A year later, already under increasing party pressure to move to the helm, he told a journalist visiting his home, “I am on a learning curve. I am trying to understand things. I am working at the village and district level in Amethi — trying to understand the economic linkage between the rural and the urban. I will not move till I am ready. Even if my mother tells me to.”

A few months later, when he had decided to contest elections in UP, a close friend of Rahul’s told TEHELKA, “I can tell you for a fact, Rahul’s decision to join politics is not a reactive one. It is an active one. He is not a man who takes decisions without thinking them out. He is happy and enthused about entering politics, he is not feeling pressured. He will take on the job with gusto.”

Another associate asserted strongly, “Make no mistake about it. He is no fool, bumbling into politics, hoping that his family’s name and that alone will sustain him. He is a chess player; he does not make a move until he has thought out the next four or five.”

For a long time after, it seemed as if Rahul was having difficulty figuring the next four or five moves. He immersed himself in development work in Amethi, focusing on education, working with a network of NGOs. The party whispered ominously about his lack of charisma; the media discussed it volubly: his body language is wrong, he doesn’t reach out to people, he doesn’t know how to connect, he has no ideas, he has no fire, he has no vision. His maiden speech on education in the Lok Sabha was mocked as a high-school performance. Few took note of his question on sugarcane farmers in Parliament. The absence of his more obviously charismatic sister, Priyanka, was everywhere.

Rahul persevered. As he told a journalist in an informal conversation, “The media wants things done in an instant. They want everything done yesterday, but it doesn’t work like that. It takes time. You would be foolish — I would be foolish to say I am going to do things in a week. I will do politics my way and in my time. Nobody can force me to do anything.”

The party resigned itself to the absence of rejuvenating drama; the media largely lost interest.

Two months ago, all of this started to change. In the first week of March, Rahul suddenly embarked on his ‘Discover India’ tours.

Starting from Kalahandi in Orissa, he travelled through the state visiting Dalit and tribal pockets. Niyamgiri Hills — where local tribals are locked in a bitter battle to save their ecology from Vedanta-Sterlite’s proposed open cast mines. Ganjam in Koraput district — where he chatted with 450 school children for an hour. Gopalpur and Kamlapur — where he met fishermen’s groups. Jajpur, where he addressed a farmers’ rally. One night, famously, he gave his security the slip and disappeared into the forest to meet with tribals. The straining to connect directly with people is evident: even his harshest detractors would grant him that. On the Karnataka leg again, he frequently broke through the security cordon and walked into people’s huts, shaking hands with children, stopping for a cup of tea or a shared idli. Of the eight districts he covered in the state, none were Congress strongholds, but Rahul’s tours are clearly not designed as electoral campaigns. He could have chosen the cynical route: big manufactured rallies, empty promises, empty shows of strength. But his tours have a clear pattern.

RAHUL’S ENGAGEMENTS are set up as small, targeted interactions with Dalit and tribal villagers, NGOs and students — mostly behind closed doors and strictly off

bounds for media. He is rarely accompanied by any party paraphernalia or senior state leaders. Often, they are specifically denied entry. VC Shukla, Siddaramaiah and Mallikarjun Kharge, KPCC president, are probably among those still scratching their heads in bewilderment.

“There is nothing political about his tour. He cannot have honest conversations if the media or too many others are watching,” says a close aide, who has been travelling with Rahul on his tours. “People are more forthcoming behind closed doors. It is more educative for him.” In Kanker, former CM Ajit Jogi says, only 7 out of a 1000 people said they knew English, when Rahul asked for a show of hands. They were pressing for schools in Gondi: Rahul urged them to move towards an emphasis on English. Elsewhere, not one tribal put up their hands when asked how many favoured Salva Judum. Rahul is clearly in search of such firsthand information.

“I want to listen. It is my duty to listen and learn. The voices of the poor are not being heard in the centres of power. We are unable to identify them correctly. I intend to do this more and more,” Rahul told a group of journalists a week ago in Chhattisgarh.

It was a baking April afternoon. Everybody was sitting listlessly in the anteroom of a district schoolyard, waiting for him to arrive. He came briskly into the room, in sneakers and a dusty white kurta. A moment of awkward silence followed. “Aap log bahut susth lag rahe hain aaj,” he prodded jovially, “zyada garmi lag rahi hai kya?” (You are very listless today, feeling too hot, is it?”) His easy banter unleashed a raucous session. As journalists shouted down each other, the heat rose in the room. One particularly angry journalist, posing what seemed a question motivated by local Congress factions, shouted at Rahul for not answering his question. “You all are fighting amongst yourselves, why are you getting angry with me?” he asked laughingly. Later, he stepped off the stage and was engulfed. Through the swarm of arms, he sought out his angry interlocutor and drew him into a hug, “Aap politician hain, ki journalist?” he chuckled, disarming him completely. There was a frisson of excitement in the room with his presence, then a roar of chopper sound and he was gone.

The idea of the journey is central to every heroic epic. Very few heroes are ever airdropped, ready-made, from heaven. But does Rahul Gandhi have the luxury of making a journey of learning and self discovery? Will he be allowed to feel his way, step by step, into squaring with his legacy, and finding the key to his own potential? Other politicians might be allowed a journey, but will a Gandhi? His tours have set off intense and animated discussions in the party and the media.

Rahul has entered into politics at a time when there is neither the innocence of a young nation, nor the sheen of extraordinary circumstance to give him ballast. Curiously then, four generations down, for all the scornful talk of “dynasty” and the “crown prince”, the Gandhi name is actually in the process of being democratised. And tested. Not within the party perhaps, where his “appointed place” is still unquestioned, but on the national stage. As a Gandhi scion, Rahul is the ace that no other party has: a young leader with the potential for a pan-Indian appeal. His family has ruled India for 40 of its 60 years as an independent nation: that makes for a rich fund of collective memory. Yet, he has not reserved himself for a sudden, propitious entry. He seems to understand that the Gandhi name might be a magic formula, but with each generation, its potential has to be unlocked in fresh and individual ways. Even unlocked, the name does not foreclose the possibility of failure: false starts, deadends, trick chambers, hidden dangers. Indira Gandhi had to claw her way back after the Emergency and the humiliation of 1977. Rajiv Gandhi lost his mandate 5 years into his megaride; and Sonia had to sacrifice the top job — propelled both by a moral “inner voice” and expediency — though she had pretty much led her party to victory in 2004.

So what is going to be Rahul’s route? The traditional magic wand method was tested in the Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat Assembly elections: the aerial drop two days before the states went to the poll, the belief that the Gandhi mystique would swing the votes. It failed miserably. Rahul’s tours now seem to point towards new introspections, new strategies. Their primary clues may lie in his father, Rajiv Gandhi’s speech at the centenary session of the Congress in Bombay in 1985. Speaking passionately for a politics of cleanliness, inclusiveness and right thought, he lambasted the Congress as a “party of fixers and powerbrokers.” He also made a stirring reference to something Mahatma Gandhi said: “Whenever you are in doubt or when the self becomes too much with you, apply the following test: Recall the face of the poorest and the weakest man whom you may have seen and ask yourself if the step you contemplate is going to be of any use to him…”

Rahul seems to have taken that plunge. He seems to have released himself from the paralysing calculations and faux wisdoms of Delhi — a city of intrigue and counter intrigue, of backstabbing and slander, where nothing is what it seems — and started a search for finding the face of the “poorest and weakest man”. This journey has been made before: by Mahatma Gandhi, by Nehru, and in different ways by Indira, and Sonia; but to his credit, Rahul does not assume a dynastic knowledge of the poor of this country. Dalits and tribals — along with Muslims and Brahmins — have been the traditional umbrella constituency of the Congress. One of the most powerful slogans of his grandmother Indira Gandhi was “Garibi Hatao”. Neglect, feudal assumptions of intimacy, the rise of identity politics — many things drove them away from the Congress. Rahul is trying to revitalise the relationship, re-lay foundation stones.

Is this “the foresight and astuteness of a long-term player”, as one veteran family loyalist puts it, or political suicide, circa 2008, with general elections around the corner and adversaries like Mayawati, Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, Jayalalithaa, Narendra Modi and Chandrababu Naidu to confront?

“His advisers are pitting him directly against Mayawati,” says one agitated former Youth Congress President, “how wise can that be? You cannot be in the centre of a battlefield and strategise for a future war. Your enemies will quarter you, make you look foolish, finish off your sheen. He might be planning long term, but what’s his short term plan? You cannot just surround yourself with Aristotles, you need some Machiavellis too.”

“He has all the attributes of an excellent human being,” says a senior Minister. “He is decent, well-intentioned, honest, but it is not enough to look like a pro-poor lad who sympathises with the downtrodden. What is his vision? What direction does he want to steer the party? What is his stand on industrialisation? The nuclear deal? Mayawati? What are the new alliances he is forging? He is an AICC general secretary, but he hasn’t asserted himself within the party. Is he choosing who should be given tickets? Political leadership is about garnering support where opportunity exists. He has shown no such leadership so far. He genuinely seems to dislike sycophants and unthinking loyalists, but is not actively reaching out to new people in the party.”

Rahul cannot be unaware of the criticisms swirling around him. But he has stuck doggedly to his stated goals. Connecting with the poor. And reviving the youth cadre of the party: by far its most urgent need. In April this year, he turned down a ministerial position so that he could concentrate on the primary duties he is committed to: the Youth Congress and its student wing, the NSUI. He has been working hard on them: opening up the membership, setting new parameters, computerising and ratifying the database, trying to insert accountability and weed out false memberships. Good, unglamorous, long-term stuff: not the usual fare of India’s national politics.

Telescope general elections: 2014. Everywhere he tours, membership stalls are set up: according to Ashok Tanwar, President, Youth Congress, in Orissa, his tour yielded 44,000 new membership requests. In Karnataka, 63,ooo. The enthusiasm on the ground is palpable. It’s been a long while since any senior Congress leader — and a Gandhi, at that — devoted himself to this.

As MP, Sachin Pilot, who is part of the Future Challenges Committee with Rahul, affirms, “He is not working with his eye on the poll calendar. Elections are only just a part of the process of a democracy. He is mobilising the party ground up, focusing on the infrastructure of the organisation. This will definitely yield huge political dividends as well.”

Speaking four years ago, with uncanny prescience, Rahul had once said in an informal conversation, “There is a fear of failure in the Congress. People keep saying, what if this goes wrong, what if that doesn’t work. Every time I want to do something, there is this fear in the party that it may go wrong.”

It takes a certain kind of courage to close one’s ears to the advice flying in the wind and play with one’s inheritance. Go in search of what one really believes in. In fact, one could write off much of the internal Congress criticism of Rahul as the panic of players sliding towards a big election, wondering which sleeve their ace is hiding in. But there are some warnings in the Chamber of Advice and Detractions which he might be well off heeding.

The Indian electorate is a famously unpredictable one, and it is true no one can accurately calibrate what effect Rahul’s point to point contact with the masses will have. The report card on his charm, body language and ease with crowds has shot up unanimously in the past month.

And, as one senior Congress leader working with him, puts it, “There is not one politician that people can trust today, not one who is not openly operating on greed. One should not underestimate the impact of genuineness and honesty in politics.” But the story of his father, Rajiv Gandhi, a good leader undone by a combination of cleanliness, good intention and naivete is only one generation old.

The biggest question dogging Rahul just now then is not his intention, but his vision. What does he really stand for? What is his big idea? In a country as complex as India, making the right gesture counts for a lot, and if you discount his gaffes on the creation of Bangladesh and his father’s track record on the Babri Masjid, Rahul has been doing a fair amount of that. The Bundelkhand-Jhansi escapade where he squatted on the street with protesting farmers, and went en masse with them in a bus to the DM’s office to get them jobs, had Mayawati rattled: an elephant mildly stung by a gnat, perhaps, but stung, nevertheless.

When he spent one night with a Dalit family, and visited another in Etawah who had lost six family members, she taunted him about using special soap after he was done consorting with the masses. (What soap, he laughed lightly, at the press conference in Chhattisgarh, pointing to his dusty kurta.) After visiting Niyamgiri, he sided with the tribals and made a statement against Vedanta. “One cannot stop industrialisation,” he qualified later, “but people’s voices are just being brushed aside. They must be heard. They must be accommodated. A middle way has to be found.”

An anthology of his public statements and concerns so far would make for interesting, if slim, reading. They hint at the evolution of a set of concerns, a mindset, but not yet, a vision. Education, Panchayati Raj, social justice, economic redistribution, more efficient delivery systems, people’s struggles, and party rejuvenation: an honourable roll call. And perhaps the real pulse of what may drive people to vote in the years to come, beyond the terrains of caste and identity. Like his father, Rahul seems to be straining for a politics that transcends caste divisions and identity, but how exactly is he going to alter or improve things?

At the end of his four-day tour of Orissa, he told the press, “India is a democratic country, but there is practically no internal democracy in any party.” Later, in Karnataka, talking to students in Mangalore, he said, “Yes, the Gandhi name gives one an unfair advantage, but many more of you should join politics and take away that edge.” Asked about Naxals in Chhattisgarh, he said, “Governments are not being responsive to the poor. This has an impact on Naxalism.” Rahul clearly has an appetite for honesty, but how bold and large is that appetite? Is he willing to go the full mile? Does he have an appetite for real battle? What are the big ideas that will alter current political realities?

SOCIAL COMMENTATOR Pratap Bhanu Mehta says, “The thing that worries me about Rahul is that he exudes a kind of politics of good intention, but we have absolutely no idea what he stands for. He seems to skirt issues all the time. As general secretary, he should be interpreting the party’s policies. But what does he think about India being absorbed into the global economy? Where does he stand on the nuclear deal? What is his position on agricultural reform? When he goes back from his tours, does he just slide back to an attitude of business as usual in the capital? The thing is he doesn’t seem fresh enough. If he is talking about youth and the future, he should be highlighting other younger leaders. Why not unleash Jyotiraditya on Madhya Pradesh? Why not showcase leaders like Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora, Sandeep Dikshit and others on his tours? Is he willing to push back the old guard, or is at all going to be business as usual? That’s the question about Rahul.”

On his Karnataka tour, Rahul addressed a closed-door gathering at the IISc in Bangalore, urging “young blood” to join the Congress. A young girl who attended the session was not impressed. “It seemed to just a testing ground for Rahul,” she said, “He wanted to check his oratorical skills, nothing else. The perspective was missing though the energy was there.”

“Why do you want to straitjacket him already?” says a former Congress Chief Minister. “He will lead the party. But he is only 37. Let him evolve. He has a long innings ahead. If Mrs Gandhi had not been assassinated, Rajiv would not have taken over in 1985.” He may have a point. With every generation the burden of expectation grows; yet the need for apprenticeship remains.

This is the double bind Rahul Gandhi is trapped in: he seems to want to groom himself and play a long-term game, but his party would like him to take the wheel and deliver an electoral victory in 2009. Closer to time, the recent murmurs to declare him the PM candidate will probably gain in volume and momentum, though clearly, the party does not want to risk him by projecting him as the lead face of the campaign yet. Curiously too, the old guard has an uneasy relationship with Rahul: he is their ace, and they would like him to deliver, but they are uncertain of their place on his high table.

It doesn’t help that Rahul has not been making any attempt to either meddle with or reach out to anyone in the party. He is surrounded by a small but tight team of low-profile professionals and party functionaries: Manoj Muttu, ex-Indian Air Force officer; Kanishka Singh, classmate, computer engineer, and son of former foreign secretary and governor SK Singh, Jitendra Singh, former Youth Congress leader and now secretary, AICC; Meenakshi Natarajan, former NSUI President and now secretary, AICC; Kishori Sharma, and Sachin Rao, an MBA from Michigan University, among them.

Only time and adversity will tell whether Rahul will answer to his genes and become a powerhouse political leader — with all that it takes: courage, creativity, cunning, decisiveness, the ability to build bridges. What he has going for him already is humility. A purity of intent, which itself is a rarity in Indian politics today. And the intuitive knowledge that no one wins elections in India by machinating in Delhi. He knows he has to hit the long, hard, dusty road. He knows he has to go to the people. The Congress might be in a hurry, but Rahul’s tours are just a beginning in his own journey. And in the search for the key that will unlock the magic of the Gandhi name.

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