The paradox of politics is that leaders make history with politically incorrect high-profile actions to assume power. Congress Vice President Rahul Gandhi is the known Houdini of the political stage; vanishing with inexplicable regularity from self-created scenarios charged with the rhetoric of revolt, but ending with a whimper. Is he really a reluctant politico on the prowl, or an unfortunate hostage to public inconsistency? Famous for his frequent disappearing acts to secret locations across the globe, he has grabbed prime time news hour and front-page space with a well-publicised trip to claim intellectual space in the West.
His aides, however, hope his past preference for shoot-and-scoot activism will now give way to some sustained activity. Last week, he chose the USA as the launch base for his latest innings of political engagement. His speaking gigs over there grabbed attention at home when he admitted to home truths, owning up to the cardinal mistakes of his party and communicating a cohesive critique of the Narendra Modi government.
The Congress has now prepared a lengthy calendar of meetings in both India and abroad to re-launch their leader as an effective alternative to India’s indomitably popular Prime Minister. According to published reports and party scuttlebutt, Rahul is expected to visit Japan, China and a few East Asian counties to present his Idea of India vs Modi’s. He is also expected to crisscross India, addressing meetings of students, farmers and party workers and hold interactions with various groups of opinion-makers.
Rahul has done similar exercises in the past. He has eaten humble fare at a Dalit’s home and spent the night alfresco, braving mosquitoes on a cheap string-cot. In April, he appeared at AIIMS, Delhi, to show support and sympathy to a professor on hunger strike against corruption and the tawdry stare of institutional infrastructure.
This was before his trip to Hyderabad to join the protest against the suicide of a Dalit student. He was also conspicuous by his presence at the JNU to defend freedom of expression. He dramatically tore up an amendment proposed by his party to prevent convicted politicians from losing their seats in the legislature. Though he participates little in parliamentary debates, Rahul occasionally made the Treasury benches uncomfortable with Kalawati-type remarks.
But even after almost 13 years of active public life, Rahul is yet to establish himself as a leader who is steady in his approach to practical politics. Consistency is not one of his virtues. Surrounded by obscure semi-political advisors and hangers-on, the janta perceives him as a person who is incapable of putting an advance plan in place; yet is hasty to cash in on any new idea, which can provide him visibility for the moment.
However, this time Rahul’s US visit was different. For the first time, his advisors had planned a well-structured agenda. He was able to connect with the right sort of people at carefully-chosen venues, thanks to the involvement of political colleagues such as Sam Pitroda, Shashi Tharoor and Milind Deora, who are plugged into the American mind-set and the complexities of the Indian Diaspora. Pitroda put the trip in its correct political perspective by asserting that the visit was planned as the start of a “new conversation by the party” with the objective of re-positioning Rahul, who has been widely misunderstood and wrongly defined by the monolithic BJP ‘machine’.
Fully aware of Rahul’s limitations and resources, they avoided duplicating the Modi model of dialogue. Rahul’s itinerary was meticulously planned to include interacts with all sections of American society, including students, business leaders, NRI entrepreneurs, members of liberal think tanks and politicians from both the Republican and Democratic parties.
He also met the editorial board of The Washington Post for an off-the-record interaction. Whether this journey will raise his vacillating status to a respected, credible and acceptable leader will depend on the nature and content of his political actions in the next 18 months. But his revelations and confessions on various issues in America provide enough ground to assess the idea and colour of his politics. Dissecting his musings:
View: It is “a problem in all political parties in India. Most of the country runs like this, so don’t go after me, Akhilesh Yadav a dynast, Mr Stalin a dynast, Mr (Prem Kumar) Dhumal’s son a dynast, so don’t just go after me... Even Mr Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast, also Mr Ambani, that’s what happens in India.”
Counterview: Political dynasts cannot be compared to those in other sectors. Although about 20 families control over 70 per cent of seats in the Parliament, legislatures and local bodies, none of them have national stature. The perception that Rahul has acquired the top perch in the Congress superstructure has much to do with pedigree over merit. He has not proved to be a power winner for the party so far. Perhaps, some upcoming state polls and the 2019 Lok Sabha election could be Rahul’s last chance to prove himself and answer the question whether he has an agenda after all.
View: “Mr Modi has certain skills, he is a very good communicator, he’s much better than me. He knows how to give a message to three-four different groups in a crowd, so his messaging ability is very effective and subtle.”
Counterview: Rahul is yet to learn the art of communicating with the masses and his own party. He starts off well, but loses the plot soon, leaving the message in the middle. He is yet to acquire the skill of making headlines with meaningful one-liners and catch lines—a Modi forte.
View: “What I sense is he (Modi) doesn't converse with people he works with. Even Members of Parliament and BJP tell me (that). The BJP gives a top-down vision. We construct a bottom-up vision.”
Counterview: Not correct. In the Congress, too, workers wait for the signal from the Gandhis to deal with any situation. The excessive centralisation of power plagues the Congress as much as it does the BJP.
View: “Around 2012, arrogance crept into the Congress and we stopped having conversations with people.”
Counterview: This still holds true. Many Congress leaders are even more arrogant than some self-important BJP ministers. If Modi and Amit Shah are inaccessible to ministers and cadres, so are Sonia Gandhi and Rahul.
Age may be on Rahul’s side, but time certainly isn’t. This time, however, he has spoken his mind in a more cohesive manner. But he has to walk the talk. Politics is no more a game, which can be won on the basis of golden past and the glorious sheen of dynasty. Today’s politics has a complex geometry. Rahul must fashion formidable formations, which can connect the masses with his idea of India, if he has any. Choreographed conclaves and rehearsed speeches can win claps, but not votes.
Follow him on Twitter @PrabhuChawla