The political ascension of Rahul Gandhi as the leader of the grand old party of the country is finally done with a formal announcement on Monday. The decision to elevate Rahul Gandhi as the Congress president marks the transition of power from Sonia Gandhi to Rahul. As the Indian National Congress gears up for this change in leadership, here’s a look at the scion of Indian politics’ first family.
Rahul’s early days
Rahul Gandhi was born to former Prime Minister of India Rajiv Gandhi and present Indian National Congress president Sonia Gandhi on June 19, 1970, at a time when his grandmother Indira Gandhi was the Prime Minister of India. As his family had a lot of security threats, Rahul had to attend different schools. He first studied in St. Columba’s school, New Delhi and then shifted to the Doon School, Uttarakhand in 1981 which is also the alma matter of Rajiv Gandhi. Rahul studied there for only two years, however. After the assassination of Indira Gandhi in 1984, Rahul was home-schooled for a period of five years along with his sister Priyanka.
Rahul finished his undergrad studies at St Stephen’s College in Delhi in 1989 under the sports quota, but moved to Harvard University in the US right after his first year. In 1991, when his father was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers (LTTE) seeking liberation in Sri Lanka, Rahul shifted from Harvard to Rollins College in Florida. He completed his BA in 1994 and his M Phil in 1995 from Trinity College, Cambridge.
For security purposes, Rahul adopted the pseudonym Raul Vinci during his college days.
After his studies, Rahul worked at the Monitor Group, a management consulting firm in London for a year. In 2002 he was one of the directors of Backops Services Private Ltd., a technology outsourcing firm.
In an interview, his father Rajiv Gandhi had once mentioned that Rahul was interested in sports and was a very outgoing person.
Renowned photographer Raghu Rai, the author of ‘A day in the life of Indira Gandhi...’ in his book writes about the bond Rahul Gandhi shared with his grandmother Indira Gandhi. Everyday Rahul used to drop the then Prime Minister to her car whenever she left home for work. The author, who was also the photographer of the Gandhi family, said in an interview that Indira Gandhi shared most of her free time with her grandchildren, Rahul and Priyanka.
Rahul Gandhi was fond of his grandmother, he loved being with her.
After operation Blue star, Indira Gandhi prepared Rahul who was a 12-year-old about the threats she had been facing. Sonia Gandhi, mother of Rahul Gandhi, has mentioned this in her book ‘Rajiv’.
Seeing two closest members of his family assassinated, Rahul evidently had a difficult childhood. His grandmother’s Sikh bodyguards with whom had played before had killed the person he was closest to.
Sonia Gandhi, in her book, also writes about the tough childhood of Rahul and Priyanka. For five years they had to live under strict security. They were confined to the four walls of their compound.
Rahul’s educational qualification was under question when he joined college for his undergraduate studies. The cut off for St Stephen was 85% but Rahul’s percentage was below 70. He got the admission to the prestigious college through sports quota. It is said that Rahul was a national level and state level competitor in Rifle Shooting. However, he was never been in the limelight for security reasons.
Rahul was always concerned about the security of Rajiv Gandhi. Sonia Gandhi in an interview mentioned that Rahul always complained about the weak security given to his father.
After his father’s assassination he did not want his mother Sonia Gandhi to enter politics and had an aversion to politics himself. Amartya Sen, India’s Nobel-prize-winning economist, in one of his interviews, mentioned meeting Rahul Gandhi as a student in London where he had expressed his distaste for politics.
In an interview with the Indian Express, Rahul had expressed the freedom he felt when he left India for higher education. He was happy to be away from the tight security he had to face in India. He talked about not having to worry about his security and how much joy he felt at roaming around freely and hanging out with his friends.
In 2004, Rahul’s private life came under focus when the media discovered his girlfriend Veronique Cartelli. They were found holidaying in the Andamans. Veronique was a Spanish national and an architect. But in 2013, Rahul announced that he didn’t want to get married.
Rahul’s days in the Youth Congress
Death of two family members in assassination attempts created an aversion towards politics in young Rahul. However, after his reluctant mother was coerced into taking up leadership of the Indian National Congress in 1998, Rahul accompanied her on election tours as a personal aide. In 2003, there was pressure on Sonia to let Rahul head the Seva Dal, a grassroots front organisation of the Indian National Congress but Rahul didn't join. However, in the run-up to the 2004 polls, mother Sonia needed a political aide and Rahul decided to enter politics. He contested and won the Lok Sabha elections and was elected to Parliament's lower house from Amethi constituency.
A party reshuffle in September 2007 witnessed 37-year-old Rahul Gandhi being appointed as General Secretary of the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) and the National Students Union of India (NSUI). Rahul had promised grassroots level reforms in the existing youth politics system of the Congress party and put in efforts to restructure it. In 2008, he personally interviewed IYC cadres and selected 40 among them as the ‘think-tanks’ of the organisation. The move spread a positive vibe among the workers, and gradually the membership of both the youth and student outfits skyrocketed under his leadership. In 2010, the membership reached 25 lakh from 3 lakh (when he took over). In 2017, the IYC claims to have no less than one crore members across the country.
Introducing organisation elections to the Youth Congress was the brainchild of Rahul Gandhi. His reformation strategy included the replacement of the existing ‘booth model’ with the five-level direct elections via secret ballots. The five-level structure is organised in such a way that the youth wing has ‘booth committees’, its lowest unit in the polling booth levels. An electoral college comprising of elected office bearers at the ward levels in turn elects the members to the Pradesh and Lok Sabha levels.
Rahul’s idea to effect such a model of democratic representation brought in much-needed transparency to the structural politics and had an impact on the workers, as the replacement of the nomination system effectively reduced factionalism and nepotism from the grassroots level. This also made sure that there were no easy roads to positions, other than to fight organisational polls. The new system was completely adopted in the IYC by mid-2014, according to the INCS’s official website.
The method of membership allotment was also updated by Rahul Gandhi. Earlier, a person interested in joining the IYC needed to know an active member of the organisation. This made it hard for someone from a stronghold of a rival party, or someone new to an area to reach out to the organisation. Under Rahul Gandhi, the IYC announced that any person who wished for a membership of the youth wing just had to send a postcard to the Congress office or a cadre expressing their readiness to join the political outfit.
To make his dream of transformation easy, Rahul Gandhi made it mandatory that workshops and training sessions be organised for Youth Congress cadres at all five levels. Today, study classes, training programmes and performance assessments are being conducted at all the five levels of the Congress Youth Wing, varying from area to area according to the hold and reach of the Congress party, the INC website says.
Rahul Gandhi, therefore, is widely accepted as the force behind building a semi-cadre system for the Indian Youth Congress from what was largely a mass organisation.
Rahul retained his Amethi Constituency seat in the 2009 Lok Sabha elections, and also continued to remain the chief of the party’s youth and student outfits. He did not take up any ministerial post in the Manmohan Singh cabinet, despite some suggestions to that effect, saying he wanted to concentrate on building the party organisation, as he done with the Youth Congress.
Transition from a reluctant politician to Congress President
The power transition in Congress started in 2013 with the elevation of Rahul as Congress vice-president. Party men hailed the much-celebrated appointment as advent of a rejuvenation and transformation within the Congress.
Similar to his father, Rajiv Gandhi, Rahul’s entry into politics was also a matter of fate. He was branded by critics, including CPM leader Sitaram Yechury as a ‘reluctant politician’. According to a report by Firstpost, “He came back to India to help his mother Sonia with the 1999 general election campaign but then disappeared from the political firmament after the polls, and returned only in 2002.”
Rahul Gandhi’s elevation in the party structure over the years has invited a lot of criticism from opposition parties. Compared to any other Congress leader, Rahul rose to power in an elite and protected environment. He contested and easily won the Amethi Lok Sabha seat, which is a stronghold of the Nehru family in 2004, and retained it in 2009 and 2014.
He was first appointed as general secretary and later vice-president of the party.
Rahul took up the role of Congress vice-president with the promise of uprooting the evils within the party. In his maiden speech as Congress vice-president, Rahul Gandhi, introspecting about the party, said, “The Congress is the world’s largest political organisation, but there are no rules or laws here. We make a new rule every two minutes to cover up an old rule and perhaps nobody here knows what the rules are of this party.”
But Rahul himself has often been criticised for being indecisive at crucial moments. His 53-day sabbatical in 2015 during the countrywide protests against land ordinance and silence on major issues including the Delhi rape case raised eyebrows in the past. Former Law Minister and Congress strongman Salman Khurshid once said that “Until now… we have only seen cameos of his thoughts and ideas...[but little] ideological direction”. Little is known of his opinions on foreign policy, economics and internal problems of the country”
Rahul was also taunted for not following up on his own promises. According to a report by Frontline, “Even Kumar Vishwas’ (Rahul’s Aam Aadmi Party opponent in Amethi election) second day of campaign in Amethi brought out one such instance: a Dalit woman whom Rahul Gandhi visited in 2011 as part of his poverty outreach programmes complained that the majority of the promises he had made to her had not been fulfilled.”
This has been the case with regard to promises about democratisation of the party too. While Rahul has tried to bring internal democracy by putting an end to the “nomination culture”, the task remains unfulfilled. Now that he has taken over party president, there is an expectation that things will finally change.