In October 2009, Open magazine ran a cover story with the title ‘Will the Congress rule for the next 20 years?’ The Congress had just won three state elections soon after its Lok Sabha triumph, the Opposition was still in disarray, Manmohan Singh seemed like a man in charge, Sonia Gandhi confident and Rahul Gandhi waited in the wings. It was still an over-the-top question but the fact that it could even be asked by a serious national magazine reflected something of the prevailing political mood.
How times have changed since. Harold Wilson gave the political lexicon its time-worn cliché of a week being a long time in politics, the Congress has had two miserably long years. The party was already on the mat long before the Anna Hazare movement burst on the national consciousness and among the many things its dynamics has thrown up is to expose in sharp relief the leadership problems at its top.
Even if it is too early to seriously judge the long-term political impact of the churning we have seen in terms of the public-neta equation, among the many questions that emerges as a by-product is one on the politics and political style of Rahul Gandhi.
This is an important question for a party that is still beholden to the Gandhi family and a serious one for a leader who in the past two years has actively sought to project the personae of a youth leader and of a man of the people (as opposed to a man of government).
With Sonia Gandhi away convalescing, Rahul Gandhi’s initial absence from the scene was initially explainable as he was overseas. He is said to have played an important role in behind-the-scenes efforts after his return, including suggestions by the party’s spin doctors that he was instrumental in changing the government’s attitude from aggression to conciliation after Anna’s arrest.
In the public eye though, the impression remains of a leader who simply refused to engage in a public debate or to visibly commit himself to a point of view in his government’s greatest hour of need almost till the very end.
His deafening public silence in the days between Anna’s arrest to his eventual prepared speech in the Lok Sabha on Friday only served to raise more questions than answers.
By dodging direct questions on the Anna movement until then, the Congress’ leader in waiting not only strengthened the impression of a rudderless party being left adrift, he did himself no favours. Even when he did speak, seeking to regain the initiative through his call for an Election-Commission like Lok Pal, the biggest question was why did he not say so earlier?
Crises often tend to show up weak points in sharp relief and this crisis has shown up the inadequacies in the making of Brand Rahul.
His image makers have so far relied on a carefully calibrated strategy of visibly trying to identify him with the downtrodden. From telling Orissa tribals two years ago that he was their soldier in Delhi to his televised road show with UP’s farmers, the Gandhi scion has consistently tried to cultivate the imagery of a messiah of the other India, the India that seemingly lost out in the reforms.
There are two fundamental problems with this strategy. The first is that the divide between shining India and rural Bharat was never as clear-cut as it seemed to some Congress strategists. Many of India’s urban centres voted strongly for the Congress last time but the daily frustrations of dealing with government in India’s cities have in no small measure driven the sinews of this current movement. By choosing to focus almost exclusively on an old socialist style ‘protector of the (mostly rural) people’ neta imagery, Team Rahul may have made an original ideational mistake.
The deeper problem though is that Brand Rahul is steeped in an older kind of top-down politics that is increasingly at odds with the quicksilver world of modern interconnectivity. In that old Doordarshan-type model, the leader spoke, his words were listened to reverently, and there was little genuine public accountability. That world has changed irrevocably.
You can’t speak down at the people any more, you have to engage with them, partake in debate, and most importantly answer questions on sticky issues. That is the one thing Rahul Gandhi has seemed reluctant to do. Even in his pet causes he has seemed to cast project the figure of a benevolent protector rather than an instinctive man of the people ready for questions, engaged in public debates and leading agendas.
In short, he has preferred not to get his hands dirty, but to take safe, mostly choreographed positions. This style of cocooned politics, while seeming to maintain a distance from its daily hustle bustle, is at odds even with his family’s record in the Congress.
Long before she inherited Nehru’s mantle, Indira Gandhi was deeply involved in the cut and thrust of daily politics, including in the decision to sack Kerala’s first Communist government in the 1950s, and even Rajiv Gandhi who had a short induction period, oversaw Buta Singh’s efforts to run the 1982 Asian Games.
Rahul Gandhi has now had 7 years as an MP, four as party general secretary, and the question is how long will he be an absentee leader, a perpetual leader in training; of the party but somehow seeming aloof from it.
It is a long way to go for the next election but for Rahul Gandhi it may be time to think of a reboot.