India Today - - INSIDE - (Aroon Purie)

In 2005, we asked of Rahul Gandhi, newly-elected MP from Ame­thi, and clearly his mother Congress pres­i­dent So­nia Gandhi’s suc­ces­sor, ‘Is he ready’? It was a cu­ri­ous echo of the ques­tion we had posed to his late fa­ther Ra­jiv Gandhi, an­other re­luc­tant politi­cian, in 1981, ‘Will the cap fit’? Both men have been well doc­u­mented by in­dia to­day, with 13 cov­ers on Rahul and 30 on Ra­jiv. And rightly so. Whether in power or in op­po­si­tion, the 132-year-old In­dian Na­tional Congress is a sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal party, still in con­trol in eight of the coun­try’s 29 states, de­spite Amit Shah’s vi­sion of a Congress-mukt Bharat. It may not be the de­fault party of power, as Rahul Gandhi once de­scribed it, but it is the party that pro­pelled the free­dom move­ment, the eco­nomic re­forms of 1991 and the so­cial se­cu­rity in­fra­struc­ture of the UPA years. It is also the party that in­sti­tu­tion­alised the coun­try’s pe­cu­liar feu­dal democ­racy, mak­ing dy­nasty ac­cept­able at all lev­els and across all par­ties. I am of­ten asked whether the present Congress would sur­vive with­out a Nehru-Gandhi head­ing it. The sim­ple an­swer is: it wouldn’t.

As the great grand­son, grand­son and son of prime min­is­ters, Rahul Gandhi should have had power run­ning in his veins. But his po­lit­i­cal ap­pren­tice­ship has of­ten been soli­tary, marked by sud­den bursts of ac­tiv­ity and long pe­ri­ods of ab­sence, re­luc­tance or dis­in­ter­est. While he has dithered, In­dia has changed, be­com­ing less tol­er­ant of en­ti­tle­ment. Even as he pub­licly strug­gled with the idea of power as poi­son (hav­ing wit­nessed the as­sas­si­na­tions of his grand­mother and fa­ther), the na­tion quickly lost pa­tience with him, es­pe­cially as a con­fi­dent al­ter­na­tive pre­sented it­self, show­ing no in­hi­bi­tions in lay­ing claim to author­ity. The rise of Naren­dra Modi co­in­cided with the sidelin­ing of Rahul Gandhi, as one who had not only re­duced his party’s Lok Sabha tally to a his­toric low in 2014 but also re­peat­edly put his foot in the mouth.

De­spite some mis-steps by the BJPled gov­ern­ment, the Congress has been un­able to re­build it­self, los­ing 15 as­sem­bly elec­tions in three years, most crit­i­cally in its strongholds of As­sam, Andhra Pradesh, Ma­ha­rash­tra, Haryana and Delhi. An in­creas­ingly aloof So­nia Gandhi has seemed all too keen to cede con­trol of the party and now it seems Rahul Gandhi is fi­nally ready to take over as pres­i­dent while elec­tions for the Gu­jarat as­sem­bly are un­der way. At 47, af­ter 13 years in public life, the three-time MP seems to have found his metier, giv­ing speeches in easy Hin­dus­tani, show­ing un­com­mon wit on so­cial me­dia, and strik­ing al­liances with lead­ers across the spec­trum, from Akhilesh Ya­dav in Ut­tar Pradesh to Alpesh Thakor in Gu­jarat.

This may be the be­gin­ning of a long climb back into the af­fec­tions of In­di­ans, both for him and his party. But Rahul has to ex­plain what his pol­i­tics is: How does his com­mit­ment to sec­u­lar­ism rec­on­cile with a public dis­play of “soft Hin­dutva”? And while it is clear he stands for in­clu­sive growth, it is un­clear what path he wishes In­dia to take. He has been con­sis­tent in es­pous­ing the causes of marginalised sec­tions but, be­yond some rhetoric and photo op­por­tu­ni­ties, what is the strat­egy to make the eco­nomic pie grow? Al­though his party pi­o­neered the lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of the econ­omy, does he still be­lieve that’s the way for­ward? Or does he want an ex­panded role for gov­ern­ment? How will he cre­ate new jobs, the lack of which he is com­plain­ing about? Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, he has to re-en­er­gise his wilt­ing party by en­sur­ing that the old guard and young Turks work to­gether. The cover story, writ­ten by Se­nior As­so­ciate Ed­i­tor Kaushik Deka, ex­am­ines whether the rein­vented Rahul will be able to pull off vic­to­ries in eight crit­i­cal as­sem­bly elec­tions next year, and even­tu­ally res­ur­rect his party’s for­tunes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elec­tion. If his mother’s stew­ard­ship of the party for 19 years has taught In­dia any­thing, it is this—it is al­ways haz­ardous to write off a politi­cian.

Our May 31, 1981 cover

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