Rahul Gandhi could be In­dia’s strong­est wild card.

Southasia - - Contents - By Semu Bhatt The writer is a Mum­bai-based in­de­pen­dent po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst spe­cial­iz­ing in se­cu­rity and gov­er­nance is­sues. She is co-au­thor of Cost of Con­flict be­tween In­dia and Pak­istan and Cost of Con­flict in Sri Lanka.

The days of avoid­ing the cen­tre-stage are over for Rahul Gandhi, the reluc­tant heir ap­par­ent of the Nehru-gandhi dy­nasty, which has ruled In­dia for most of its in­de­pen­dence years. The main rea­son be­hind this is can­cer – that his mother and party leader So­nia Gandhi is de­tected with and one that is rapidly eat­ing into the cred­i­bil­ity of the Congress-led coali­tion gov­ern­ment. The 41-year politi­cian fi­nally ap­pears will­ing to as­sume the lead­er­ship man­tle of his cri­sis­rid­den party.

Hav­ing lost his fa­ther, the for­mer Prime Min­is­ter Ra­jiv Gandhi, at the age of 21, RG, as Rahul Gandhi is widely know within his party, has taken his own time be­fore de­cid­ing to plunge into pol­i­tics. In 2004, he de­cided to con­test the par­lia­men­tary elec­tion from his fa­ther’s con­stituency of Ame­thi in Ut­tar Pradesh (UP). For three years, he was fo­cused on his con­stituency and the pol­i­tics of UP and was widely be­lieved to be un­der­go­ing a groom­ing phase to take up the Congress lead­er­ship in the fu­ture. In the April–may 2007 assem­bly elec­tions of the state, RG was a prom­i­nent cam­paigner for his party. How­ever, he could not bring about Congress’ change of for­tune in the state. Later that year, he was ap­pointed the Gen­eral Sec­re­tary of the All In­dia Congress Com­mit­tee (AICC), and chair­per­son of the In­dian Youth Congress (IYC) and Na­tional Stu­dents Union of In­dia (NSUI).

Since then, RG has im­mersed him­self with party re­build­ing ef­forts. His long term vi­sion of Congress is of a na­tional party full of youth, free of caste-based pol­i­tics and func­tion­ing on mer­i­toc­racy. His youth drives across states have suc­ceeded in in­duct­ing sev­eral mil­lion youth mem­bers in IYC and NSUI. He ini­ti­ated in­ter­nal elec­tions for posts in both the youth or­gan­i­sa­tions. Apart from the youth bod­ies, he is ex­tremely fo­cused on win­ning back the fam­ily strong­hold of Ut­tar Pradesh. While his party work is cre­at­ing a cadre of loy­al­ists for him, the ef­forts of UP paid off in the 2009 gen­eral elec­tions when the party gained 12 more seats as com­pared to the 2004 re­sults.

Although the top party lead­er­ship is mak­ing pos­i­tive noises about RG be­ing a fu­ture PM, not ev­ery­one in­side the Congress party is con­vinced about his cam­paign­ing skills and abil­ity to win elec­tions. In this re­gard, the elec­tions in Ut­tar Pradesh in early 2012 will be his lit­mus test. UP is the most pop­u­lous state of In­dia. If the out­come of the state elec­tion weighs heav­ily in Congress’ fa­vor, his cred­i­bil­ity as a leader will be fully es­tab­lished. In such an even­tu­al­ity, there is a strong pos­si­bil­ity of So­nia Gandhi installing RG as the Prime Min­is­ter of In­dia. This would give him two years to ride Congress out of the rough weather and pre­pare fresh ground for the 2014 gen­eral elec­tions. How­ever, if Congress fails in UP, it will be a great set­back not only for him but also for the party.

Do­ing well in UP and four other state elec­tions sched­uled to be held in 2012, is im­per­a­tive for Congress if it wants to avoid an early gen­eral elec­tion that would, in all like­li­hood, force the party out of power. This would ter­ri­bly dent Gandhi’s prospects as a leader and ac­tu­ally may bring his sis­ter, Priyanka Gandhi Vad­hera, in the picture as she is largely viewed as a nat­u­ral when it comes to pol­i­tics.

Thus, RG has a mo­men­tous task cut out for him – for anti-in­cum­bency is bound to take its toll, given Congress gov­ern­ment’s in­abil­ity to check cor­rup­tion, poor gov­er­nance and price rise. As RG has kept mum on these is­sues all along, it will be harder for him to bol­ster his party’s cred­i­bil­ity in pop­u­lar con­scious­ness. But as Mayawati is un­likely to re­peat her re­mark­able per­for­mance of 2007, RG can fancy a chance to fare rea­son­ably well in the UP assem­bly elec­tions.

At one point, Rahul Gandhi’s pop­u­lar­ity with In­dian youth was very high. He was per­ceived as a leader ca­pa­ble of rep­re­sent­ing the young In­di­ans. But his lack of en­thu­si­asm to take up a big­ger role or a ma­jor post in the gov­ern­ment and in­abil­ity to take a stand on na­tional is­sues has di­luted his ap­peal. To top that, he has been found want­ing in times of cri­sis – So­nia Gandhi’s ill­ness, 2G cri­sis, Anna Hazare’s agitation and the FDI in re­tail ruckus. His in­abil­ity to dis­play lead­er­ship qual­i­ties in crunch sit­u­a­tions has neg­a­tively im­pacted his im­age within his party mem­bers and coun­try­men, who are all now feel­ing un­cer­tain about his abil­ity to lead them. He rarely gives in­ter­views de­spite be­ing Congress’ Gen­eral Sec­re­tary, a Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment and a fu­ture PM can­di­date. Once a de­lib­er­ate and suc­cess­ful ploy to gen­er­ate in­ter­est, his aloof­ness is now work­ing against him as com­mon masses do not know what he stands for.

Like his fa­ther, Rahul Gandhi fa­vors tech­no­log­i­cal, ed­u­ca­tional and youth em­pow­er­ment. True to his party ide­ol­ogy, he talks about bridging the rich-poor gap and plug­ging the holes from where the gov­ern­ment money meant for the weaker sec­tions, leak out. He wants to dis­card the iden­tity pol­i­tics that plague In­dia and work for the wel­fare of the peo­ple. This clearly shows that RG is not only de­void of charisma char­ac­ter­is­tic to his lin­eage but is also de­void of a novel vi­sion for the na­tion and its peo­ple.

Even his pop­ulist moves – be it go­ing to Dalit or farmer homes in the UP or sid­ing with tribal mem­bers in Orissa’s Niyam­giri hills – are aimed at win­ning vote bank based on their im­me­di­ate griev­ances rather than ad­dress­ing so­cio-eco­nomic is­sues of the poor. Such stunts may give him tem­po­rary gains but in the long run a leader re­quires a vi­sion about the coun­try’s fu­ture to sus­tain his power. It is only through fore­sight of its leader that In­dia can ben­e­fit as a na­tion.

De­spite his short­com­ings and pres­ence of many Congress lead­ers who have more cre­den­tials to be­come the prime min­is­ter of In­dia than Rahul Gandhi, RG ben­e­fits from his last name. With Rahul Gandhi, the ques­tion of his abil­ity or cre­den­tials will never come into play, as in the Congress gov­ern­ment, the PM’S seat is for him to claim as and when he wishes to. It re­mains to be seen if Rahul Gandhi chooses to earn his big ticket im­me­di­ately as the ben­e­fi­ciary of his legacy or with hard work de­spite the pos­si­bil­ity of a long wait. What has be­come clear is that the pos­si­bil­ity of him re­main­ing as a per­ma­nent work in progress is all but gone.

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