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Coming of Age of Rahul Gandhi

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One of the more significant developments of the ongoing Lok Sabha election is the coming into his own of the Congress’ heir apparent and fourth-generation scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty

Rahul Gandhi’s coming into his own is one of the more significant developments of the Lok Sabha election

As campaigning for the Indian election has gradually peaked, Rahul Gandhi has come to occupy centrestage. As the new poster boy of the Congress party and its principal campaigner, he has addressed more public meetings than Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi put together.

The signs have been unmistakable these past few weeks. A generation shift is taking place in the nearly 125-year-old Congress, with Sonia Gandhi looking increasingly comfortable with her son assuming a bigger role. His word was final in forging pre-election alliances. It is well known that the party’s decision to go it alone in the politically crucial states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar —which together account for 120 of the 543 parliamentary seats—was taken on Rahul Gandhi’s insistence. He will most certainly play a decisive role once the results are declared. Depending on how many seats the Congress gets, the final call on whether the party makes an effort to rustle up the required numbers or sits in opposition will be taken by the 38-year-old Gandhi.

MAN IN COMMAND

At a news conference in Delhi on 5 May, his first in the capital, Rahul Gandhi gave the impression of a man in command, exuding a mix of authority and charm (a Mumbai-based writer and socialite referred to him as a ‘dimpled darling’ in a newspaper article). He now looks like someone who is comfortable discussing politics and taking decisions. It is a far cry from 2004 when he made his debut from Amethi, the Gandhi family parliamentary constituency in north India from where he is now an MP. He was introduced to the people of Amethi by his charismatic sister, Priyanka. I was there along with some other journalists. As we watched an unsure, somewhat hesitant and uncomfortable Rahul, our collective verdict was swift and severe: a political greenhorn, shy and introverted. We found him well mannered and sincere, but thought that was hardly good enough to succeed in the rough and tumble of Indian politics. He looked distinctly uncomfortable with large crowds. But there was a refreshing ring of honesty about him which was noticed by everyone.

But that was five years ago. Now he is more assured, relaxed and gives the impression of being comfortable as a politician. He also comes across as someone with definite ideas about right and wrong and what is the best way forward for the Congress. He showed his faith in the young by taking charge of the party’s youth wing. He then extended crucial support to the youthful Omar Abdullah for the post of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) chief minister. He has also repeatedly said during the last couple of years that in his view one of the most important tasks before him is to democratise the Congress and hold internal elections. This idea does sound a bit odd coming from someone whose only claim to fame is his family name. No one in his family has ever really had to work his or her way up in the Congress.

The dynasty’s critics dub them the last of the Mughals. They say the Gandhi family think they have some divine right to rule. But for the tens of millions of their supporters—both within and outside the Congres—there is no looking beyond a Gandhi in their search for a leader. It is not an easy debate to settle, especially in South Asia where political dynasties seem to flourish.

Those who defend the Gandhis also talk about political families in the opposition. The example of Kennedys, Bushs and the Clintons is also given to buttress the point of political families thriving even in the US. Rahul Gandhi himself admits to his family advantage. “But just because I am an outcome of a system does not mean that I cannot change it,” he said, when quizzed on his attempts to democratise the Congress.

STRAIGHT TALKING

But following his news conference this week—where he praised some prominent opposition leader—another debate has now started about whether Rahul Gandhi is still a little wet behind the ears, and how long it will take for him to mature into a seasoned politician. His remarks were seen by some of his party’s allies as needless and untimely merit certificates handed to opposition leaders in the thick of an electoral battle. A large section of the Indian media as well as opposition leaders have described his pronouncements as politically naive, serving only to confuse his friends and give more ammunition to his critics.

But a few more charitably inclined analysts are reading a political masterstroke in the remarks. They say the young Gandhi has succeeded in sowing seeds of confusion in the opposition cadres by “very carefully calibrated comments”. Nothing can be farther from the truth in my opinion. If anyone is really confused, then they have to be those friends of the Congress who are working flat out to oppose some of those opposition leaders Rahul Gandhi praised. Though to be fair to him, I do believe that some of his comments were exaggerated and misinterpreted in the Indian media. But then, that’s life as a public figure.

There is another interpretation which is being put forward by those who know Rahul Gandhi well. Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dixit has said people should not read too much politics into candid remarks made by a young politician. The former chief minister of J&K and family friend Farooq Abdullah was more forthright: “Thank God there are some straight-talking people like him in politics. Otherwise, most politicians in this country are dubious and dishonest.” He has a point. For too long, Indians have been exposed to politicians they do not really trust or like. But at the same time, they have also come to expect a certain kind of behaviour from them. Candour, sincerity and a freshness of approach are not the attributes one associates with Indian politicians.

Maybe Rahul Gandhi really represents that whiff of fresh air his supporters discern in his approach. Whichever side—his critics or supporters—is right, I am sure he will have learnt that in public life, your every word will be dissected and analysed. Whatever one’s intentions, in the highly charged Indian political environment, there is a very thin dividing line between ‘speaking from the heart’ and ‘shooting from the hip’.

Sanjeev Srivastava is India Editor, BBC Hindi Services