A colleague asked me what I thought of Rajdeep Sardesai’s interview with Sonia Gandhi.
He looked shocked when I told him I thought it was very telling. “How?” he asked, obviously incredulous because it was such a clear public relations exercise to promote Indira Gandhi’s birth anniversary celebrations. It was apparent that an agreement was in place that there would be only questions about Indira Gandhi and none on politics. Is it ethical for the leader of the opposition party to demand and limit the kind of questions the journalist can ask? If she is a politician, why are questions on politics forbidden? The journalist always has the choice to refuse to conduct such a compromised interview. However, when Sardesai asked about her entry into politics, the President of Congress explained the only reason for her being in politics was to carry on the family’s legacy.
That is a bombshell. Compare it to Narendra Modi saying he gave up his home, family and everything in his life to serve the nation. Whether you believe Prime Minister Modi or not, the point is he has the instinct to understand that every politician’s priority is expected to be the nation’s good, not one’s own family’s benefit. How can an “Indian” politician not understand that your family’s legacy is not crucial to the development of the nation?
There is no denying that there is a certain aura around the Nehru-Gandhi family. The hype has been created by the family and fanned by sycophants. It was clear from Sardesai’s interview that Sonia Gandhi is highly awed by the lineage she married into. It seems she expects everyone else to be in awe too. Hence her dictating terms to a journalist. Perhaps it is difficult for the family to absorb that not everyone in India is in a mood to be awed by anybody. We see them come. We see them go.
Three members of the family have been prime ministers of India. Yes, that is impressive; but even then, there is no real reason to believe that the Gandhi name has to be carried on in politics in perpetuity. The logic Sonia Gandhi presented was that doctors’ children become doctors and lawyers’ children become lawyers. So it is only natural that a politician’s son would become a politician.
Is her horizon so limited that justifying a feudal, dynastic system actually makes sense to her? The point is that a doctor’s son has to go through rigorous training, qualify and be licenced to practice. It is the same with lawyers. Could a doctor hand his scalpel to his son when he comes of age and say, “Son, now my legacy is all yours. Go with my blessings and go do some surgery”? Can the future of a political party and perhaps the country be put at risk when the inheritor has shown how remarkably unsuited he is to the profession of politics?
Rahul Gandhi seems a nice enough person. He’s a regular guy – in that he is a product of a privileged, protected environment. If he wasn’t in the politician’s uniform, didn’t try to talk politician-speak, attempt to hold forth in Parliament (forgetting numbers, names and even MNREGA) one would venture he is not in any way an objectionable person. You can see him working in a corporate company, going out to dinner with friends, working out in the gym, enjoying holidays with buddies and leading the regular upper middle class life. After his college education, he joined Monitor Group, a management consulting firm. When he returned to India, he was involved in a technology out sourcing company, Backops Services Private Limited, based in Mumbai.
Rahul did not jump into politics with passion. At best, he was ambivalent before he did when he said, “I am not averse to politics, but that does not mean that I am going to join politics”. His clear reluctance to join politics, when in the early years he had everyone guessing whether he would or he wouldn’t, showed he really had no enthusiasm for it. The very fact that he had doubts points to the thought that he was caught in a conflict of what he really wanted to do and what was being demanded of him from his mother. The fact that he disappeared for retreats presumably to find his own truth again leads you to wonder why he is being forced into it.
And he has tried. He is trying. But, isn’t it obvious now he just doesn’t have it. And, why should he? Not every human being is built the same way. Amitabh Bachchan tried his hand in politics and came to the realisation it just wasn’t for him. Does that make him less of a person? It’s a choice every person makes when they think of a profession. How many parents do we know who force their children into a profession, most often the profession of the father? Too many. It is hell for the children.
Rahul Gandhi had a ringside view of the ugliness and manipulations in politics. When he did join, he had to struggle with the geriatric old guard that had been Sonia Gandhi’s security blanket. He said, “I have an aim – I have a clear aim in my mind, and the aim is that I do not like what I see in Indian politics; it is something that is inside my heart”. So he means well but that can never be enough. His forays into the heartland of poverty when he ate at a Dalit’s home. Doing manual labour on a construction site were spring break trips to get a feel of the other side. Rahul Gandhi was mocked for saying the Dalit community “needs the escape velocity of Jupiter to achieve success”.
He cannot compete with a politician such as Narendra Modi who lived the reality of the anxiety of daily poverty and humiliation of discrimination. Rahul Gandhi’s life of privilege is not his fault. But it will always be like Ivanka Trump’s complaint of deprivation because she lived in such a pricey neighbourhood that she could not set up a lemonade stand, a common practice amongst kids in the US to make a few dimes. Rahul Gandhi was deprived of a normal childhood because of the necessary security guards surrounding him at all times. The freedom that most of us enjoy to make friends from all classes and income groups was not one that he could avail of. Suspicion of being used handicaps any potential friendship.
This cocooned life meant sparse exposure to the real world. Deprived of the experience of working his way through the lower ranks of the Congress party, he was at a huge disadvantage when he was parachuted into high office. There is no better learning experience than a tough life enriched with the struggle to make it better. Many less privileged would naturally say, “Yeah, give me his first world problems”. True, but we are looking at the confounding disconnect of Rahul Gandhi with his chosen profession.
The people of India have watched Rahul Gandhi since 2004 when he entered politics. Twelve years is a long time in politics when a new entrant can turn the system upside down in a little more than a year, as we have witnessed with Donald Trump. Rahul Gandhi has had ample opportunity to bring in fresh ideas to reinvent and revitalise the Congress party. None of that has happened. He has campaigned and fought for elections. Not much success has been evident there, and that is putting it kindly. He has failed. This is despite the fact that he is in a position where everyone around him is obedient and has to follow his orders. In trying to continue their political legacy, both mother and son have damaged the Congress party by regularly losing elections and reducing their seats in Parliament to a pathetic, embarrassing number.
Signs of wanting to shake up the Congress party came on September 27, 2013 when Rahul Gandhi barged into Ajay Maken’s press conference and actually tore up an ordinance that would negate the Supreme Court judgement that struck down a provision in the electoral law which allowed a convicted MP and MLA to continue in their post if they make an appeal to a higher court within three months. He sounded idealistic and trashed all the political parties including the Congress for protecting corruption.
But his behaviour at Maken’s conference was entitled and bratty. This was no mature, seasoned politician. He rode roughshod over Maken and insulted then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. It exposed how the Congress party works when Maken, who minutes earlier had been propounding his belief and support for the ordinance, did an immediate turn around and supported Rahul Gandhi in his stand against it. Rahul Gandhi’s lack of political understanding, disconnect with ordinary people and insistence to run things his way, has gained him no popularity. In the fight in the last general election, he surrounded himself with techie advisers much to his own comfort level. He could have chosen non-English speaking young people from every state to get in touch with ground realities. He needed to close his missing links. But his attitude seemed to have been, ‘You old fogeys are so over. Make room for the young and new. Tech is where it’s at.’ Yes, true and fine, but come up with a superb package to replace the fogeys. He is no longer young. It is embarrassing to watch a middle-aged man projected as the symbol of youth of the Congress party but who just won’t grow up. His naïveté that lies bare when he promises an earthquake when he exposes the Prime Minister’s corruption is saddening.
John F Kennedy was 43 when he was elected president of the United States of America. Rahul Gandhi is 46. Just compare. His father Rajiv Gandhi became Prime Minister when he was 40.
Rahul Gandhi’s interview with Arnab Goswami showed him to be unhinged, following his minders thoughtlessly and reciting on rote about women’s empowerment to any question. It was a disaster. He stopped giving interviews after that. Yet, when one met Congress party leaders they kept reciting what a great interview he gave. Is that what they told him? When Sonia Gandhi spoke accepting defeat in the election, Rahul Gandhi stood beside her grinning vacuously, even winking happily to friends.
Should somebody have broken the news to him that their party had received a resounding beating and perhaps his demeanour could have been more appropriately contrite? Or, was he just so relieved to be finished with the gruelling campaign and was thinking of a beach vacation that possibly awaited him? Or is he much smarter than we all think? His brilliant strategy is to make such a rubble of the Congress party that his mother finally says, “Okay, we gave it our best shot. Let’s move to Le Dune in Sardinia”.
Rahul Gandhi dozed off in Parliament on July 9, 2014 during a discussion in rising prices. He took another nap on July 16, 2016, during BJP’s Rajnath Singh’s speech on the thrashing of four Dalit youth in Gujarat’s Una.
Then came the hilarious excuses from Congress party Renuka Chaudhary. The point is that no Congress party member in the Lok Sabha had the guts to nudge him awake. For his own sake.
With the intention of some krantikari politicking, Rahul Gandhi showed up to stand in line at a bank to expose the miseries of demonetisation. Reacting quickly, the bank swooped the queue inside and sabotaged Rahul Gandhi’s plan. Showing his incapability to think on his feet, he started whining about the line being removed and was thrown off by a photo op not going according to his plan.
Each time we laugh at his gauche mistakes (and I plead guilty), there is no denying we are being cruel.
Yet we have a right to demand and expect awareness of historical and national importance from Rahul Gandhi when he makes his statements. Speeches made by leaders from all over the world, laden with intellectual enquiry and presenting their policies are made into books with memorable quotes. Rahul Gandhi’s speeches would end up as a joke book, much like George Bush, who was a serial malapropism offender. This is a man who is trying to be what he is not, to please his mother and her dogged belief that the family legacy is more important than the happiness and peace of mind of her son. It cannot be overlooked that Rahul Gandhi lost his beloved grandmother and adored father to politics. Their violent deaths were the result of their policies. Indira Gandhi was killed for Operation Blue Star and Rajiv Gandhi died for sending the Indian Peace Keeping Force to Sri Lanka. How can it possibly be acceptable to Rahul to enter the same profession that caused him such deep, inconsolable grief? It is intrinsically linked. Rahul has said, “What I saw when I was a child was my father who was a pilot, and because of circumstances was thrown into the political system, and all I saw when was small after my grandmother died was my father in constant – constant combat with the system in India, and then I saw him die, actually”. This is a traumatised man. How can one not feel empathy?
The tired argument you hear from Congress party members is that Sonia Gandhi keeps the party together. For what? To lose elections? The BJP has never had one person holding it together. They compete for leadership and the best man wins. It’s time for the Congress party to stop using the Gandhi family as a security blanket, enough of the thumb sucking, stop crawling and learn to walk with confidence on your own. Fight it out and let the best man or woman win. And, let Rahul Gandhi be the man he wants to be, not what he is being forced to be, just so that you can use him.
The author can be contacted on Twitter @madhutrehan