Rahul: Reluctant politician who was once afraid of the dark

by Vivek Kaul  Oct 19, 2012 10:47 IST

#BookExcerpt   #Decoding Rahul Gandhi   #Rahul Gandhi  

Even as the world speculates on what kind of enhanced role — in party of government — Rahul Gandhi will play from now on, nobody really knows what the heir-apparent (or is it apparent heir?) is all about. What he thinks, what he believes, and what he is as a person. Beyond cameo roles (Salman Khurshid's choice of words was better when talking about Rahul than about Arvind Kejriwal), and occasional utterances ("I am your soldier in Delhi", he told Orissa tribals in 2010), Rahul Gandhi has been a black box.

There are more questions than answers about Rahul. Where was he educated? Where did he work before joining politics full time? What are his views on various things? What does he think about the current state of the Indian economy? What does he think of the government which his mother Sonia runs through remote control? Does he have a girl friend? When does he plan to marry? Why hasn’t he given any interviews to the media since 2005?

These are questions both personal and professional that Indians would love to have answers for. Aarthi Ramachandran answers some of these questions in her new book Decoding Rahul Gandhi.

A small titbit: When Rahul was young he was afraid of the dark. He felt that darkness held ghosts and bad things. His grandmother Indira Gandhi helped him overcome that fear.

Rahul is a year and a half older to his sister Priyanka but both ended up in the same class despite their age difference. PTI

Ramachandran managed to glean this fact by listening to the man himself. “Speaking to young children at the opening of a science fair at a Delhi school in November 2010, he (i.e. Rahul) told them how he was scared of darkness when he was young as he felt it held “ghosts” and “bad things”. Then, he said, one day his grandmother had asked him why he didn’t go and see himself what was inside the darkness. So, he had walked into the garden in the dark and he had kept walking and then realised suddenly that ‘there was nothing there in the darkness to be scared of’.” And thus Rahul overcame the fear of darkness and ghosts.

After the assassination of Indira Gandhi, both Rahul and his sister Priyanka were largely taught at home. Ramachandran quotes from Sonia Gandhi’s book Rajiv: “The day of my mother-in-law’s assassination was the last day Rahul and Priyanka ever attended school…For the next five years the children remained at home, studying with tutors, virtually imprisoned. The only space outside our four walls where they could step without cordon of security was our garden,” Sonia wrote.

Rahul is a year and a half older to his sister Priyanka and was a student of the St Columbia’s school before the assassination of his grandmother. But both Rahul and Priyanka ended up in the same class despite their age difference. “Rahul’s education was disrupted due to that incident (Indira Gandhi’s assassination) and he dropped a year of school, possibly the same year that Indira died. Rajiv was asked how both Rahul and Priyanka were in the same class during an interview in 1988. “Only one year separates them. And with all the shifting, they came to be in the same class. But that has one advantage: they can be taught each subject by the same tutor. Now, we can’t possibly keep separate tutors for each of them, that would be too expensive,” he quipped — both children were being home tutored, writes Ramachandran.

Rahul joined Delhi’s St Stephens College in 1989 to study history. He got admission under the sports quota. And there was a lot of controversy surrounding his admission. As Ramachandran points out, “When Rahul entered Delhi’s prestigious St Stephen’s College in 1989 after finishing his schooling, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) claimed his admission, under the sports quota for his skills in rifle shooting, was invalid.  The allegation appeared to be that with 61 percent marks in his school-leaving examinations, Rahul was not academically bright enough to enter the college. The BJP’s Delhi chief at that time, Madam Lal Khurana, claimed that Rahul’s certificates in shooting were fake.” The National Rifle Association came to Rahul’s rescue issuing a statement in his favour about his ability as a rifle shooter.  During Rahul’s time at Stephens, 20-25 Special Protection Group (SPG) guards would be all over the college with sling bags which supposedly had guns.

After a year at Stephens, Rahul left for Harvard. There is very little clarity on the period he was at Harvard or the subjects he studied there. “It has been widely reported in the Indian media and some foreign publications that Rahul took courses in economics at Harvard,” writes Ramachandran. “Neither Rahul nor Harvard officials have confirmed this. Rahul did not respond to questions about this course of study and the time period he was at Harvard….Harvard too said it could not disclose details about Rahul Gandhi’s time at Harvard.”

Harvard did confirm that Rahul was a student, but didn't get into the specifics of the time period or the courses he attended. In May 1991 Rahul’s father, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated. This compelled him to take a transfer to Rollins College in Florida and from here he graduated with a BA in 1994. The website of the college lists him as alumnus who graduated in International Relations.

After this, Rahul went for an M Phil in developmental studies from Cambridge University, in the United Kingdom. There has been some controversy surrounding this as well. “In the run up to the 2009 general elections…The New Indian Express alleged that Rahul had not only got the name of his course wrong but also the year. The paper said he had attended the course only in 2004-05. It produced a certificate from the university as evidence of its claim. Rahul…sent a notice to the newspaper….With the notice was a letter issued by Cambridge University...in which its vice chancellor…clarified that Rahul was a student at Trinity College from October 1994 to July 1995. She also said that he was awarded M Phil in developmental studies in 1995,”  writes Ramachandran.

What comes across here is a reluctance on the part of Rahul to be open about his educational qualifications. As the author explains, “Rahul’s unwillingness to be open about his educational background is similar to the Gandhi family’s secrecy over Sonia Gandhi’s illness. Sonia and her family have been resolute in their silence on her medical condition despite speculation…that she is suffering from some kind of cancer…It can be argued that her health is a matter of public interest given that she is the de facto head of the Congress-led coalition government…In the same way Rahul Gandhi’s educational qualifications are of importance to the public at large as he is perceived to be a future prime ministerial candidate of the Congress and is a Member of Parliament.”

After Cambridge, Rahul Gandhi worked for three years with consulting firm Monitor in London. Strategy guru Michael Porter was one of the co-founders of the firm. Rahul was with Monitor from June 1996 to early March 1999. As Ramachandran writes, “According to sources who have known Rahul from his time at Monitor, there were no problems with his performance at the firm. He worked there under an assumed name and his colleagues did not know of his real identity, said a Monitor employee who was at the firm around the same time as Rahul. ‘His looks gave it away to those of us who knew who he could be,’ the source said.” But beyond this nothing is known about his key result areas or the sectors Rahul specialised in during his time at Monitor.

After quitting Monitor, Rahul came back to India to help his mother Sonia with the 1999 general election campaign. Once the elections were over Rahul disappeared from the political firmament. “There is no exact information about any other job Rahul might have taken up in the intervening years after he left Monitor in March 1999 and returned to India for good in late 2002,” writes Ramachandran.

During the time Rahul spent at London the media also discovered his girl friend Veronique (though they kept calling her Juanita). He was spotted with her watching an India-England cricket match at Edgbaston and holidaying with her in the Andamans at the end of 1999, and again in Kerala and Lakshadweep in 2003, for a year-end family vacation.

Rahul finally cleared the mystery himself in an interview to Vrinda Gopinath of the The Indian Express during the run-up to the 2004 Lok Sabha elections. As Ramachandran writes, “’My girlfriend’s name is Veronique not Juanita…she is Spanish and not Venezuelan or Colombian. She is an architect not a waitress, though I wouldn’t have had a problem with that. She is also my best friend,’ he told her…After he won from Amethi, he held a rare informal interaction with journalists in his constituency. They asked about his girlfriend’s nationality to which he replied she had been living in Venezuela for a long time although her parents were Spanish. He also said that he was not planning on getting married anytime soon.” Nothing has been heard of Veronique since 2004.

His years in consulting seem to have had a great impact on Rahul and since coming back to India in late 2002, Rahul has been trying to apply The Toyota Way on the functioning of the Congress party. The Toyota Way is a series of best practices used by Toyota Motor Company of Japan. As Ramachandran explains, “The Toyota Way spoke of making decisions slowly by consensus, thoroughly considering all options and then implementing decisions rapidly…The consensus process, though time-consuming, helps broaden the search for solutions and once a decision is made, the stage is set for rapid implementation.”

Such strategic ideas are being used for the revamp and promotion of internal democracy within the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students Union of India. Processes are being built to ensure ending the role of family connections in appointments and promotions in the two organisations.

But the big question on everybody’s lips has been when will Rahul Gandhi join the government? This question has come up again as Manmohan Singh is said to be planning a cabinet reshuffle this month. In a controversial interview to the Tehelka magazine in September 2005, Rahul Gandhi is reported to have said that he could have become the Prime Minister at 25. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the then Congress spokesperson, later specifically mentioned that Rahul had not said ‘I could have been prime minister at the age of twenty-five if I wanted to’. Rahul hasn’t given any interview since then. (In 2010 he did give an interview to Varsity (Cambridge University's campus publication) in which he said "I am a lot less left wing than I was, for once thing").

On another occasion, Rahul said: “Please do not take it as any kind of arrogance, but having seen enough prime ministers in the family…it is not such a big deal. In fact, I often wonder why should you need a post to serve the nation”.

Rumours of Rahul Gandhi joining the cabinet in the next reshuffle have been doing the rounds lately. But as and when that happens Rahul Gandhi will have to let go of what seems like an unwillingness to be open.

People will analyse what he says. He may still not give interviews but as a minister he will surely have to make speeches, address meetings etc. His decisions will be closely watched. And the files he signs on will be open to RTI filings. In short, the mystery surrounding him will come down.

But Rahul is clearly overconscious and uncomfortable in public settings. As Ramachandran puts it, “In situations where he is required to speak, whether it is Parliament or his election speeches, he is uncomfortable. He is only now beginning to find his public speaking voice. For the most part, however, he has tended to avoid speaking in public or to the press on issues. He comes across as a politician who is reluctant to share his views on issues of national importance, or worse as someone who does not have views at all.”

Vivek Kaul is a writer. He can be reached at vivek.kaul@gmail.com