You know this man. As Pappu, if you are a big Twitter hashtag junkie. As ‘shehzada’ if you are an ardent admirer of the Narendra Modi school of retro nomenclature. Or As the ‘reluctant prince’ if you are a collector of newspaper headlines with great recall value.
Rahul Gandhi probably has more nicknames to his credit than Sushilkumar Shinde has had blonde moments in his political career. We have seen him upset, we have seen him angry, we have see him happy and we have even seen him kicking himself in the posterior (well, in any political discourse, the blows Rahul has rained on the Congress government amounts to exactly that).
Some days we know he is Congress’ PM candidate, while on other days we suspect he is the Congress PM candidate. And then there are the days that we’re absolutely sure that Congress wouldn’t make him the PM candidate.
In his low key political career spanning roughly ten years (he fought his first elections in 2004), Rahul Gandhi has been the sum total of a series of conclusions we have drawn from his very limited public appearances – most of which survived in public memory because of stand-up comedians trying to outshine each other on Twitter and hence churning a joke out of every article and pronoun that he utters.
One would have said it was a clever move for the Gandhi heir to appear on a television interview and dispel the air of hopelessness around him. In fact, from the promos on Times Now channel, the hopes went up once the viewers realised that the anchor was speaking in a volume, a few notches lower than what is reserved for his usual guests.
Whether at the end of the interview, it still seemed like a good move is debatable. But here’s what could be gleaned about him from the said interview:
1. Rahul Gandhi either doesn't know or is in denial about what ‘specific’ means
If you are a fan, you might want to read that as Rahul Gandhi needs to shoot his manager right now. Assuming that Rahul Gandhi doesn’t just share Goswami’s deep concern for what the nation wants to know and hence agreed on this interview after a thorough intra-party brainstorming, Gandhi seemed far from prepared to grapple a difficult question or two.
And these weren’t even questions that struck him out of the blue – thanks to an entity called the BJP, these are questions that are metaphorically lobbed at Gandhi religiously every other day. So when Goswami declared right at the beginning that he wants ‘specific’ answers to his questions, Gandhi should have realised that the nation doesn’t want to know about the Gandhis from him – they don’t want to throw Prakash Jha out of work just yet. However, Gandhi refused to answer a single question in a way that didn’t sound like a particularly unimpressive voiceover for a Gandhi biopic. Sample this:
Goswami: Rahul Gandhi the first point is this; you have just avoided this whole question about whether you are open to PM's post. It seems to me Rahul that you are avoiding a difficult contest.
Rahul Gandhi: See, if you look at the speech I gave at AICC a few days back. The issue is basically how the Prime Minister in this country is chosen. The way the Prime Minister is chosen in this country is through the MPs. Our system chooses MPs & MPs elect Prime Minister.
Goswami: The growing belief is that if Rahul Gandhi has not picked up the challenge officially that means that there is a fear of loss, he is avoiding a direct one on one battle with Narendra Modi, you must answer that?
Rahul Gandhi: To understand that question you have to understand a little bit about who Rahul Gandhi is and what Rahul Gandhi's circumstances have been and if you delve into that you will get an answer to the question of what Rahul Gandhi is scared off and what he is not scared off.
The real question is what I am doing sitting here, you are a journalist, when you were small you must have said to yourself I want to do something, you decided to become a journalist at some point, why did you do that?
Your take-away? Rahul Gandhi likes the sound of ‘Rahul Gandhi’ and hence likes saying ‘Rahul Gandhi’ aloud many times in a sentence.
In fact, this was the first opportunity during the interview, where Gandhi could have sounded out a strong message to the Opposition by following the bible of politics which suggests a slightly adamant, but still strong-sounding ‘no’.
However, his stream-of-consciousness answer that eventually led to Arnab Goswami’s nursery school ambitions, just reinforced the picture of a leader whose goal is as unclear to himself as it is to his party. Then from 1984 riots to Adarsh Scam, from his education to his willingness to be part of the political system, Gandhi batted away every question with catchphrases we are familiar with, thanks to his speeches. In the traditional political narrative of our country, hubris is often read as confidence and Gandhi missed a chance to dig in his heels as a leader who commands attention.
2. Rahul’s favourite word: system; his least favourite: Modi
Final score: System: 73 Modi: 3
Rahul Gandhi evidently loves the word ‘system’ way more than Yo Yo Honey Singh likes his own name. In fact, it is to him what many would say, ‘mitron’ is to Narendra Modi. While his limited vocabulary is not greatly worrying, what is, is his how his relationship with the word, as it applies to India at present, is completely misdirected.
Here is the Vice President of a party, which is the incumbent government, talking about how the ‘system’ needs an overhaul. If ‘system’ is the political establishment that runs governments in the country, Congress while not being responsible for the whole of it, is certainly responsible for the biggest section of it.
So did Rahul Gandhi declare he is going to shake the entrenched political malpractices up? No he didn’t. He carefully skirted past the issue of Maharashtra Congress ministers originally implicated in the Adarsh scam report.
Did he strongly demand all political parties be brought under his trophy policy – RTI? No. He said, if the legislature is made answerable to the public, so should the judiciary and the media. Did he clearly enumerate the steps he is taking to make the ‘system’ more accessible to the country. No.
Given the fate of his earlier initiatives to make the party more inclusive, Gandhi’s anti-system assertions lacked the thrust of a concrete action plan.
His web initiative Khidkee fizzled out after a week-long run in which it effectively turned into a scrapbook for platitudes for the Congress.
We have still heard nothing of his initiative to have aspiring legislators fill up a five-page application form for purposes of transparent nomination. No one knows who compiles these forms, who screens them, and what the process involved in the elimination of candidates is.
3. Rahul is not equal to Congress?
It is probably not just Ajay Maken who has been haunted by his question every time Rahul opens his mouth to speak. Though it was a warped question at its best, Rahul seemed unwilling to shoulder the burden of the wrongs of his party, though he doesn’t quite mind revelling in its history of political hegemony in India.
While it might be slightly unfair to ask Rahul to ‘apologise’ for the anti-Sikh riots as the anchor framed it, the Gandhi heir cannot still afford to not acknowledge this phase of Congress’ history because he was not a ‘functional’ member at that time.
The attempt to dissociate a political narrative from selected phases of its own development can only produce a discordant and desperate appeal to look into the future regardless of the past. And that runs the risk of being read as disregard for the past, lack of penitence and an evident absence of humility. The voter will compelled to ask, if you dismiss the past, where is the assurance that you have learnt from it and won’t repeat its mistakes?
Asked, why he didn’t deem it necessary to speak up during the 2G scam and why was he so removed from the party that he didn’t even smell the wrongdoings, Gandhi said, “My position was that I report to the Prime Minister. Whatever I felt I had conversations with the Prime Minister. Whatever I felt about the issues I made it abundantly clear to the Prime Minister. I was involved in the legislation, RTI legislation. And now I have helped pass the Lokpal Bill. I bring you back. The real issue here is participation of people in politics.”
It won’t be completely off the mark to say that Rahul is in a great hurry to distance himself from every scam the Congress has been caught in.
The mark of a good leader is one who knows how to drag his brood out of muck if the party were to be caught in it. His passing the buck on the Prime Minister reveals another pathological problem – his refusal to take responsibility or his expertise to shoulder it alone.
The primary weapon in a political party’s arsenal is a strong defence – a mix of denial, refusal and counter-allegation. And Gandhi seems keen on defending and promoting just those aspects of the party’s activities he has participated in, leaving the rest to their own devices. It can be read as selfishness, it can be read as ineptitude and it will most certainly be counted as a big leadership drawback. And its ripples are bound to be felt by the several lower rungs of the party who have associated Congress with other leaders before Rahul.
Rahul’s anti-Old Congress stance can only gain credibility when the investigations in the several scams reach a conclusive end. If the Adarsh scam is a template to go by, we’d rather not place our money on that one.