by Aarthi Ramachandran
Editor’s Note: Rahul Gandhi rarely grants interviews. So every pronouncement he makes, every little stray remark gets analysed to shreds. The accepted wisdom seems to be that Rahul Gandhi is the Congress’ reluctant prince, still sitting on the fence about being the party’s leader. While he professes humility and decries dynasty, it’s not clear what he wants either way. In this excerpt from her book Decoding Rahul Gandhi (Westland Books), Aarthi Ramachandran talks about coming up close to Rahul Gandhi at one of his jan sabhas and getting a taste of that very curious vibe of a business-like demeanour but with a strange lack of focus. This excerpt appears courtesy Westland Books.
'What can I do for you?' Rahul Gandhi asked me, as he leaned back against a railing in a concrete enclave in one of the lawns inside 10 Janpath, his mother’s residence. It was a bright October morning, barely four months after the Congress had returned to power at the Centre in May 2009.
The white-kurta-pyjama-clad Rahul was polite but couldn’t hide his impatience to wind up his meetings with the thirty odd people, including me, invited to one of his Jan Sabhas. I did not know how to answer the question he asked me. In a fit of anger, frustration and desperation, I had shot off a letter to Rahul less than a week ago about Delhi’s child beggars. News reports said the Delhi administration was thinking of shifting them out of the city, and out of the view of foreign visitors, who would descend on Delhi during the forthcoming Commonwealth Games, to be held in October 2010.
A few days after I read the news item, I saw young girls begging at a prominent traffic junction, as I had seen them several times earlier. This time, I was more appalled. Perhaps naively and putting my cynicism aside for a moment, I wrote to Rahul about the problem. Since I covered Rahul for my newspaper, and wrote about him on a regular basis, I felt in a moment of helplessness after having watched young girls begging barefoot on burning asphalt roads that here was a person who was in a position to bring about change. Lingering at the back of my mind was the thought that since he had projected himself as a young and idealistic politician, and had toured some of India’s poorest parts, he might be willing to help find more permanent ways to rehabilitate child beggars ahead of the Commonwealth Games.
I was surprised, mildly shocked, and excited when I received a response from his office within two days; I was invited to discuss the matter with Rahul the same week. To be frank, I hadn’t mentioned I was a journalist. The prompt response from his office suggested that Rahul was open to meeting private citizens who felt strongly about the plight of urban poor, especially destitute children who can be found begging in cities all over India.
On a Friday morning a few days later, I was in the motley bunch that waited outside 10 Janpath for Rahul. It included older politicians, earnest-looking students, an African contingent and young Congress workers. Each person had been screened by Rahul’s office, and given a personal invitation. A stern-looking bespectacled man, who carried a piece of paper with our names on it, kept the gathering at bay outside the house. Only when he called out our names were we allowed to go past the first security barrier into the address that has become the nerve centre of political power. There were several more rounds of security checks before coming within close range of the Nehru-Gandhi scion.
In the lawn, there were rows of chairs upholstered in white cloth. Noisy pedestal fans whirred away in another half of the little enclave. The resident peacocks that I had heard of seemed away that day. Only the gardeners and sweepers went about their morning chores and provided some distraction for us. As the news of Rahul’s arrival circulated amongst us, there was a buzz. When he arrived, it was without much fanfare.
He looked cheerful; he smiled at us but was immediately business-like. Without formalities, he dived into the meetings. First in line were a group of men, whom I guessed by their attire, to be corporate executives. He disposed of them quickly, within a few minutes. Then it was the turn of four Sikhs, who wore jeans and flashy half-sleeve shirts with sneakers. Rahul spent more time with them, and I thought they must be Congress workers from Punjab. They were directed by Rahul to his chief aide Kanishka Singh, who heard them out in a cool and unruffled manner.
It was now the turn of a backpack-carrying student from Kerala who beamed when Rahul keenly pored over her file, which contained clippings and documents. She must have been an NSUI member whom Rahul had spotted on one of his tours, a whiz kid who had won several awards, certificates and had been written about in the media. I was among the last to meet Rahul. Taken aback by his direct question, and unable to come up with an immediate answer, I mumbled something about the need to help child beggars, who might be moved out of sight during the Commonwealth games. I spoke to him about coming up with a lasting solution.
‘Don’t you think this is a symptom of a larger problem?’ he asked.
I was flummoxed and stared back at him.
‘Child beggars in cities such as Delhi are a result of migration from rural areas,’ he said.
I agreed but still urged him that something had to be done immediately for these kids. He warmed up to the subject, and asked me what he should focus on. Should he tackle every small manifestation of poverty? Or should he focus on the root causes?
‘Earlier, I would go wherever I spotted a problem. A DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus would run over somebody and I would go there.’ But now, he needed to ‘focus’ since he had limited energy. He asked Kanishka to put me in touch with Meenakshi Natarajan, the AICC secretary, who worked with him, to see how the issue could be taken forward. I got in touch with Meenakshi who in turn directed me to someone else.
As I was about to leave, I told him I was a journalist. He was amused and asked about my ‘background’. I immediately took the opportunity and enquired if I could ask him a few questions. I had to try since he hardly spoke to the media. He was quick to say ‘no’ but added that may be some other day I could interview him.
The meeting left me with the impression that Rahul had the right intentions. But I was also somewhat disappointed that nothing much had come out of the meeting with Rahul and his colleagues. Nonetheless, it made me look at his work more intently. That is how I got interested in Rahul’s initial years in politics. However, the more I studied his politics, the more I felt his actions lacked the prized ‘focus’ he was so keen to acquire. It was as though he didn’t understand how to route his ideas and plans through political actions and initiatives. Even the things he did right, like meeting an unknown middleclass young woman from Delhi who had wanted to talk over the urban poverty issue with him, did not get reflected in his politics.