“Rahul Gandhi today broke the shell that tragedy and destiny had built around a family: the face that emerged did not look aloof as perceived and the voice carried the same conviction India heard three decades ago before the country was let down,” wrote an enthusiastic Sanjay K Jha in The Telegraph, while party stalwarts like Jairam Ramesh dubbed it “the Congress party’s Obama moment.”
Rahul Gandhi‘s speech in Jaipur may have dispelled his image as the aloof, ever-reluctant prince in one soul-baring swoop. But in baring that soul, Rahul also revealed just why he can never be prime minister — or, at least, a revolutionary one. And why he can never be an Obama who can rescue and remake the Congress party for a new generation of leaders.
Obama took the Democratic Party by storm precisely because he was able to distance himself from past leaders — including the legendary Bill Clinton — and age-old bases of party support. He could critique labour unions and the politics of triangulation alike, bypass the establishment and its gatekeepers, and lay the basis for a new kind of Democratic politics. Rahul can never be an Obama.
His weaknesses, however, are not — as his fiercest critics claims — a lack of moral character, intelligence, or democratic impulse. Rahul cannot be harbinger of change for a far more important reason: He is the son of Sonia and Rajiv, and the grandson of Indira Gandhi. He is the establishment, the quintessential insider, as many point out. In comparison, Narendra Modi, who has built a power base independent of both the RSS and BJP leadership, is far better positioned to be an Obama of the right.
But the bigger problem lies not with Rahul the politician but Rahul the man. His prospects are abysmal not due to the defects of dynastic privilege but the defects of psychic legacy.
He is the young boy whose world was thrown out of ‘balance’ — to use his word — when his grandmother’s body was riddled by bullets by the very same policemen who played badminton with him. A teenager whose “broken” father took the baton of power only to meet the same fate. A young man whose mother has held tightly to the power she claims to despise so that he can make good on the sacrifices of his father and grandmother.
Anyone hoping to transform the Congress Party must necessarily be capable of breaking from its toxic tradition of authoritarianism and sycophancy, of making a cool-headed assessment of the weaknesses of its past leadership. Rahul’s vision, however is forever crippled by the enormous burden of his emotional debts. Trapped by his own personal history, he can never be the change he wants to see in his own party.
In an insightful analysis published earlier today, my colleague Venky Vembu writes:
Any honest critique of India’s systemic flaws must begin with the corrupting influence of his nani and his father (of whom he spoke endearingly) and, it needs to be said, his mother Sonia Gandhi. For sure, other leaders, many of whom are in other parties, too share a part of the blame, but the Congress has been in power at the Centre for all but a handful of years since Independence, and much of the blame for India’s social, economic and political decay rests at its door.
But if Rahul lacks a “sense of irony” about his high-minded speech, it’s because he can’t afford one. He cannot acknowledge the incalculable damage wreaked by his beloved grandmother of the nation’s democratic institutions, and those of his own party. He cannot learn from his loving father’s mistakes, or recognise the weak-kneed leadership that undid Rajiv’s own idealism. And he certainly can never take his widowed and heartbroken mother to task for creating a poisonous, Janus-faced system of authority that defies the basic principle of accountability — not when it was created entirely for his sake.
Such are the steep costs of psychic investment. Rahul can be “emotional, candid and blunt” — as Barkha Dutt put it — about the shortcomings of his party and his nation, but cannot be so about the people responsible for the same. The twin traumatic events that define his identity — political and emotional — are hard-wired into his psyche, transforming his father, mother, grandmother into hallowed figures beyond ordinary reproach. And they will forever prevent him from reaching for political greatness, leave alone achieving it.
The greater irony, however is this: Without this tragic family legacy, he would have no need to do so — and been far happier for it, as would the nation.