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Rahul: Democrat on weekdays, privileged prince on weekends

By Sagarika Ghose

When a 42-year old pillar of the establishment sounds like a youthful anti-establishment hero, it’s either a delusion, a cynical ploy to capture the youth, or genuine idealism. Obama was an outsider in the Washington elite, whose cry for change echoed among all those excluded from traditional power structures. Rahul Gandhi is a third generation political aristocrat, born into VIP-hood who grew up with Indian democracy as his playground. When Indira Gandhi’s grandson announces the need for ‘badlav’ or change in the way power is exercised or in the way systems function, can he escape his own responsibility in upholding those very systems for the 9 long years he’s been at the pinnacle of power?

The Congress’ chintan shivir at Jaipur which anointed Rahul Gandhi as Congress Vice-President was a shivir awash in emotion, fulsome tributes and streaming tears from family loyalists. After Rahul’s speech, particularly after the emotional recollections of his grandmother’s assassination and father’s courage, Congressmen were in spasms of euphoric delight, comparing Rahul to a Rajiv Gandhi- Barack Obama Two-in-One. The chintan shivir was a carnival of competitive loyalty, a fawning fiesta of gush gush praise. A party accustomed to being driven by a monarch listened bemused as the heir apparent held forth on the need to transform the nature of power, of ending closed door remote leadership, of ending the era of lal battis.

But Rahul, the prince-turned rebel, the ruler-turned attacker of status quo, might find that he’s a misfit in an absolute monarchy. Sonia Gandhi’s greatest success over the last 10 years has been to rule the party like a regent, exercising queenly supreme power and placing dynasty at the centre of the Congress’ existence. Sonia’s leadership is imperious but tough, it keeps the Congress firmly in check, firmly bound to the family, firmly uniting potential traitors and discontents into an army loyal to the Nehru-Gandhi flame. Rahul may find that ruling the Congress like a wannabe-democrat confuses the courtiers, scatters the coteries, and disappoints the power seekers and troops. Since 2004 the Congress has stayed together as a team only because Sonia has ruled it like Indira II.

His best speech so far? Reuters

Yet his speech as Congress Vice President was his best so far. Some of the ideas were undoubtedly interesting: Why do ministries do the work of panchayats, why do politicians appoint vice- chancellors, why is power centralised and operating behind closed doors, why do we respect position and not knowledge, our freedom movement gave a voice to millions, in the same way we must give a voice to the people in governance, and power is a poison that must be used to empower the weak and not pursued for its own sake. For the first time we heard the semblance of a political vision, and however much it sounded like a newspaper editorial, it was surprising to hear that a child of supreme power so comprehensively understands the predicament of the system.

But this lecture on power and how to wield it, this moral science class from someone who has so far failed to notch up any political successes, could easily be cast as the woolly headed pipe dream of a university undergraduate writing an original term paper, rather than the words of a seasoned politician who has the stamina for hard 24*7 politics. Rahul campaigned hard in the 2010 Bihar assembly elections, but Nitish swept to power, Congress got just four seats. Rahul was the face of the UP assembly polls last year, but Congress slumped to fourth place in UP even falling behind the BJP, with just 28 seats.

Rahul’s well publicised UP padyatra yielded some good photo ops, but a gaffe on skeletons under mounds of ash in Bhatta Parsaul (a statement later revealed as totally false) struck a bit of a blow for Rahul’s credentials as a leader of dispossessed farmers. In 2009, his boys night out at a Dalit hut with visiting British Foreign secretary David Miliband was seen as urban poverty tourism, a rural Scheduled Caste hut became the site of a brief overnight stay of the messiah and his foreign friend, like an adventurous night spent in a museum. Kalavati, the Vidharbha widow, in whose name Rahul made a speech during the trust motion in 2008, remains a now forgotten statistic in Rahul’s discovery of India, her hut a pit stop in his whirlwind visitations, her plight designed to spice up a point in a rare speech.

Rahul Gandhi with Foreign Secretary David Miliband in 2009 in Amethi. Reuters

On two important occasions, the youth icon showed that, in sharp contrast to his grandmother’s elephant-riding Belchi moment, he failed to gauge and seize a political opportunity. During youth protests against corruption Rahul remained absent, not seen at any of the rallies or saying anything in solidarity with the impassioned crowds. During the Delhi gang rape protests with thousands of young people pouring onto the streets chanting “saare yuva yahaan hai Rahul Gandhi kahaan hai?”, (all the young are here, where is Rahul Gandhi) he remained closeted away in silence, refusing to venture among those braving tear gas and water cannons. In his speech he analysed those protests as clinically as an editorial page writer, but he didn’t seem to feel any emotion for the anguished young people in whose name he leads his party.

To remain, day in and day out among the cadres, take up a single cause year after year, leave his room doors open to party cadres at all hours, to slog, persistently and with unflagging stamina, slog year after year a la Mamata Banerjee, toil on the streets a la Mayawati, build a vast network of samajwadis whose names you know by heart a la Mulayam, this is the stuff of vocational politics, that is the life of those whose personal lives and private spaces have long ceased to exist in the pursuit of a political mission.

After his speech on Sunday, Rahul has once again lapsed into customary silence; silence is in fact his default mode. He never speaks on the grave issues of the day. So far its “no comment” on 2G, “no comment” on FDI in retail, “no comment” on Anna Hazare, “no comment” on women’s safety, “no comment” on Pakistan, “no comment” on price rise or economic reforms. Obama and Cameron constantly communicate, constantly talk to the press and constantly give interviews. Rahul has so far not given a single full length interview. In fact, his close associate Meenakshi Natarajan, a first time MP from Mandsaur was keen to bring in a bill that muzzles the media. Natarajan - known to be a Rahul favourite with a determinedly grassroots deglamourized style -  was all set to bring in the Print and Electronic Media Standards and Regulation Bill, which contained shockingly draconian measures to gag the press. Let’s not forget that Rahul’s father tried to bring in the Anti-Defamation Bill to curb the media and his grandmother imposed the Emergency. Is Rahul’s championing of democratisation and giving people a voice in the power structure, a genuine article of faith or was that well- crafted speech simply a clever camouflage for someone who still exercises power without accountability?

In a landscape dominated by powerful regional satraps, in a shrinking political space, in a Congress party riven by factionalism, Rahul may well be the genuine idealist trying to transform the way the Congress perceives itself. But 'badlav' (change) will not come from speeches made from the pulpit of inherited leadership. True 'badlav' can only come from a thorough-going self- transformation, a complete break from his own lifestyle in Delhi and either moving to Lucknow or away from the VIP enclaves and centre of power in Lutyensland. This means physically displacing himself from here and going there to live and work among the cadres 24*7. By trying to be a democrat from the position of a king, by lecturing on systems change while jetting off on reportedly exotic holidays, Rahul is trying to have the best of both worlds. He’s a democrat during the week but a prince on weekends. He flip flops between dynast and democrat, now a prince, now a change agent, sometimes disgruntled with the system, sometimes revelling in its privileges, a man of the masses Monday-Friday, a man of the classes on Saturday and Sunday.

This dual persona is risky. The dual persona runs the risk of neither being able to perform the highly efficient monarchical-style holding operation of his mother, nor being able to pull off the populist-style image makeover as a “peoples- leader- of- a- people’s party”, of his grandmother.

Sagarika Ghose is Deputy Editor CNN-IBN