He disdains sycophants, the politics of patronage, and caste calculations. He is young and impatient, uncomfortable with his party's old guard and its dubious allies. He is a reformer and a meritocrat, more a modern CEO than a traditional neta.
The latest India Today cover story on Rahul Gandhi has a lot of nice things to say about "The Warrior Prince" -- and yet this enumeration of his virtues read instead as a litany of his weaknesses as a politician. [The article is not available online but you can pick up the latest issue on the news-stand.]
“As far as politicians go, he doesn’t seem to get the pulse of politics," Aarthi Ramachandran, author of Decoding Rahul, recently said in the New York Times. After reading the profile, however, the reader may be forced toward a more blunt assessment: Rahul doesn't get politics, period. What is astounding is the impression we get is not of a seasoned politician but of a corporate executive freshly pressed into the fray, eager to test-drive his management bible strategies in the field of politics.
Has he learnt nothing over the many years of his apprenticeship? The evidence in India Today suggests not.
No transfers, no electricity either
"Neither has he played the politics of patronage and organised transfers and postings for his constituents," writes India Today correspondent Priya Sahgal, as one example of how Rahul has brought "a cultural shift in the Congress". This change has not gone down well with his Amethi constituents, she notes, who "pulled him up for being insensitive to their needs".
It sounds reasonable: Any effort to change a feudal style of leadership is bound to attract resistance. What Sahgal leaves unsaid, however, is that Rahul's 21st century leadership has not delivered any benefits to his constituents, as the magazine itself reported in May:
Giving a terse reply to Rahul's claim that he had brought Indian Institute of Information Technology (IIIT) and National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) in the areas, the workers told the Gandhi scion that the lower and lower-middle class children think of simple bare necessities of life, not high-end institutions.
"I told him clearly that it would have been better if he had thought about our basic needs like timely availability of fertilizer and seeds. We get less than seven hours of electricity and most of the handpumps are dry this summer. There is no means for the poor people to reach hospitals when they are ill. And there is no provision of free treatment," said Prithvesh Kumar Mishra, a Congress leader of Mohammadpur area in Amethi Parliamentary constituency.
Rahul won't give his constituents' jobs, but he can't offer them electricity either. The problem is not what he won't do, but what he can't do, i.e. deliver. And that's the kiss of death for any politician, corrupt or clean, old-fashioned or modern.
Politics is all about bedfellows
The most revealing anecdote in the India Today profile involves a lunch thrown by Sonia Gandhi to thank UPA allies for supporting Pranab Mukherjee's nomination for President: "Rahul was seated on a table with Mulayam Singh Yadav, Praful Patel, and Farooq Abdullah. Instead of reaching out to the influential Yadav, he spent the entire meal discussing workouts and golf with Omar Abdullah and Patel."
In a sense, Rahul was behaving true to form: like a corporate executive at a company dinner, preferring to talk to his mates, than a bunch of old farts. “If you expect him to react to every political situation, he’s not cut out like that. He prefers to work within a system, within a team. He reacts only to those issues which he has been assigned.” Digvijaya Singh told the New York Times.
Ergo, Rahul won't cultivate Mulayam over lunch -- whose cooperation is key to UPA's very survival -- because it isn't part of his portfolio. Cultivating allies is still mummy's job! It's a corporate cubicle notion of responsibility that bodes ill for any politician, leave alone one being groomed to lead a billion-strong nation.
Strategy is not vision
Rahul's disdain for caste lobbies is indeed a virtue -- and not unlikely for someone with his cosmopolitan background. But this lofty contempt for base political calculation can often border foolishness, as this Sahgal example illustrates: "While he interviewed aspirants for [party tickets in] the Assembly elections, candidates were surprised that Rahul didn't ask them the usual caste-based questions. Instead a ticket aspirant from Nawabganj was asked if he knew the number of mobile users in his constituency."
It sounds oh-so-modern and technocratic -- except esoteric knowledge of mobile usage has zero relationship to a person's ability to secure votes, and in Nawabganj, no less. It's all very well to favour merit over identity or connections, but in politics, electoral victory is ultimate measure of talent. As DNA noted of Rahul's corporate wonk style, "Politics is unlike business; data alone cannot solve the complex equation of a variety of disparate elements, including personal charisma, building relationships, finding compromises, and disbursing patronage. Businesses don’t contest elections; that too in India, the most diverse of nations."
In her biography, Aarthi Ramachandran compares the Gandhi scion to a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, and concludes that his corporate style, however well-meaning, is not likely to succeed in Indian politics. But a CEO too needs to articulate a vision, inspire confidence, and build strategic partnerships.
Rahul, the former strategy consultant, is all about reorganising, delegating, number-crunching and assessing. In changing the method, he expects to change the Congress party and Indian politics itself, as he's said in the past:
The larger goal is making the YC and NSUI ‘open organisations’... There are also subgoals, smaller goals which, of course, have time limits. Democracy is at one level a process and at another level, a set of values and a set of ideas. We can set up a process... For this process to transform itself into an idea, requires a certain degree of participation, a certain depth of participation... So, system and process is our skeleton, and it is easy to build a system and process... The idea of democracy is going to depend on the people who come into this system.
But as the UP debacle made clear, people don't vote for a strategy, they vote for the future. And the future looks grim for the consultant who reduces democracy to a process.
"The prince was decent; he was hardworking; he was sincere. But he was, as far as the ballot box went, an unmitigated and un-photo-shoppable disaster," writes Aatish Taseer of Rahul's past record. Words that may well serve as the young Gandhi's political obituary one day.