If there was an award for India’s gawkiest politician, Rahul Gandhi would win it in a trice.
For a man who hails from India’s foremost political dynasty and has been immersed in a political culture virtually since birth, the man is painfully – and visibly — ill at ease in politics. Except when he is reading out scripted speeches with manufactured passion to captive audiences, there is a certain awkward tentativeness about him that reflects a man riddled with self-doubt.
It’s almost as if he knows he is faking it, but has allowed himself to believe the “Rahul chalisa” chants of the dynasty’s ‘psycophants’ and come to accept that, yes, he is to the (political) manor born, and that the country yearns for his leadership.
In the circles in which Rahul Gandhi moves, there is no one who honestly challenges the obvious limitations of his worldview or his political perspective. From what we have seen thus far, that perspective finds expression in catering to the lowest common denominator of caste and minority identity politics, throwing pots of money from the state exchequer into welfare schemes with no consideration of accountability, and stage-managed photo-opportunities and soft-focus features that portray him in flattering tones.
Rahul Gandhi’s current campaign strategy in Uttar Pradesh, the state he is determined to retrieve for the Congress, is illustrative of his wilful pursuit of the politics of caste and communal identity to the hilt, even while appearing to take the high ground on divisive politics.
On the one hand, Rahul Gandhi claims, as he did recently in Sitapur, that the Congress is different from parties like the BSP, BJP and the SP in that “we don’t talk of any one caste or religion.” Yet, on the other hand, he stoops so low as to invoke the caste identity of Sam Pitroda, the tech guru who was tasked by former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi to head the Telecom Mission that ushered in a telecom revolution in India, with an eye on the votes of the most backward communities.
Addressing an election rally in Akbarpur in Ramabai Nagar, Rahul Gandhi said:
“Twenty years ago, Rajiv Gandhi thought of bringing mobile phones to India. Do you know who brought them? Sam Pitroda, who is a Vishkarma, ‘Barahi’ (carpenter). He brought mobile phones to your houses.” (From the Indian Express)
As Pratap Bhanu Mehta notes in a searing op-ed in the Indian Express, it is “appallingly diminishing when we create an institutional culture where the first thing we want to point to is someone’s caste.” It reflects a political culture, where “under the slogan that caste and religion are realities in India, we want to straitjacket every issue through the prism of caste and religion.”
Likewise, Rahul Gandhi claims credit on behalf of the UPA government for introducing the Right to Education, but in the same breath, he lobbies on behalf of the All India Muslim Personal Law Board to keep madrassas outside the purview of the Right to Education.
Similarly, Rahul Gandhi has claimed that during his carefully choreographed visits to rural homes, he wasn’t specifically targeting Dalit homes to visit – but that it was the media that gave it a caste spin. “I see myself as going to a human being’s house. I don’t see him as a Dalit, or an upper caste or a lower caste,” he says. And yet, descending very rapidly from that high moral ground, he criticises Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Mayawati – a Dalit herself – for not having visited “a single Dalit home” in the past five years.
That too is reflective of his cynical willingness to use Dalits as a political prop – as he did while invoking a Vidarbha farmer’s widow Kalavati’s name in Parliament — and abandoning them thereafter.
In all this time that Rahul Gandhi has been primed for prime ministership, he hasn’t subjected himself to a media interrogation such as one might reasonably expect of a person with claims to national-level leadership. In fact, the few media interactions that we’ve seen in recent times have been characterised by an ineptness that is inexplicable for someone who is used to being in the political limelight.
One particular interaction, right after his performance in the Lok Sabha in August, in which he read out a prepared speech that borrowed former Chief Election Commissioner TN Seshan’s idea of giving the Lokpal constitutional status, is illustrative. After he gave his self-congratulatory soundbyte – “it’s a game-changing proposal” — to newspersons outside Parliament, Rahul Gandhi was asked a fairly innocuous question: why had he not responded for so long to the very public debate on the demand for a Lokpal, and the controversy over Anna Hazare’s arrest?
A hunted look flashed across his cherubic face. After muttering hurriedly that he liked to think before he talked, he turned around brusquely, darted into his vehicle and vroomed off. It was the mark of “an empty suit” who just knew that every unscripted moment that he spent in front of a news camera was fraught with limitless possibilities for him to put his foot in his mouth.
Rahul Gandhi is, in many ways, the Richie Rich of Indian politics: the poor little rich politician, whose family harnesses its enormous wealth and heft to keep him pampered and ready to inherit the “family estate”. Just as Richie Rich’s folks look benevolently on his interactions with his less well-off friends as a shining symbol of his “social inclusiveness” and kindly, charitable nature, so too Rahul Gandhi’s forays into the hinterland and his personalised interactions with the dirty, unwashed masses are no more than a feel-good propaganda prop. But there is nothing to feel good about Rahul Gandhi’s – and the Congress’ – subtle and cynical exploitation of caste and communal identities for political gain, while seeming to take the high road.
As Mehta notes: “Perhaps the Congress is in love with the ‘C’ in its name. Corruption was not enough. It had to become corrupt, casteist, communal and cynical. India’s tragedy is that there is no national level challenger to this party that is diminishing us all.”
Which is perhaps why the person who continues to be projected as the next prime minister is a comic-book caricature who struts around his “family estate”, reducing everything he touches to its basest instincts.