In an interview to Tehelka magazine in September 2005, Rahul Gandhi, now the vice president of the Congress party, is said to have remarked that "I could have been prime minister at the age of 25 if I wanted to."
The statement created an uproar. The Congress party immediately jumped to the defence of its princling. Abhishek Manu Singhvi, the then Congress spokesperson, specifically mentioned that Rahul had not said, "I could have been prime minister at the age of 25 if I wanted to."
Tehelka initially stood by its story but backed down later. "This seems to be a clear case of misunderstanding. Mr Gandhi thought he was having a casual chat whereas our reporter took it to be a proper interview," the weekly said in a statement. (The 'edited' casual chat can still be read on Tehelka's website).
On another occasion, Gandhi remarked: "Please do not take it as any kind of arrogance, but having seen enough prime ministers in the family, it is not such a big deal. In fact, I often wonder why should you need a post to serve the nation." (Source: Decoding Rahul Gandhi, by Aarthi Ramachandran).
Gandhi's obsession on clarifying that he is not in the race seems to have continued. "Asking me whether you want to be Prime Minister is a wrong question," he recently told journalists. In fact he even went on to add that he did not want to get married because marriage leads to children and a lust for power. "I feel we should all be detached from power. Only then we can contribute to the society better. You people ask me about my marriage plans. Sometimes, I think, if I marry and have children, I would want my children to take my position," he said.
The spin doctors of the Congress party have been working overtime to portray this statement of their princling as one of great sacrifice. But being married has got no link with running political fiefdoms and lusting for power. As Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar writes in a recent column in The Times of India, "Mayawati and Jayalalithaa are both unmarried and without kids, and they run fiefdoms no less feudal than the Congress. Absence of children has never meant decentralisation." This argument also works for Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Naveen Patnaik in Orissa and Narendra Modi in Gujarat, who also run political fiefdoms despite having no children. So the lust for power or politicians running political fiefdoms, has got nothing to do with being married or not.
Also the question is that what can Rahul Gandhi get done as a Prime Minister that he cannot get done being outside the government (assuming that the Congress-led UPA continues to be in power)? As Tavleen Singh writes in a recent column in The Indian Express, “Rahul already has more power than almost any politician in India other than his mother. So why should he want something he already has?"
Other than wanting to be detached from power, Rahul Gandhi also wants to empower middle-level leaders. "Today, I see how MPs feel without power and it is the same story in all the parties, be it the Congress or the BJP. I want to empower the 720-odd MPs in Parliament. I want to give voice to the middle tier, empower the middle-level leaders," he said.
While he can't do anything about the BJP, what is he doing about the Congress? Not much, seems to be the answer. The upper ranks of the Congress party seem to be filled with sons/daughters of Congress leaders. In fact, Rahul's boys, a term I use for the relatively younger leaders in the Congress party who are supposed to be close to the princeling, are all sons of Congress leaders. As Aiyar writes, “After talking for years about promoting youth in politics, you have indeed promoted many newcomers to important ministerial positions. They are young by Indian standards, but many have greying hair. The list in New Delhi includes Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Milind Deora and Jitin Prasad."
Nothing seems to have been done about the Congress tradition of the so-called "high command" appointing the chief minister, in case the party happens to win a state election or even otherwise. This trend was most recently visible in Uttarakhand where the majority of the MLAs wanted Harish Rawat as Chief Minister, but had to make do with the high command's choice of Vijay Bahaguna (who interestingly is the son of the late HN Bahuguna, who was with the Congress party for most of his life). The high command also appointed Prithviraj Chavan (whose father and mother were both Congress MPs), a political lightweight who was not a member of the state assembly, as the chief minister of Maharashtra when they wanted to replace the scam-tainted Ashok Chavan (son of SB Chavan, another Congress leader).
The points made above are not exactly rocket science and have been made by others, too. And I am sure Rahul Gandhi understands them as well as anyone else. As Tavleen Singh writes: "Rahul Gandhi knows this as well as anyone else in politics, and if he wants to change things, then this is terrific. But why does he not get on with it? Why does he not begin by ensuring that next time the Congress party wins elections in some state, the high command is not given the task of choosing the chief minister? Why does he not ensure that next time a parliamentary constituency reports a vacancy, it does not get handed down to an heir?"
Singh says she remains "puzzled" and "mystified” by this failure of Rahul. This writer believes that there is an answer to what Singh refers to as a mystery and a puzzle. Allow me to explain. The writer Ramachandra Guha told me in an interview late last year that “I think this dynasty (Gandhi) is now on its last legs. Its charisma is fading with every generation.”
This is something that Shekhar Gupta also pointed out in The Indian Express "Ask any Congress leader who contests elections (unlike its star cast of chronic Rajya Sabhaists) and they will admit to you, albeit in whispers and fearfully glancing left and right, that the days when the Gandhi family could win them their seats are over. In the elections, now, it is every man for himself."
This has been proven in Uttar Pradesh elections and the Bihar elections before that where the Congress party was routed. Rahul Gandhi was closely involved with both the elections. Given this, the ability of Rahul Gandhi, or for that matter his mother Sonia, to get in the votes for the party is very limited. They are not in the same league as Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi or even Rajiv Gandhi before them. Gupta explains it best when he writes "their ability to win seats beyond the Amethi-Rae Bareli enclave has diminished to insignificance".
It would be foolish to believe that Rahul or Sonia do not understand this. Hence, they need the Scindias and the Deoras and the Pilots and the Prasads of the world to continue winning elections. The smaller princelings within the party can continue bringing in the votes from all across the country. The Congress party may be a shadow of what it was in the past, but it continues to remain India's largest party. And for it to hold onto what it has, it needs to continue with the feudal structure that totally encapsulates it, with the Gandhis at the top.
In fact, whenever the party has tried to get rid of its feudal structure it has had disastrous results. Take the case of Andhra Pradesh. After the death of YS Rajasekhara Reddy, his son Jagan Mohan wanted to become the chief minister. And that was not allowed. Jagan Mohan left to form his own party and is expected to widely damage the electoral prospects of the Congress party in a state which sends 42 members to the Lok Sabha.
On the flip side, even though the Gandhis are no longer the vote winners they once were, they are still very important to the idea of Congress. As Gupta put it in his column, "I asked a senior (and always elected) Congress leader, then why was the Gandhi family still so important and had total sway over the party. He said, surely they cannot help anybody win elections, but they keep the party together. Their word is law and the party needs that discipline. Illustration: the moment Sonia or Rahul say something, everybody nods and falls in line. If Narasimha Rao or Sitaram Kesri said something, everybody broke out in rebellion and rashes." So even though the Gandhis may not bring in the votes, they do help keep the Congress flock together.
Given this, it is in nobody's interest, neither the Congress party, nor Rahul Gandhi (or for that matter his mother Sonia) to disturb the status quo. The Congress needs the Gandhis to survive as a party, and the Gandhis need the seats in the Parliament and the state assemblies to continue to be relevant.
In October 2008, while addressing girl students at a resort near Jim Corbett National Park, Rahul Gandhi referred to "politics" as a closed system in India. "If I had not come from my family, I wouldn’t be here. You can enter the system either through family or friends or money. Without family, friends or money, you cannot enter the system. My father was in politics. My grandmother and great grandfather were in politics. So, it was easy for me to enter politics. This is a problem. I am a symptom of this problem. I want to change it.”
More such statements will be made in the days to come. Meanwhile, the symptom and the problem will continue to coexist.
Vivek Kaul is a writer. He tweets @kaul_vivek