Learning from Indira: How Rahul Gandhi can change from Pappu to PM-in-waiting

His grandmother was derided as Goongi Gudiya, Rahul is lampooned as Pappu.

When she became the Prime Minister, the old guard and syndicate were against Indira Gandhi. In his bid to become president of the Congress, Rahul is facing similar resistance from senior leaders.

In the mid 1970s, after the euphoria of the victory against Pakistan faded, Indira became a subject of contempt and ridicule, reflected in the singular slogan that defined contemporary politics: Indira hatao, desh bachao. Today, Rahul evokes similar scorn and pity, reflected in the muted cries within his party of ‘Sonia lao Congress bachao’.

 Learning from Indira: How Rahul Gandhi can change from Pappu to PM-in-waiting

Rahul Gandhi in a file photo. PTI image

If Indira could reinvent herself, become the undisputed leader of her party, why can’t Rahul? In politics, as in life, no defeat is final; no election is the last. So, at least theoretically, Rahul’s revival is possible. On paper, even he can do an Indira, and not just because he is almost the same age his granny was when she became the PM in 1966.

The problem with brand Rahul is that he has been launched and relaunched so many times that there is very little interest in him now. For consumers of Indian politics, he is a worn-out product that gets repackaged only because the old firm of Congress and its darbaris are stuck with a huge inventory and unless it is cleared there will be no place for a new item.

So, selling Rahul requires not just a new strategy, but also a lot of patience and luck.

Where could Rahul begin? What could be the starting point of his journey towards a mature politician from what social scientist Shiv Vishvanathan called a toddler who is wheeled in his pram by mother Sonia?

Since he was on a sabbatical to introspect and meditate in the quest of self-discovery, it can be assumed that Rahul can now see things as they are—which also happens to be the goal of vipassana—which he supposedly did while on vacation. If he was honest in his quest, Rahul must have realised by now what all of India already knows: he lacks focus and commitment. Like a desultory scholar lacking in attention, he jumps from one pursuit to another—UP, Youth Congress, Land Bill, internal democracy—and leaves them all unfinished.

His lack of singular achievement, the result of attention deficit and absence of commitment, in a decade of public life is Rahul’s fatal flaw. Unless he overcomes this handicap, proves that he is resolute in his pursuit and his mind doesn’t waiver, there is no chance people will take him seriously.

Rahul has so far shown classic traits of a renunciate, someone who would rather abdicate the throne than claim it. “Power is poison,” has been his defining philosophy in public. If this is what he still believes after 56 days of meditation, Rahul should stop deluding himself that Indians can’t see through the philosophical and moral hypocrisy of a politician who pursues power, but professes to abhor it. He should know that in an election, people choose a Raja, not a sanyasi.

Rahul needs to deal with several contradictions that spoil his CV. For the voter, it is indeed hilarious that a politician whose only claim to entitlement is his surname talks of internal democracy and then, after an elaborate charade, comes up with another set of dynasts to run the party. Sachin Pilot, Jyotiraditya Scindia, Jatin Prasada and Milind Deora are all testimonials to the fact that Rahul’s talk of democracy within the Congress is just a farce. In public perception, the Congress has turned into quasi-Mughal darbar with family-anointed governors, who, in turn, bequeath their retainership to the family.

If Rahul is serious about democratising party politics, he should lead the way himself by announcing that he will not inherit its leadership but earn it. Let him, like Indira who contested against Morarji Desai after the death of Lal Bahadur Shastri, give party workers an opportunity to elect a successor to his mother. Only by going through this agnipariksha can Rahul prove that he wants to practice what he preaches. And once he does this, let the party replicate the model at every level to ensure chamchas, darbaris are replaced by real leaders with real followers. Only by dismantling the chain and culture of entitlement will Rahul be able to revive the party.

From where Rahul stands today, he can only fantasise about being a challenger to Narendra Modi. The PM is a full time politician, has come up the hard way from the grassroots, a great orator; he is ruthlessly ambitious, a relentless worker with a clarity of purpose and a hero of the middle class and youth. Rahul has none of these qualities.

But there is no guarantee that what is fashionable in politics today may last forever. India has a remarkable propensity for being misled by promises, slogans and showing blind bhakti in the cult of an individual. But, on realising their mistake and getting disillusioned, voters strike back with equal ferocity.

In 1977, Indira was booted out for booted out for being autocratic, undermining democracy, imposing draconian restriction on people and their liberty and being ruthless. In 1980, Indira hatao turned into a desperate appeal for Indira lao because people tired of the chaos of the Janata raj and started yearning for a strong leader.

Modi’s failure is not in Rahul’s hand. But he can at least project himself as Modi’s antithesis.

Does Rahul have Indira’s patience, perseverance, intelligence and commitment? From Goongi Gudia Indira went on to be hailed as Durga. Can Rahul make the transition from Pappu to PM-in-waiting?

We will just have to wait and see.

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Updated Date: Apr 18, 2015 10:15:19 IST