Rajiv Gandhi did not deliver on promises, so will Rahul?

Those of us who have been around a fair bit in this world will need no reminder of this, but Rahul Gandhi, who made an emotion-laced  coming-out speech at the Congress chintan shivir retreat in Jaipur on Sunday isn't the first person with photogenic facial dimples to charm diehard Congress supporters - and more than a few members of the media brigade. A generation ago, Rahul Gandhi's father Rajiv Gandhi, the original Mr Dimples who had been living a charmed life,  became Prime Minister in tragic circumstances following the assassination of his mother Indira Gandhi, and attempted to channel the power of India's youth and usher in a generational change in Indian politics.

In 1985, the year the Congress party turned 100, Rajiv Gandhi delivered one of the most searing indictments of the political and administrative "system" as it existed then. Speaking as an "outsider" to the system (which he truly was), Rajiv Gandhi was particularly harsh on the Congress party, which, he said, had "shrunk" from a party that had once fired the imagination of the masses to a party that had lost touch with people and was being controlled by "power brokers" and "self-perpetuating cliques."  "We are a party of social transformation, but in our preoccupation with governance we are drifting away from the people. Thereby, we have weakened ourselves and fallen prey to the ills that the loss of invigorating mass contact brings."

It was pretty strong stuff (you can read the entire speech here), and there was an earnestness about Rajiv Gandhi as he set about trying to cleanse the corrupt and rotten system, much of which was the product of nearly four decades of (virtually uninterrupted) Congress rule at the Centre.

Rahul Gandhi promises change, but is he serious? AFP

But within four years, the hope that Rajiv Gandhi inspired was dashed by the harsh reality of Congress organisational politics and Rajiv Gandhi's own fall from grace.

Entangled in the Bofors kickback scandal, in which Italian businessman Ottavio Quattrocchchi was implicated, Rajiv Gandhi did his damnedest to sabotage an independent investigation into the scandal - and fell back on the usual coterie of Congress "power brokers" to shield him.

By 1989, the decent dimpled bloke who had charmed a nation some years earlier had been reduced to mouthing crude turns of phrases directed at Opposition leaders.

Never very comfortable in Hindi, he gave rise to much merriment with his "Nani yaad dila denge" threats. As it turned out, all these years later, the only person in whom Rajiv Gandhi has bestirred "nani" memories is his son Rahul Gandhi, who is now positioning himself as a consummate "outsider" who is looking to "transform the system".

In his speech at the Congress retreat on Sunday, Rahul Gandhi spoke movingly about his grandmother Indira Gandhi's assassination (and how it left his father Rajiv Gandhi broken). But in the main, he was railing against the "system" - that, he said, had effectively disenfranchised most of the people and rendered them voiceless.

Media anchors given to gushing have called this Rahul Gandhi's (and the UPA's) "Obama moment" - whatever that means. (Other than the fact that like Obama, Rahul Gandhi appears to have found a halfways-decent speechwriter, and invoked the promise of "change", there was nothing Obama-esque about the speech.) But the striking thing was that Rahul Gandhi appropriated the language of the street protestors led by, say, Arvind Kejriwal in seeking "systemic change".

But unlike with Rajiv Gandhi, who was truly an outsider to the system when he made his 1985 critique of the Congress, Rahul Gandhi is , as I noted here, a consummate insider to the system that he says is flawed. And, worse, he is a direct beneficiary of the flaws in the system that he riles against.

Any honest critique of India's systemic flaws must begin with the corrupting influence of his nani and his father (of whom he spoke endearingly) and, it needs to be said, his mother Sonia Gandhi.

For sure, other leaders, many of whom are in other parties, too share a part of the blame, but the Congress has been in power at the Centre for all but a handful of years since Independence, and much of the blame for India's social, economic and political decay rests at its door.

And there was nothing in Rahul Gandhi's speech to signal that he would bring about system change at the core of the Congress' being.

If anything, some of the things that Rahul Gandhi said showed him up as perhaps lacking in a sense of irony. In India, he said, we don't respect knowledge, only position, and virtually everyday he meets people holding high positions who have a tremendous voice, but who have no understanding of the issues at hand. Well, it may have come as a revelation to Rahul Gandhi, but the only reason why his vacuous pronouncements and ill-informed articulations thus far have gained amplitude is because he is who he is: a privileged member of India's foremost political dynasty.

The central theme of Rahul Gandhi's speech was about giving voice to the voiceless. In channelling that sentiment, even if it was borrowed from the street protestors in recent years, Rahul Gandhi appeared to have found his own voice.

This was in many ways his most disciplined public speech in recent years, and there were some signs to suggest that he was ready to give up his now-you-see-him-now-you-don't dilettantism and submit himself to the harsh grind of a political life in greater measure.

Yet, Rahul Gandhi will be eventually judged not by what he says in prepared speeches, but whether he delivers on those promises. His father tried rather more earnestly, but failed. We've been fooled by those facial dimples before. It will take much more to reinforce faith in well-meant, but dishonest, promises of "change".

Updated Date: Jan 21, 2013 13:03 PM

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