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The problem with Rahul Gandhi: Why the good prince isn't good enough

The Gandhi scion gets some attention in the latest issue of the Economist which abandons its typically caustic tone to take a softer line on the heir apparent. The editorial, for example, calls for a move away from dynastic politics but also includes this eyebrow-raising line: "Anyone who wants India to succeed should hope that Mr Gandhi turns into the leader the country so desperately needs."

Over the past six months, Firstpost has offered a number of incisive critiques of Rahul Gandhi's style of politics (the best, a comprehensive summation, is here). The two Economist stories [here and here], however, offer an opportunity to underline the ways in which Rahul's greatest strengths are a liability — both to his political career and his party.

One, Rahul opposes dynastic politics. While the Economist condemns the Congress culture of politics-by-succession, it also gives the young Gandhi a pass for his own role in perpetuating the same. Sure, Gandhi may indeed be "a rare voice" who "wants to change a system where 'politics depends on who you know or are related to'." His principles, however, seem to be conveniently limited to revamping the Youth Congress. He cares but not enough to challenge the party leadership's strategy of stifling young talent "for fear of outshining the crown prince." Rahul doesn't have any problem making his peers wait patiently in line while he dawdles his way to power at his own pace.

Two, he's just a "slow starter". The Economist recasts Rahul's tortoise-like diffidence as a family trait he shares with both his parents and grandmother. Sounds reassuring, except none of his predecessors had it quite so easy — an entire party machinery on standby, waiting obediently for them to ascend the throne. Each of the previous Gandhis had to fight tooth-and-nail for respect and authority — in often tragic circumstances  — while Rahul has Mommy standing guard to ensure he gets his due deference.

 The problem with Rahul Gandhi: Why the good prince isnt good enough

The heir apparent seems to share Manmohan Singh's need to always appear above the fray of the sordid business of politics. And we all know how that's turned out. Reuters

Three, he truly cares about the little guy. Rahul has made an exaggerated show of shunning official power — which, in turn, is touted as evidence of his modesty. Oh look, he'd rather hang out with tribals and Dalits than lord it in Delhi as a cabinet minister. Now, as my colleagues have said many times before, Rahul cannot play the perpetual prince-in-waiting. The Economist offers another reason to be skeptical of his version of populist politics:

As dusk falls, a long-serving Congressman grumbles that his MP is not “fast-forward”— slow to take decisions and quick to spurn colleagues. “Rahul Gandhi walks alone,” he says, “there are not so many people he is talking with.” A more senior party figure goes further, saying he shuns local bigwigs, not even bothering to say when he is visiting. His behaviour “has been very badly received [in the party], it is hurtful and might backfire on him one day.” Doubts persist over state elections in Uttar Pradesh, due next year. These require “a lot of introspection, action, planning—and frankly I’m not seeing that.”

In this aspect, Rahul seems to share Manmohan Singh's need to always appear above the fray of the sordid business of politics. And we all know how that's turned out. To change a system, a politician must first master it – however compromised or corrupt it may be. Rahul, much like MMS, wants it both ways: to enjoy the perks of his position at the top of the totem pole without taking responsibility for it.

It's all very well to hold "late-night chats in low-caste homes" or enjoy "rural walkabouts, chatting to roadside tea-wallahs and farm workers." But Rahul won't be able to make a whit of difference in their lives as long as he remains reluctant to get his hands dirty. His version of populism is self-indulgent and ineffectual. It makes him feel good about himself – I have no time for dirty politicians, see? – but does little for the people he claims to care about. Worse, it reads as an exercise in familial privilege to the rest of his party, an assertion that he doesn't have to follow the rules.

The Gandhis inspire a near-visceral bile from their detractors who accuse them of every sin in the book, from arrogance to outright venality. But even Rahul's most ardent supporter cannot but concede his achilles heel, which the Economist sums up in one precise sentence: "But he seems neither enthusiastic about the job of leading a billion people, nor especially well-equipped to manage India’s feuding politicians."

This is a man who has neither the talent nor the appetite for the job assigned to him by accident of birth – and the vicissitudes of fate. In many ways, we are all still paying our dues for those two horrific assassinations. Most of all, Rahul who is dutifully trying to live up to the task of being the appointed torchbearer of his family's tragic legacy. He may succeed or more likely fail. The latter may be a blessing in disguise to both the Congress and the nation, our destiny no longer tied to the outrageous fortunes of one singular family.

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Updated Date: Nov 22, 2011 13:47:55 IST