Why Rahul may be happier walking off into the sunset

Rahul Gandhi’s first major television interview tells us many things we may have suspected about him but didn’t know for sure.

First, he is nervous and not comfortable under the arclights. He couldn’t hide his discomfiture in front of a TV camera as he fidgeted and avoided eye contact repeatedly. Second, he probably means well, but is unsure how to make sense of two contradictory forces in his life: his troubled inheritance and his underlying beliefs. One suspects that he is not a dynast by inclination; dynastic expectations have been thrust on him. Third, there’s a sharp divergence between what he said and what he may really believe in – as was apparent from his uncertain and shifty body language. Fourth, for a politician, he showed no will to power. When asked direct questions, he pouted unconvincing philosophy.

It is obvious that Arnab Goswami’s tough and direct questions forced him to fib – whether it was on Narendra Modi, or the comparisons between 2002 and 1984, or his unease with corruption in the Congress and other people’s corruption.

This leads me to conclude that the only resolution of the dilemma facing him lies outside his party. And possibly outside politics too. He has to forsake his inheritance to be really effective as a person with some aims of making a difference to society. As a politician thrust into a position of power, he will probably be a disastrous ruler. You can’t rule well if you do not believe power is important to achieving something. You can't do good if you feel guilty about the mere exercise of power.

Let’s look at his various statements and see why the above conclusions are not far-fetched.

Rahul was distinctly uncomfortable with all the questions the anchor posed to him about Modi, or corruption or his own prime ministerial ambitions. He always avoided these questions by emphasising that these were not the questions that bothered him, but how to change the “system”. The word system, as my colleague points out, appeared over 70 times in the interview even though Goswami asked him nothing about the system. Rahul said: “The thing that I see is that the system in this country needs to change, I don't see anything else and I am blind to everything else. I am blind because I saw people I love destroyed by the system. I am blind because the system everyday is unfair to our people…”.

Rahul Gandhi. AFP.

Rahul Gandhi. AFP.

There are shades of Arvind Kejriwal in this – which tells us that Rahul is actually an unlikely Congress messiah. He does not see himself as the answer to the party’s drive for power – even if some Congress sycophants do. His main criticism against Modi is also that he wants to concentrate power in his hands.

He said: “The BJP has a prime ministerial candidate, the BJP believes in concentration of power in the hands of one person. I fundamentally disagree with that, I believe in democracy, I believe in opening up the system.”

This, from someone born to power in a dynasty, is a bit thick – unless this view is an indirect expression of his own fundamental ambivalence towards the exercise of power. Some time ago, he said that his mother considered “power as poison”. The chances are these are his own views too. He may thus be using Modi’s alleged obsession with power to give vent to his own feelings about power.

It is also likely that he is uncomfortable with his own party’s corruption – though he said confusing things at the interview. On the Adarsh probe report, when Goswami asks him why nothing was done, Rahul tells him he has done something: “I have made it absolutely crystal clear right in front of the press what I think about this issue.” When Goswami reminds him that Ashok Chavan (former Maharashtra CM, who is at the centre of it all) still faces no action, Rahul retreats tamely and unconvincingly: “What all I'm saying is that anybody, regardless of who he is, if there is any corruption by any Congress person, we will take action.”

The same ambivalence was evident on Lalu Prasad as well. One may recall that it was Rahul Gandhi’s “nonsense” remark that ended the ordinance to allow convicted politicians to continue in office – a decision that affected Lalu Prasad most, as his conviction in the fodder scam followed soon afterwards. But right now his party is in serious talks for an alliance with Lalu’s party in Bihar – the same party he dumped in order to go it alone in 2009 and 2010.

Rahul’s tame excuse was that it was not an alliance with Lalu, but his party. “We are making an alliance with a political party.”

Clearly, his heart and his head are in conflict on this issue of corruption. He might be happier having a cleaner party and no power – but heading a party means compromising with evil. Rahul probably dreads these compromises – but can’t bring himself to say it like it is.

There is the same split evident on 2002 and 1984 too. To most observers, the two events are similar – with the BJP and the Congress in the dock for failing to prevent attacks on a community after traumatic events (the Godhra train fire and Indira Gandhi’s assassination). But Rahul pretended not to see the similarity. It is the kind of wishful blindness that only someone deeply troubled by the comparison can enunciate. He said: “The difference between the 1984 riots and the riots in Gujarat was that in 1984 the government was trying to stop the riots. I remember, I was a child then, I remember the government was doing everything it could to stop the riots. In Gujarat the opposite was the case. The government in Gujarat was actually abetting and pushing the riots further. So there is a huge difference between the two things…”.

The inconsistencies in his views are obvious: if he was just a child then, he could not have had much of a first-hand view or memories on how the “government was going everything to stop the riots.” Everyone knows that it was a completely one-sided Congress party-led attack on Sikhs, unlike 2002, where Hindus were attacking Muslims and the subsequent communal rioting resulted in many deaths on both sides – but with Muslims losing thrice as many people as Hindus. In 2002, the attacks were less one-sided than in 1984.

And where did he get the idea that the Modi government was behind the killings? He replies: “I mean, it's not me...it's the large number of people who were there, large number of people who saw actively the government of Gujarat being involved in the riots.”

Nor was he entirely convincing in replying to the question of an apology for the 1984 riots. He made it plain that he had nothing to do with 1984: “First of all I wasn't involved in the riots at all. It wasn't that I was part of it.”

But that should make an apology easier – after all Manmohan Singh did it easily in 2005 even though he wasn’t part of the rioting at all.

One possibility is that Rahul may not want to be seen as disloyal to the memory of his father, who was the principal political beneficiary of the 1984 riots. Rajiv Gandhi skillfully used the riots to win 404 seats for the Congress party by playing on Hindu fears of Sikh extremism. Rajiv never apologised for 1984 – and even made insensitive remarks (“when a big tree falls, the earth shakes”) about it.

The point: Both Rajiv and Modi used a traumatic event to electoral advantage. But Rahul chose to see the event differently. That he is willing to believe that Modi is different from Rajiv can only be attributed to filial loyalty – little else.

Perhaps the truest thing Rahul spoke was on the dynasty itself, and it is worth quoting him at some length on this.

“The real issue is that I didn't choose to be born in this family, I didn't sign up and say that I like to be born in this family. It happened, so the choice in front of me is pretty simple: I can either turn around and say okay I will just walk away from this thing and leave it alone or I can say I can try and improve something. Pretty much every single thing I have done in my political career has been to bring in youngsters, has been to open up, has been to democratise.”

He said: “I am absolutely against the concept of dynasty, anybody who knows me knows that and understands that. But you are not going to wish away dynasty in a closed system; you have to open the system. Dynasty or children of politicians becoming powerful happens in the BJP, it happens in the DMK, it happens in the SP, it happens in the Congress party, it happens everywhere.”

This elaborate protestation is a tell-tale indication that Rahul is caught between the dynastic expectations of his family and party even while he himself is not too convinced about it. Which is why he even brings up the question of whether he can “walk away” from it all.

Rahul’s statement that he did not “choose to be born in this family” is probably straight from the heart. He probably feels guilty about his inheritance. The dilemma cannot be solved by him staying in the Congress or playing a role he does not believe in.

If he is true to himself, he should indeed walk away from it all.

(Read the full transcript of the Times Now interview here)

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Updated Date: Jan 28, 2014 17:56:02 IST

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