It used to be said of politicians that you only have to meet them once and they become your best friend, well, at least if you are a journalist. You meet them for 10 minutes to ask them about some story and when you see them next, even a year later, they’ll remember your name, remember the headline of your story and remember your kids by their name. They might even whisper into your ear conspiratorially, explaining their political strategy, “Kya karein karna parta hain, aap hi bataiyein’’ (You know, right? It’s got to be done). And suddenly, with one wily move, the neta almost wins you over to his side. It doesn’t matter whether you represent a big media house or not, the neta tries to woo all journalists because any press, good or bad, has to mean more publicity.
Yes, that held true for all politicians till the likes of Rahul Gandhi came along. And we couldn’t help reminiscing the good old days as we hung around trying to piece together what the Congress Vice-President had told his MPs and some senior journalists inside the limited access central hall about the Prime Minister’s post. See, if it was any other politician, he would have probably ordered chai and briefed reporters himself. But the new school, which RG represented, was antithetical to that. The degree to which his handling was different is illustrated in an incident that happened few years ago.
It was a time when Rahul had got management gurus to hold training and lecture sessions for Youth Congress workers. Rahul was closeted with his people inside a makeshift classroom all day and even though the story of an ancient party turning into a boardroom was a novel one for journalists, he wouldn’t say a word, and everyone else was too chicken to speak. The interest among editors for the story was high, which was matched by the desperation levels of reporters. During lunch hour, a bunch of reporters looking for clues went into the room and sneaked out copies of the presentation. It may not have been ethically the right thing to do, but it certainly didn’t merit a criminal case. But that’s exactly what Rahul Gandhi registered against the four reporters at Connaught Place police station. They apologised to him personally, they met other senior leaders to explain their position, but it wasn’t before they had done several chakkars of the police station, and sweated it out profusely that they were let off. Rahul’s objective was to teach them professionalism.
Reporters weren’t the only one at the receiving end of this new, ‘professional’ wave. Ingrid McLeod, an MP from Chattisgarh, is still smarting because like other netas, she loved sitting on stage. Unfortunately for her, last year, when the main guest on stage for some event was Rahul Gandhi, her enthusiasm to get on it didn’t go down well. Old-school politicians are usually very indulgent and that’s perhaps why you would have seen many stages collapse because too many people climbed on and no one could say no. But RG, being different, wanted only those on the list to be allowed, and so MP sahiba was asked to get off. She threw a tantrum, and now, just for that, she still has no official post in the state congress.
There are many other such instances and tools of a ‘business’ environment — use of emails, strict appointments, and endless brainstorming sessions with the core team which is enlisted from Wharton and other such graduate schools. Stories of the old guard being shocked out of their minds when confronted with these new demands of professionalism abound, and as we hear them, I think of two possible outcomes. If I am being optimistic about change, I’d think perhaps it is this kind of radical upheaval that our political system needs. That the recruitment drives much like private sector companies will bring in fresh blood into our political system, along with accountability to the people and new leaders that actually makes us all feel like valuable shareholders in the system.
But that outcome looks practically impossible and naive right now. The actual outcome seems more likely to be a befuddling combination which is neither old, familiar and faulty, nor is it genuinely heralding change. How does talk of marriage, children, and legacy of grandparents constantly seep into boardroom talk? How is it professional to keep talking about empowerment when those in power are all from the same crop of families? Where is the actual professional environment which sets timely deadlines and then fulfills those tasks? It’s not some imaginary babies which will force Rahul Gandhi to become a status quoist. He has to realise, as far as popular perception goes, he already is.
Sunetra Choudhury is an anchor/reporter for NDTV and the author of the election travelogue Braking News.