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The son in hiding

Sunday, 23 September 2012 - 10:00am IST Updated: Sunday, 23 September 2012 - 10:04am IST | Place: Mumbai | Agency: dna

One could advise Rahul Gandhi to take lessons from the way the Americans do politics ­— grass-root, transparent and immersed — but he seems immune to advice.

Book: Decoding Rahul Gandhi
Aarthi Ramachandran

After a chunk of the UPA-II broke off this week, there arose a debate about the longevity of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s government, but that’s a no-brainer: it will last till polls are due in 2014. What’s more relevant is whether Rahul Gandhi becomes the Congress party’s prime ministerial candidate in 2014.

For now, it appears not. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, has perhaps decided that the next election will be a wash-out for her party. She’s probably hoping that a fractious coalition of regional parties comes to power, and collapses under its own weight by 2016, after which a fed-up electorate gives a clear mandate to her son. (Incidentally, this appears to be Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s game-plan as well.) Thus, to keep Rahul fresh, she must keep him moth-balled for now, as he has been for much of his political life.

Will it work? If we were in the US, we’d get clues in a politician’s memoir or biography. In India, unfortunately, politicians are secretive; particularly in Sonia’s family, which uses the aura of mystery as its singular electoral weapon. Rahul never speaks to the media, and though his reasons are probably right, the fact that he does not is wrong. Nonetheless, two recent books have tried to put the 42-year-old’s career in perspective. Aarthi Ramachandran’s Decoding Rahul Gandhi, though at times tedious and poorly edited, does not do a bad job.

It uses interviews with people who have come into Rahul’s orbit either through education, work or politics, alongside extensive research. Rahul himself declined to be interviewed (his man Friday Kanishka Singh kept Ramachandran’s requests pending for two years, despite her credentials with leading business papers), so the author filled in some blanks by accompanying Rahul during a UP padayatra; a one-on-one non-journalistic meeting also helped. While Rahul comes across as a well-meaning fellow who keeps most others at arm’s length, his political life has been marked by a naïve faith that management strategy can work in a non-corporate environment, and by a politics that is dilettantish, at best.

“Rahul Gandhi is the Congress party’s Mallika Sherawat. He comes, he does his item number and he disappears. He has nothing to do with the script of the movie,” a senior Opposition leader is quoted saying. This aptly describes Rahul’s silent visits to Parliament, his occasional one-nighters at Dalit homes, and his failed attempts to rebuild the party in UP, Bihar or Tamil Nadu.

Rahul’s faith in management techniques was likely picked up from his work at a London investment firm (of which, like his education, there is Masonic-like secrecy). He used “the Toyota way” as a bible for reforming the Indian Youth Congress. It failed. Without reforming the parent party, all that he did was allow entrenched party heavyweights to place their children for inheriting power. Politics is unlike business; data alone cannot solve the complex equation of a variety of disparate elements, including personal charisma, building relationships, finding compromises, and disbursing patronage. Businesses don’t contest elections; that too in India, the most diverse of nations.

This approach failed Rahul in 2012 UP, Ramachandran says, because his strategy was to replicate Mamata Banerjee’s agitation against land acquisition in Singur. She dislodged a three-decade-old Left Front government in West Bengal; two months later, Rahul tried the same tactic in Western UP’s Bhatta-Parsaul. Whereas Mamata was immersed in her agitation, Rahul was a tourist. He assumed that merely adopting the strategy was sufficient. Instead he looked ill-informed; a bachcha, as BJP’s Rajnath Singh said. Rahul lost the UP state elections for the second time in a row.

But let’s assume Rahul, like Manmohan Singh, avoids elections on the road to power. Ramachandran looks at Anna Hazare’s anti-corruption agitation, in August 2011, for clues as to how Rahul might fare. Rahul did not publicly utter a word about corruption or the agitation. Sonia had gone abroad for a still-secret surgery, and put her son in charge of a four-member committee to run things. On August 16, 2011, Rahul and Manmohan Singh met over the agitation, and soon after, Hazare was arrested, which drew a backlash that was politically disastrous for the UPA-II. Rahul and Manmohan met again, and Hazare was released.

At the parliamentary debate Rahul gave his two pence in a speech not during the debate but much before it, unchallenged. Though he called his speech a “game-changer”, it was ignored in Parliament’s resolution to accept Hazare’s three main points.

One could advise Rahul to take lessons from the way the Americans do politics ­— grass-root, transparent and immersed — but he seems immune to advice. He is a closed person, trying half-heartedly to lead an open society. Ramachandran’s book, despite its clunkers (a chapter is titled “Wither Transformation”, instead of “Whither”) provides as good an insight as one can currently get.

Rahul’s track record shows more failure than success. There is no reason to think that if he ever became prime minister, his record would improve. Unless, perhaps, if Sonia stopped moth-balling him and threw him into the deep end of politics, to sink or swim.

The writer is the Editor-in-Chief, DNA,  based in Mumbai

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