Thakker's at Chowpatty, Mumbai, is a Gujarati restaurant. Around 10am, Thursday, Rahul Gandhi, the Congress candidate for the prime minister's post, met 40-odd senior journalists. He wore a white kurta, blue jeans, and brown leather slip-ons without socks. He sported a four-day stubble, and looked untroubled though only on February 26, a survey released by the Pew Research Centre (quoted by the Economist last week) said Indian voters preferred a government run by the BJP over the Congress by 63% to 19%.
Rahul Gandhi said the Maharshtra CM, Prithviraj Chavan, who sat next to him, taking notes, was an honest and competent chief minister. The chief minister seemed to be in total agreement with this remark, and said in industrial development and growth Maharashtra was ahead of Gujarat. But somehow everybody was talking about Gujarat, a perception created by the media.
Rahul Gandhi said Maharashtrians were a great people. He said Chavan was doing so well because the people he led were great. If Gujarat was doing well, it was thanks to its people, not Narendra Modi. He seemed to think leaders have little to do with a region's achievement. That may not make much sense to a skeptic, but Rahul Gandhi apparently believed in it with ardour.
Rahul Gandhi said he was not troubled by surveys that predicted a BJP victory this summer. Surveys always get it wrong, he said. They got it wrong, in 2004, he said, and again in 2009. The people were with him and his party. The Congress was more democratic and the people knew it. He was engaging in conversations with the people. The BJP was looking to work India to one narrow vision. It wouldn't work, because the Indian mind was structurally incapable of working to commands. In the last 10 years of the Congress rule, the party had empowered the people with several schemes. The people and the Congress went back a long time. The BJP had only business houses in mind. The Congress wanted both business and people.
By means of inclusive growth, he said. But he did not spell what he meant by it or how to arrive at it. Nevertheless he thought the Congress was doing exactly that.
Why is the party in trouble, then, dna asked.
The party is not in trouble.
Do you think you stand a chance to form a government after the elections?
Winning elections are important, he said. But, he said, structural changes in the way India made her decisions were more important. He said he was working towards it, towards "directional changes". Right now he was learning from people.
Isn't he taking a very long time, dna asked, but was not heard in the melee.
Was he a reluctant PM candidate, pushed into the centre stage too late?
No, he was not, he said, but did not elaborate.
And yes, he was against dynasty. The thing to do was to open the system to more people.
Is his celibacy a way of busting dynasty, dna asked.
That's a good one, Rahul Gandhi said.
What happened to you with Arnab Goswami? dna asked.
It was an interrogation under the lights, not an interview, Rahul Gandhi said, he was not interested in listening to what I had to say. Rahul Gandhi seemed quite amused by his ordeal in the TV studio.
And so it went for over an hour. At the end of which what did emerge was not that Rahul Gandhi was making a very great deal of sense. Very few people do these days. But unlike the earlier, doubtful, shrill, Rahul Gandhi, the new one who visited Mumbai on Thursday believed he was in it for the long haul. He looked confident. It was equally clear, that he did not believe the Congress would win the elections this summer. But he believes that the party has a chance in the next general elections; he hinted at a midterm poll. He seemed content to wait.
You could see that the man is improving. He is sort of growing into a role, trying to learn a country from inside. In 10 years from now, perhaps Rahul Gandhi would be great prime ministerial stuff. But the country he groomed himself so assiduously for such a long time might be eyeing someone else. Ten years is a long time for destiny not to throw dice.