In October 2005, Rahul Gandhi made a surprise visit to a middle-class haunt in Chennai. With a few friends, he descended on Hotel Saravana Bhavan at Ashok Nagar, not far from the airport and spent the next hour or so getting a taste of south Indian cuisine.
Then, the young Gandhi hadn’t placed his feet as firmly on the political ground as he has now, nor had he made his obsession so clear. Yet, in the following days, his visit to the restaurant was the topic of discussion among journalists: What did he have? (Kara dosai, thaiyir vadai, cauliflower rasam and appalam). Why, of all places, to Saravana Bhavan? (One journalist, alluding to Andre Gide’s comment on Victor Hugo, said: That’s the best vegetarian restaurant we have in town—for the outsiders. Alas.) And what does this event tell about Rahul? (Absolutely nothing!)
We know next to nothing about Rahul Gandhi, crown prince of India’s de facto first family. So the thought of a book-length biography by two journalists (Jatin Gandhi, of Open magazine and Veenu Sandhu of Business Standard) had me salivating. The timing couldn’t have been more apt. Rahul is very much in the news now as Uttar Pradesh goes to poll, and the prevalant view is that a good show there will make the calls for him to become the prime minister soon even louder.
But is Rahul, the book, any good? Sadly, it does not rise very far above being a collection of reportage. One looks for voices that could lift the veil surrounding Gandhi, even if just a little, give us a sense of what he is like when he is off-stage. I am not talking about access to and insights from the man himself, or even from his immediate family. But at least from others who have seen him at close quarters? What was Rahul like at St. Stephen’s? At Harvard? How did ‘Raul Vinci’ navigate Rollins and Trinity and the Monitor group? All we get is two rather unrevealing quotes from St. Stephen’s professors about his time there. From a book that names its subject with his first name, there isn’t much of a sense of his personal life, beyond a quote from a newspaper about his girlfriend. Nothing about his influences, his youth, his passions. Apart from chronicling the gaffes he made in his early days in public life (and giving one the sense that those had lessened in number and magnitude), there is little about the intellectual and emotional journey he had made since he took the plunge into active politics. It’s unfair to say there is nothing new in the book: The parts about his interest in sports, the way his office is run, the dynamics with his team are both interesting and somewhat revealing.
What the book does well is filter and summarise available information, and place it in a fairly interesting narrative. It is, at best, a crash course on the person who is going to affect our lives sooner or later. It’s the best biography we have of Rahul Gandhi; because it’s the only one.
& Veenu Sandhu,
Price: Rs. 499; Pages: 267