Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Rahul Gandhi: A Coming of Age

Rahul Gandhi was dismissed as a political infant not long ago. But as the 2009 Forbes India 'Person of the Year' works diligently to wake the Congress Party from its rusty stupor, that assessment needs to change

Published: Jan 4, 2010 08:24:50 AM IST
Updated: Jan 4, 2010 01:08:49 PM IST

The broken destiny of his family shrouds Rahul Gandhi like the security blanket of his unsmiling protectors. Beyond the penumbral security are adulating millions, who treat him like the deliverer. Not many people have a life like Gandhi — tragic and euphoric at the same time. Maybe that is why he took his time to make up his mind. Maybe it was an urge to be just a regular guy. But after years of hesitation, the scion of India’s first political family is gradually breaking out of the iron cocoon to touch hands with his countrymen. He appears to have decided that he wants to be the hope of his fractious country, the deliverer of modernity to India’s politics.

“My aim is to change how politics is done. We want to take it to the politics of the future,” Gandhi declared to about 100 journalists gathered at the Taj Hotel in Lucknow on a dew-drenched December morning. The press conference itself had a bit of drama when, before his arrival, his media managers tried to prevent press photographers from sitting in front. Gandhi resolved the heated argument saying that they could shoot from the front as long as they did not use the flash. He explained that camera flashes distracted him from focussing on the questions!

Rahul Gandhi has an informal executive council to consult but there is no doubt who takes the decisions
Image: Dinesh Tripathi
Rahul Gandhi has an informal executive council to consult but there is no doubt who takes the decisions
Some, even in his own party, are still unsure whether it is the naiveté of the political fledgling or the makings of what in Tamil Nadu they call a puratchi thalaivar – revolutionary leader. If he pulls it off, he would indeed be one as his politics is built on principles that are now buried in the graves of our founding fathers. Rahul Gandhi’s promise is a clean, development-driven, merit-oriented politics.
“He is definitely left of centre in his thinking,’’ says Digvijay Singh, Congress general secretary in charge of Uttar Pradesh, currently Rahul Gandhi’s political laboratory.

“He is genuinely concerned about the poor of the country,” Singh says. That concern has taken RG, as he is known among close aides, on tours of the hinterland where he spends time with poor villagers and dalits to understand the issues they face. Three years ago, the media mocked them as Rahul Gandhi’s “discovery of India” tours. Some called it vote-bank missions. But they appear to be part of a learning process that is expected to inspire decision-making when he may sit in the policymaker’s chair. There is a reason for it.

Along with the headline-generating tours, which include midnight jogs, Gandhi constantly meets experts in various fields seeking solutions to many of the problems he observes first hand in the villages. Persons close to him say that he seeks out agriculture experts, educationists, economists, political analysts and development theorists for their perspectives. Most of these are confidential closed-door meetings.

“He is not the run-of-the-mill politician,” says Sudha Pai, who teaches political science at Jawaharlal Nehru University. In 2005, when the idea of reviving the Congress in UP was taking root in the party, Pai was one of the first persons Gandhi paid a visit. “He had already read my book and was well informed about UP,’’ she says. (Pai was referring to her book Dalit Assertion and the Unfinished Democratic Agenda. )

In a manner of speaking, Rahul Gandhi is a value investor, thinking very long term and investing in resources that may seem worthless today.

Gandhi says that he is not interested in elections. Nor was he looking at UP as mission 2012, insisting that currently all his energies were focused on energising the Youth Congress and National Students’ Union of India (NSUI), the party’s students wing. Gandhi believes he will be able to build a bunch of future leaders by opening up the youth wings and breaking down the nomination system to party office.

Says cop-turned-Congressman Shailendra Singh, “the problem with the party was that young people who could work for the party were busy making a living. So those who became office-bearers had no connect with the people.’’ The 42-year-old, who quit as deputy superintendent of police citing political interference when he charged MLA Mukhtar Ansari under POTA, now heads the UPCC’s right-to-information task force.

Gandhi thinks open organisational elections will bring fresh, baggage-free talent to a party atrophying in its nepotistic labyrinth. It is an uphill task, but made a bit easy because of the person in charge. “When someone from the Gandhi family is in charge, it is difficult to put pressure on him,” says a Congress leader, who did not wish to be identified. He says that Gandhi understands that by building a youth constituency for himself within the party, he will not face the kind of covert attacks that his reformist father had to face from intra-party rivals. So he is catching them really young; in colleges. Even there, the party machinery had slipped into a rusty stupor.

In early 2008, at the executive meeting of NSUI, Rahul Gandhi asked the state presidents how many of them favoured elections. “Only the state president of West Bengal and I were in favour,” remembers Hibi Eaden, the current NSUI president and then president of the Kerala unit. Eaden says that Rahul Gandhi is not worried about short-term setbacks.

So, in spite of practically the entire leadership of the students’ organisation against it, Gandhi pressed ahead with elections, both in the NSUI and the Indian Youth Congress (IYC). He and his team of investment-banker turned aides went about it methodically, creating databases, issuing identity cards, driving memberships – all very professional and business-like.

A person who knows how Gandhi works says that he operates through an informal executive council that includes his friend and aide Kanishka Singh, IYC president Ashok Tanwar, Mandsaur MP Meenakshi Natarajan, Alwar MP Jitendra Singh and NSUI president Hibi Eaden. “It is a consultative process, but there is no doubt on who takes the decisions,’’ he says.

During the Youth Congress elections in Jharkhand, the membership and election deposit became an issue because many who wanted to contest were too poor to afford even the small sum. Gandhi asked what should be done. “His advisors wanted to reduce the fee for the candidates in the state. But then, RG posed a counter question – How can we justify reducing the fee only in one state?” says the person.

While the intentions appear to be noble, politics in India is still a complex equation of caste combinations, religious issues and regional concerns. Alliances are often made in secret midnight deals with shady powerbrokers, businessmen, money and offshore accounts playing an inevitable part. It will take more than a well-intentioned Gandhi to change all that. “He knows that money and influence is still playing a role even in the organisational elections. He knows that he cannot change that overnight. But he wants to give it an honest shot,’’ says a person close to him. Gandhi’s strength is he understands the compulsions and is willing to slug it out in the long run on his own terms.

"He understands the issues very well and he seems genuinely concerned. However, I don’t think he still has any solutions,’’ says Lucknow-based journalist Sharad Pradhan, who interviewed him two years ago. Yet, he is willing to take risks. It was Rahul Gandhi who convinced the Congress Party leadership to contest the Lok Sabha elections in UP on its own earlier this year. Some say Digvijay Singh who was in charge of UP favoured tying up with Mulayam Singh Yadav’s Samajwadi Party, though he denies it. “We were on the same page in UP,” Singh says.

Shailendra Singh sees the UP results as proof that the traditional caste-based politics can be broken if tickets are given to capable candidates. He says in this year’s polls, Gandhi did not interfere much in candidate selection but expects him to push at least 100 candidates from the youth brigade to contest in the assembly polls in 2012. One view is that he himself should become the chief ministerial candidate. “The Congress will sweep the elections if that happens,” says Pradhan.

Not so easily, says JNU’s Professor Pai. She points to the National Election Study 2009 by Lokniti that covered 2,900 voters. The voters preferred Mayawati to Gandhi as the next chief minister. Interestingly they preferred Manmohan Singh as the prime minister. Perhaps they prefer experience to youth. Or may be their insecurities are too high to hope for a change.

The young Gandhi still does not have the practiced rhetoric of a seasoned politician but has the determination and spirit. “He is a combination of his uncle (Sanjay Gandhi) and his father (Rajiv Gandhi). He has the drive and nobility,” says a person close to him. Another person says that Gandhi does not believe anyone without cross-checking, even if the person is very close to him. Sometimes his lack of experience shows such as when he talked about sugarcane farmers’ problems in Bundelkhand, an arid region where cane is not grown. But he more than made up for his gaffe. He impressed upon Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to give a Rs. 7,000-crore package for Bundelkhand.

“Once he takes up an issue, the government has to listen,” says a senior Congress leader. He says that Rahul Gandhi meets the prime minister once every month where he discusses various developmental and economic issues.

So far Gandhi has played his cards well and has shown the characteristics of a different leader in the making. One who takes measured steps and calculated risks. He has shown a patient but independent mind. What is not known yet is how he will wield power, the ultimate test of a great politician. Right now, even the unbelieving seem to believe him. It remains to be seen whether they believe in him.

(This story appears in the 08 January, 2010 issue of Forbes India. To visit our Archives, click here.)