Power can sometimes flow from a dimpled smile. A year ago, Rahul Gandhi was spotted outside Parliament with a group of schoolchildren. A seasoned television reporter was star-struck seeing Rahul: “Isn’t he adorable? What lovely dimples he has!” Ah, one sighed, the classic baba-log syndrome where good looks seem to matter more than substance.
Till last year, the general impression of Rahul was of an earnest young man, almost NGO-like in his political instincts, but a little out of depth in the heat and dust of Indian politics. It was his sister Priyanka who was seen to have the charisma for public life. Rahul was almost dismissed as a reluctant politician with his heart residing with a Colombian girlfriend. When the Congress failed to arrest the rise of Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh in 2007 despite Rahul campaigning across the state, it was felt that brand Gandhi was not enough to alter the landscape of a Mandalised north Indian polity.
Image: Pankaj Nangia
Twelve months later, it’s all changed. From being ridiculed as mama’s boy blessed with papa’s surname, Rahul Gandhi has now slowly carved an independent identity. From a Gandhi family baiter like Amar Singh to a BJP mascot like Shatrughan Sinha, there is an acknowledgment that Rahul is more than just another dynastic politician. It isn’t as if he has shed the dynasty tag: Being a member of India’s first political family is still his biggest asset. Without it, there is a fair chance that he would have been just another young politician jostling for space. Yet, today, Rahul’s success formula has three crucial elements that have enabled him to slowly transcend dynasty. Firstly, he has managed to use the Gandhi family aura to energise a constituency that has been desperate to see change in politics: The youth of India, a generation fed up with the dichotomy of being a young nation with an ageing leadership. When Rahul took over as general secretary of the Congress in charge of its youth wings in September 2007, most observers believed that he was being protected from the real challenges that lay ahead. The Youth Congress was a moribund organisation populated by overage Congressmen. But Rahul has used it to stir a movement for change from within: To recast the Congress as a more open and meritocratic political party. For example, his attempt to have organisational elections within the Youth Congress suggests a democratic impulse that has been missing in the party for years. While a number of the newly elected Congress MPs remain the offspring of powerful politicians, there is also the parallel emergence of fresh-faced leaders who are challenging the status quo. But it’s not just young India: Rahul has also used the power of the family name to appeal to the Congress’ original constituency, the poor. In that sense, he is more like his grandmother. Rahul’s vision is driven by his belief that genuine political power vests in the countryside, in pro-poor programmes like NREGA and farm loan waivers. He talks the language of compassionate capitalism. Staying in Dalit homes or invoking a farm widow like Kalavati may be seen as tokenism, but the symbolism, much like Indira’s Garibi Hatao slogan, is beginning to have a positive resonance. The third element underlying Rahul’s appeal rests in his seeming reluctance to embrace the trappings of office. After the UPA’s remarkable success in the 2009 general elections, Rahul could have got a ministry of his choice. Yet, he rejected the invitation to join Manmohan Singh’s cabinet. That he has chosen to stay out is attractive to a generation of Indians who are disgusted with a political class that does little to mask its ambition. Renunciation, as Sonia Gandhi proved five years ago, remains a potent weapon, even if you are a prince in waiting wielding power without direct responsibility. And yet, like his mother, Rahul does remain a mystery wrapped in an enigma. The private world of Rahul Gandhi is a zealously guarded secret. An Omar Abdullah may agree to be photographed on the cover of a men’s magazine, a Rahul will not. In fact, he hasn’t done a single proper interview, and his press conferences and public appearances are well choreographed. Perhaps, he lacks the easy warmth and spontaneity that made Rajiv so attractive. Rahul’s critics find his inaccessibility a sign of arrogance, but ironically his more reserved demeanour probably makes Rahul less prone to becoming a victim of the coterie politics that undermined his father. Rajiv’s close aides were primarily his school buddies; Rahul though hasn’t surrounded himself with a Doon-Stephens gang, even seeking out academics and activists for guidance. But while Rahul has signalled his arrival in 2009, he still hasn’t conquered the political universe. His major test will come in 2012 when he must face up to the task of recapturing Uttar Pradesh from Mayawati. It won’t be easy. While Rahul’s big gamble of going it alone in the 2009 general elections in UP might have worked, a state election will throw up an entirely new set of challenges. Mulayam Singh may be down, but he is not out yet. Mayawati still leads a formidable army of supporters. And the BJP’s internal churning could yet throw up a new, dynamic leadership. And then there’s the 2014 general elections, where Rahul will almost certainly be pitched as the Congress’s prime ministerial nominee. His grand political strategy is to ensure that the Congress is no longer dependent on coalition partners and the party can capture power on its own. It’s an ambitious plan that is going to take time and patience to realise. So far, Rahul has had a relatively soft landing in politics, few tough questions asked and no certainty on whether the fine words will translate into action. To his credit, Rahul seems to have learnt that politics is not a T20 match but requires the hard grind of test cricket. Win or lose, he always has the dimpled smile to fall back upon! (The author is editor-in-chief, IBN18 Network)