I was told that #WhereIsRahul trended worldwide, courtesy a hyperventilating TV channel’s relentless hot pursuit of that deep-seated investigation. All hell broke loose when the Congress vice president’s office issued a press release that he was on a brief sabbatical, perhaps introspecting, making plans, reading notes, preparing for a renewed political strategy and organisational overhaul of the Congress following a disappointing summer of 2014 and its lingering aftermath.
Rahul Gandhi is aware that when one is a public figure, one’s life is a goldfish bowl. The interminable media scrutiny is something he is quite used to. Let me state at the outset that I am not conducting a sandbagging exercise for Gandhi; he does not need it. Neither is this an anodyne script to neutralise the optics that we are so governed by these days.
The Congress has indeed experienced catastrophic electoral setbacks in rapid succession in post-December 2013 state elections, with the general elections in May 2014 interspersed in between. Gandhi was aware that the Congress was battling a massive anti-UPA sentiment, triggered by an unstoppable avalanche that started at the Ramlila Maidan in 2011, when Anna Hazare’s remonstrance ricocheted through 24×7 TV channels. It was not so much the UPA’s performance (the RTI, Lokpal, RTE, Indo-US nuclear deal, food security, FDI in multi-brand retail and land acquisition bills were passed during its tenure) but the perception of it that Gandhi was valiantly attempting to reverse. The final miserly tally in the general election was 44 seats. But if the Congress still held on to a voteshare of nearly 20 per cent, despite the massive propaganda blitzkrieg against it and the astronomical spend of a belligerent BJP, Gandhi had ensured that the Congress may have been bruised, battered and bleeding, but it was not defeated. It would live to fight another day. Politics is a ruthless sport, and you do not get a runner’s-up prize. Or leader of the opposition.
Much before Arvind Kejriwal became the country’s iconoclastic icon, it was Gandhi who was the original outlier. He questioned the lack of inner-party democracy, lamented the embedded culture of dynastic politics, expressed serious reservations about the growing chasm between a boisterous, buoyant and booming India and the stretched, struggling and subsistence-seeking Bharat. His trips to Bhatta Parsaul and the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha were not synthetic attempts at crowd-pleasing, but represented a genuine solicitude for the marginal farmer and tribal rights. He obsesses over the prevalent income inequality and unequal opportunities in India. The disproportionate imbalance in our society, he recognises, will boomerang on those who have oversold the single-sided growth story, blindsided by mere GDP numbers. The current farmer protests at Jantar Mantar against the land acquisition ordinance is a manifestation of his apprehensions. Gandhi encouraged lateral entry into the Congress from diverse occupations as early as 2004, the year this writer, otherwise a corporate entrepreneur, started to engage with the complex political ecosystem.
Nothing reflects the perception-mismatch of Gandhi vis-à-vis reality better than the celebrated tearing of the ordinance on the disqualification of convicted politicians episode. The media overplayed the apparent dramatic flourish with which Gandhi trashed the controversial ordinance when he abruptly interrupted an ongoing press conference. But only the discerning few noticed that behind that questionable spontaneous intervention, Gandhi had unilaterally changed India’s political contours; convicted politicians were now barred from contesting elections. It took a perceptive Supreme Court judge, Justice J. Chelameswar, to see through the brouhaha. “A great man has intervened at the last minute and ensured the scrapping of the ordinance. That great man has done immense service to the nation through his timely intervention,” he said. Kejriwal did his sporadic dharna for those dazzling moments before the camera, but Gandhi had the courage of conviction to take on his own government publicly because he strongly disagreed with its viewpoint. The fact that today, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s cabinet has 30 per cent ministers with criminal charges is another story altogether.
In his Jaipur address on becoming Congress VP, Gandhi made two tectonic statements with prodigious candour. He jocularly said that sometimes the Congress itself did not know how it wins elections, thereby hinting at the need for greater organisational robustness that would have more predictive outcomes. Power is poison, he said, reminiscing about the personal tragedies that have bedevilled him. He does not shun that exacting responsibility, but for him it is not about suzerainty. The empowerment of the common man matters more than the intoxicating headiness of a glorious title. Some political leaders prefer flamboyance, expensive pin-striped suits and alliterative sound bytes. Gandhi is not in the business of having the last word or the last laugh. That is for us spokespersons to worry about. He is in the act of doing things that last. Like the “idea” of India. It worries him that it is being continuously threatened.
Getting the Congress battle-ready for several state elections before 2019, rejuvenating the cadre and ensuring greater organisational symmetry will be among his several priorities. The Congress is no ordinary political organisation. It is huge, it is byzantine, and there is a generation gap crisis created by the entry of bright impatient millennials and older, mature veterans living within their cocooned comfort zones. Surreptitious leaks from within the party damaged UPA 2 and left it red-faced, but it was Gandhi who took the flak. The party needs serious disciplining, besides speed, direction and a defined goal. Talent is aplenty; for instance, the party has the likes of Jyotiraditya Scindia, Sachin Pilot, Deepender Hooda and Manish Tewari. But change is not easy, and the Congress flirts dangerously with obsolescence if it cannot reinvent urgently. Gandhi also recognises that power is a glue for many, thus the Congress remains susceptible to extraneous sops being offered to its vulnerable borderline supporters. The new membership drive cannot be about a statistical triumph alone, but a commitment to the Congress’s ideology of inclusiveness, secularism, tolerance and progressiveness, which can override short-term disappointments. He is not a status-quoist and believes that the party needs to leapfrog ahead instead of tinkering with incremental cosmetic changes. He is a quiet revolutionary, but in a hurry to accelerate change. An introspection away from the maddening mayhem that is daily politics was, in fact, much needed.
Behind that soft exterior and inherent decency stands a man with a steely determination. I once asked him what it was like to live as a young boy knowing that your own father faced constant security threats. “It changes you from within. You internalise and adapt to a harsh reality. You are not fearful thereafter. You become tough.” I think the tragic loss of his father has affected him deeply and made him stronger. Thus, you find him talking often about the “politics of love”; for him it is about reconciliation over revenge, remorse over retribution.
Gandhi is the proverbial long-distance runner and, as all marathon men know, it is a lonely experience. India’s destiny cannot be fulfilled through an epiphany at short bursts of 100m sprints, but by a visionary, calibrated and determined targeting of the long-term finish line. Gandhi is running towards that goal. It does not matter whether he is in the hills or Bangkok. He will be back. Choose your hashtag.
The writer is national spokesperson of the Congress. Views are personal