Barack Obama’s assessment of Rahul Gandhi in his memoir, A Promised Land, that Rahul is willing to learn but does not have the aptitude to handle power politics — appears to be right. Power politics in India requires an aptitude of hit and run. But, with the Congress winning just three state elections so far, Rahul has fought the BJP with credibility. In my view, he need not give up politics.
Indian politics needs two types of leaders: One, moral leaders who should remain outside institutional power but remain in politics; second, those who win elections and exercise power for which one needs to pretend to be moral but be Machiavellian on an everyday basis. This seems to be the norm for handling power in Indian democracy.
India has produced Mahatma Gandhi, B R Ambedkar and Jayaprakash Narayan in the first category of leaders and thinkers; and many of the second type. There is hardly any example like that of Obama in India’s postcolonial history, who could successfully combine power and morality.
Though India’s electoral democracy has sustained, its moral basis has not become productively humanitarian. The historical deprivations of people have been easily harvested to construct an image of the enemy and the other — at present, the Muslim. The Muslim question gives enough scope to muddle the moral basis of politics and, more so, in elections.
The politics of attacking pluralism, liberalism and secularism does work, as the millions of Americans following a demagogue like Trump shows. The Indian democracy is prone to such vagaries and we are going through that process. In India, a moral leader who exercises power and ensures that democracy is not derailed appears to be an unlikely possibility. The best of Indian Prime Ministers, Jawaharlal Nehru, also was not a moral leader like Gandhi, Ambedkar and JP.
In contemporary India, the electoral political process has been so communalised that a leader with liberal training and aptitude will not be able to stop the Modi-Shah bulldozer. The system has been driven to a stage where money and muscle power is at a peak. The BJP-RSS combine has pushed Indian industrial capital to support and finance them by all means.
We need a new political discourse from outside the power matrix. If Rahul Gandhi does not take up a moral political route, neither the Congress nor his family’s political careers will survive. Unless a new political atmosphere is created, like the one that JP had in the run-up to the Emergency, the situation will not change. It can be changed by a leader from outside the power structure but within the political domain. Gandhi, Ambedkar and JP did that. Rahul Gandhi can shift to that mode of politics and prove Obama’s assessment of him wrong.
As he is not married, he can end the connection between his family and the dynastic characteristic of Congress. Powerful young leaders are emerging to mobilise a secular-welfare-centred vote base in regional politics. The latest is Tejashwi Yadav in Bihar. Earlier, Y S Jaganmohan Reddy and Akhilesh Yadav did that in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. If Rahul makes it clear that he will end family-centred politics and stop making enemies of ambitious young regional leaders, they could be brought into the Congress as national leaders. If the PM position is not open to those outside the Gandhi family, leaders cannot emerge in the Congress. Of course, everyone cannot become the PM. But the ambition to become one makes a leader. And a healthy contest and competition within a party is the only way to produce leaders.
In the BJP, for example, Narendra Modi and Pramod Mahajan had nurtured themselves for the PM’s office from the days of Vajpayee’s rule. Both were young and ambitious. I would not agree with their political ideology at all, but appreciate that the BJP’s structure is not centred on a family. The Congress of today closed that door as it is perceived that only Rahul Gandhi should become the PM.
One positive thing that has emerged from Modi’s constant attack on dynasty politics is that a new generation of Indians dislike families ruling for a longer time. It was with an eye on personal and family power in Delhi during the Indira Gandhi regime that various regional parties cropped up in the states. But if, slowly and surely, regional parties do not end dynastic politics, they risk their careers and democracy. More importantly, if the Congress does not reposition in Delhi, India is likely to go through another uni-party rule for a longer time. It cannot even become a strong opposition.
If he disregards the pressure from the old advisors of his family, and commits to a new politics that is seen as not power-hungry, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress have a chance — even if the BJP continues to be in power for a few more years. That alone will save democracy in India. Rahul Gandhi has to seize that opportunity.
(The author is a political theorist. His new book co-edited with Karthik Raja Karuppusamy, The Shudras—Vision for a New Path, is soon to be published by Penguin)
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