The suitable boy is finally ready to settle down and take over the family business, which is more about family and less about business.
“Rahul-ji has been the darling of the Congress,” said former prime minister Manmohan Singh, as he proposed Rahul Gandhi’s candidature as party president.
He seemed to have forgiven, if not forgotten how Rahul publicly snubbed him by describing an ordnance his government had put together as “nonsense” that should be “torn up and thrown away.” He seemed to have forgiven as well how Rahul skipped Singh’s farewell dinner as he stepped down after ten years as prime minister.
On the other hand, let’s not forget Darling is also a hit song. And the film it’s from is named 7 Khoon Maaf.
7 Khoon Maaf pretty much sums up the Congress-Rahul Gandhi relationship. The Congress has waited for Rahul Gandhi with a devotion of mythological proportions, excused his every failure, tolerated his ups and downs.
When he vanished for about 60 days, we were told “Rahul needed time”. When the Congress was decimated in the polls in 2014 and the mother-son duo stepped before the cameras, Rahul seemed to be smirking. But still the Congress kept faith in its reluctant crown prince. For every birthday party workers cut cake and burst firecrackers outside his house, even if he was out of the country.
“Now that the polls are over, he will completely unleash his plans,” a Congress source told the media after its electoral drubbing in 2014. Instead, under his watch, the Congress won the most seats in Goa and Manipur, but was still outfoxed by the BJP when it came to forming a government.
Now that the scion is finally stepping up to assume the throne, the Congress seems to be heaving a sigh of motherly relief. Their suitable boy is finally ready to settle down and take over the family business, never mind that it seems to be more about family and less about business.
But is it really news? The real news would have been if there had been a spirited fight to head the party. That would have forced the party to articulate what it truly stood for. When his cousin Varun Gandhi tweeted effusively about their grandmother on her 100th birth anniversary recently, some wondered what the Congress would have been like with a leader, even if it was another Gandhi, who had more fire in his belly.
Rahul’s diffidence makes him a decent human being, but milquetoast as a leader. Navjot Singh Sidhu said that when the party lost in 2014 Rahul stepped up to take the blame.
“This is the character of a good leader,” said Sidhu.
But that’s not what happened. We just saw a charade. Sonia and Rahul offered their resignations, and they were duly rejected without discussion. Rahul chose not to lead the party in the Lok Sabha. The story went that he wanted to focus on building the party. There’s no evidence that much has been built since then. The Congress tied up with the CPM to fight Trinamool and got a bloody nose in Bengal. It lost several states in which it had been in power, managing to only wrest back Punjab. Its alliance with the Samajwadi Party left both bedraggled in Uttar Pradesh. It might lose Himachal Pradesh in a few days. Without a doubt, if it happens, the Congress will assume collective responsibility for it. If it squeaks through, the credit will go to Rahul alone.
In a bid to generate excitement about Rahul’s ascension, he is being marketed as Rahul Redux. This newer Rahul is snappier on the draw. He is at the helm in Gujarat. He shows more consistency and focus. His social media team has found a sense of humour. When Rahul goofs up, as he did with a tweet about the price of essential commodities, he owns up to it and gets a swipe in at Narendra Modi as well.
“For all my BJP friends: unlike Narendrabhai, I am human. We do make the odd mistake and that’s what makes life interesting. Thanks for pointing it out and please do keep it coming, it really helps me improve. Love you all,” tweeted Rahul Redux.
But the Congress would be foolish to assume this new Twitter-friendly self-deprecating Rahul Redux will automatically lead to Congress Reinvented.
The problem remains the same for the grand old party. The Nehru-Gandhis regard their role as zimmedari, a responsibility and duty. Everything is about the sacrifice of Nehru-Gandhis in the past, a mantra that’s past its expiry date. Rahul Gandhi cannot act as if the party presidency is his crown of thorns.
Narendra Modi, like him or hate him, treats his office as a job, and one that he embraces with unbridled ambition. Someone can aspire to be the next Modi, but no one can aspire to be the next Rahul Gandhi. That is the Congress party’s greatest handicap as it projects Rahul as its leader. Can Rahul inspire?
The irony is that if he has any help in his reinvention, it is coming from the BJP these days. Once the BJP’s GVL Narasimha Rao had said Rahul Gandhi was the surest way to achieve his party’s aim of a Congress-mukt Bharat. That same GVL Narasimha Rao is now calling Rahul Gandhi a “Babar-bhakt” and “Kin of Khilji” actually gaining him some sympathy.
The party’s crude attacks on Rahul Gandhi, their rolling out the heavyweights to rebut some interactions he had at a university in America, is finally giving Rahul a bit of gravitas that none of his party loyalists could give him. Even other politicians like Sanjay Raut of the Shiv Sena and Ramdas Athawale of the Republican Party say he is not “Pappu” anymore. But for the electorate to warm up to him, Rahul needs to show that he enjoys politics and not treat it as homework.
Many say it’s a strange alignment of stars that has seen Rahul Gandhi poised to finally take over the Congress, just as Shashi Kapoor has passed away. One was best known for uttering the iconic line “Mere paas maa hain” in Deewar. The other lived out that line in real life.
But as Rahul Gandhi steps out of the shadows of his mother, he’ll have to remember that to succeed he will need to persuade India’s impatient electorate that he can help them acquire the rest of the package as well, the bit that Amitabh Bachchan talked about before Shashi Kapoor made that immortal retort – the gaadi, the bungalow, the bank balance, the property. Maa is not enough anymore in aspirational India.
Sandip Roy is a novelist based in Kolkata.