Is there another Ahmed Patel in the Congress who can make a Sonia Gandhi out of Rahul Gandhi? When she had taken over as the Congress president in 1998, she reminded many of Ram Mahohar Lohia’s gungi gudiya description of her mother-in-law, Indira Gandhi. But Sonia, who tentatively read out Hindi speeches written in Roman script, soon evolved into a formidable politician. Ahmed Patel was credited with her transformation.
The discussion about Rahul’s Patel has become more intense after the Congress’ dismal show in Hyderabad municipal polls; it saw the party meekly ceding its political space to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in yet another state, Telangana. A day later, veteran politician Sharad Pawar seemed to endorse former US president Barack Obama’s assessment of Rahul, saying there were ‘questions’ about Gandhi’s ‘consistency’ when it came to the people of India accepting his leadership. Obama had earlier left Congress leaders wringing their hands in despair and rage with his observation that Gandhi lacked either the aptitude or the passion to master the subject.
Rahul Gandhi needs an Ahmed Patel, for sure, but his party colleagues see none around — at least none in the coterie surrounding the former-and-future Congress president. Rahul may, therefore, like to look up the Italian political philosopher Niccolò Machiavelli’s 16th-century seminal treatise, The Prince. Machiavelli’s ideas might be unscrupulous, dishonest, deceitful, and evil, but Rahul may find The Prince a very familiar and instructive read, even providing solutions to the concerns raised by the G-23 in their famous letter to Sonia Gandhi.
Let’s start with the chapter on why Machiavelli thought the princes of Italy lost their states: “Do not let our princes accuse fortune for the loss of their principalities after so many years’ possession, but rather their own sloth…and when the bad times came, they thought of flight and not of defending themselves…and they hoped that the people, disgusted with the insolence of the conquerors, would recall them.”
Rahul Gandhi wouldn’t agree, of course. But many in the Congress — and not just the G-23 — find the current leadership slothful. When Amit Shah, J.P. Nadda, Yogi Adityanath — and even Prime Minister Narendra Modi who showed up to visit vaccine-maker Bharat Biotech’s facility — were in Hyderabad projecting the BJP as the principal opposition party in Telangana, the Gandhi family was holidaying in Goa to beat Delhi’s pollution. Machiavelli’s princes hoped to be recalled by the people once they were disgusted with the insolence of the ‘conquerors’. There is nothing wrong with Rahul nurturing the same hope. Only that the conquerors in 21st century India, Modi and Shah, enjoy more credibility than their putative challenger.
Machiavelli, in his political treatise, offers at least four other lessons to Rahul in The Prince:
A full-time job
“A prince ought to have no other aim or thought, nor select anything else for his study than war and its rules and discipline…when princes have thought more of ease than of arms, they have lost their states… what enables you to acquire a state is to be master of the art…a prince who does not understand the art of war, over and above the other misfortunes, cannot be respected by his soldiers.”
This advice from Machiavelli is the second lesson for Rahul Gandhi. Replace ‘war’ with ‘politics’ in the above-quoted paragraph and you wonder if Obama was thinking about The Prince when he was writing his observation about the Congress leader. Rahul Gandhi is not a full-time politician and the G-23 said as much in their controversial letter, demanding a visible and active party president. He can’t have ‘ease’. A full-time politician doesn’t have weekend offs, casual/medical/French leaves, summer/winter vacations as also spring breaks and sabbaticals, preferably abroad. He doesn’t have to follow the UK’s working time directive of 48 hours a week.
So, who wants the Congress president’s job in an era of 24×7 politicians like Modi and Amit Shah?
An enterprising machine
The third lesson for Rahul in The Prince is an extension of the second: “As regards action, he ought above all things to keep his men well-organised and drilled, to follow incessantly the chase, by which he accustoms his body to hardships, and learns something of the nature of localities, and gets to find out how the mountains rise, how the valleys open out, how the plains lie, and to understand the nature of rivers and marshes, and in all this to take the greatest care… it teaches him to surprise his enemy, to select quarters, to lead armies….”
In a nutshell, the prince, Rahul in this case, must keep at politics all the time, and keep his organisational machinery well-oiled by incessantly following ‘the chase’. That’s what Amit Shah does. After dislodging the Congress and the Left (Tripura) from the northeast, he has moved on to uncharted territories such as West Bengal, Kerala, Telangana, and Tamil Nadu. The chase may be difficult and not always rewarding, but Shah is always at it. But Rahul doesn’t believe in the chase or in hardships. He says if India is a computer, the Congress is its default programme. If you follow his perspective, you may see that the electoral debacles in the past six years were mere software glitches.
Machiavelli offers another perspective: “Nothing makes a prince so much esteemed as great enterprises and setting a fine example. We have in our time Ferdinand of Aragon, the present King of Spain….In the beginning of his reign, he attacked Granada and this enterprise was the foundation of his dominions…he assailed Africa, he came down on Italy, he has finally attacked France; his achievements and designs… have kept the minds of his people in suspense and admiration… his actions have arisen in such a way that men have never been given time to work steadily against him.”
Let’s study just one ‘great enterprise’ of Rahul Gandhi. In the run-up to the 2007 Uttar Pradesh assembly election, he took it upon himself to rigorously screen aspiring Congress candidates. He interviewed them, asking questions about the number of LPG cylinders and electricity connections in their constituencies and why they thought they made the cut as the Congress candidate in a particular constituency. Only 22 of the 393 Congress candidates could win. In the 2012 poll campaign, he told people he wouldn’t leave UP until he brought development to them, no matter whether they voted for him or not. They didn’t and he left. In the 2017 assembly election, he piggybacked on the Samajwadi Party but the people still didn’t repose trust in the Congress. Ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Rahul entrusted his sister, Priyanka, to complete his unfinished agenda in UP. His track record in other states is not awe-inspiring either. No wonder, Congress leaders who wouldn’t speak against the Gandhi family even in private have been thinking and talking aloud, of late.
The company you keep
Machiavelli offers the fourth lesson to Rahul Gandhi in The Prince: “The first opinion that one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men around him. When they are capable and faithful, he may always be considered wise….But when they are otherwise, one cannot form a good opinion of him….There are three classes of intellect: one which comprehends by itself; another which appreciates what others comprehended; and, a third which neither comprehends by itself nor by the showing of others. The first is the most excellent, the second is good, the third is useless.”
The background of some of the people trusted by Rahul Gandhi speaks volumes: Randeep Singh Surjewala, who lost the last two assembly elections in Haryana and messed up in Bihar assembly polls; K.C. Venugopal, who refused to contest from his Alappuzha seat in Kerala in 2019; Rajiv Satav, who refused to defend his Maharashtra Lok Sabha seat. Sonia Gandhi allowed Ahmed Patel & Co. to run the show for her, successfully. Rahul doesn’t belong in the first two categories. “There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you,” says Machiavelli, adding that a prince who is not wise himself will never take good advice, unless by chance he has yielded his affairs entirely to one person who “happens to be a very prudent man.” But Rahul probably only read the next sentence — “In this case indeed he may be well governed but it would not be for long because such a governor would in a short time take away his state from him.”
Trust and inspiration
Given how the Gandhi family has reacted to G-23’s letter to Sonia, it’s unlikely that it would heed Machiavelli’s fifth piece of advice: “There never was a new prince who has disarmed his subjects; rather when he has found them disarmed he has always armed them because by arming them, those arms become yours, those men who were distrusted become faithful, and those who were faithful are kept so….Princes…have found more fidelity and assistance in those men who in the beginning of their rule were distrusted than those who in the beginning were trusted.”
G-23 can only hope.
Machiavelli has another advice: “To exercise the intellect the prince should read histories, and study there the actions of illustrious men, to see how they have borne themselves in war, to examine the causes of their victories and defeat, so as to avoid the latter and imitate the former; and above all do as an illustrious man did who took as an exemplar one who had been praised and (became) famous before him…as it is said Alexander the Great imitated Achilles.”
Rahul Gandhi would have none of that. He won’t praise or emulate any victor (read Modi). Amit Shah’s exploits won’t impress or inspire him. Like the Italian princes, Rahul seems convinced that Indians will be forced to ‘recall’ him. If only Machiavelli had known the Gandhi family and modern Indian princes!
Views are personal.