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Rahul Gandhi made 3 big mistakes in politics and didn’t learn much from them

Not Enough ‘Boss’, I’d written after Rahul Gandhi’s 2013 “power is poison” speech in Jaipur & listed his 3 big mistakes. It’s worth revisiting on a day he abdicates.

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Whatever your view on Rahul Gandhi’s first substantive public appearance on Thursday, you would say that he displayed a charmingly self-deprecatory side to his personality. So, if he is capable of having a little laugh at himself, is he also willing to reflect on the way he has approached his politics so far, as he completes 10 years as an MP. Because if he did, he might see some of the mistakes he has made, or issues he might wish to revisit. Since we do not have an insight into his mind yet, here is our list of what could possibly be called the three mistakes of his political life (apologies to Chetan Bhagat). And let’s talk about two first, and leave the third for later down.

First, he went campaigning in the 2010 assembly elections to Bihar with a straightforward message, which I am taking the liberty to paraphrase: Over the decades, two different India’s had come into being, one shining, the other declining. And the time had now come to rectify that. That the message did not work is evident in the fact that the Congress lost its deposit in 221 out of 243 seats, winning only four. As to why it failed so badly, listen to the words of a very poor but politically articulate, as they usually come in Bihar, farmer at one of his rallies.

He says two India’s have come into being, said the farmer, half-squatting and leaning on a lathi.

And what do you think about this, we asked him.

Hum kahen, sahib (we say, sir), that of the 60 years of Independence, for 53 years you have ruled us and created two Indias. Then, with a defiantly mischievous twinkle that you see in the eyes of the poorest Indians only during an election, he added, “and we say, sahib, that if we gave you five more years, how can we trust you not to divide us into three Indias now?”

Also read: It’s my fault: Read full text of Rahul Gandhi’s letter after resignation

This was followed by the next mistake of failing to understand the meaning of aspiration and ambition as he launched a more optimistic campaign in Uttar Pradesh, 2012. He said it was so awful that people from that state had to go to big cities like Mumbai and Delhi to look for ordinary jobs. He illustrated this with the story of an Uttar Pradesh migrant working on the Delhi Metro, leading a tough life away because there was no opportunity at home. His solution was that an expanded NREGA and a better rural economy would enable the same people to stay at home, in their villages. Cut to a member of his audience again. “We get Rs 300-400 a day as labourers on Delhi Metro. You can live on Rs 150 and send the rest home so your children can go to a decent school. We’d rather go to Delhi and Mumbai and work. Ask the Congress people to give NREGA 365 days a year and stay in our village,” was the answer. That view was later affirmed in the election result.

We never know enough to make sense of political history in India, and definitely not so soon. But it could just be that the disaster of Uttar Pradesh led to an honest and realistic reappraisal within the Congress party, and particularly in its higher counsels. Only that could have jolted the party to come out to support FDI in retail at a public meeting, the first time it had done so for anything free-market or foreign (other than the Soviet Bloc in the non-aligned past). It definitely created the space for the prime minister to focus back on the economy. And while we do not yet know if it is too late already to redeem the wreck now, the important fact is, a new future course of the Congress party’s econo-politics is now being set. And it has been bleached of some of its deep pink. Did we see some flashes of that welcome change in Rahul’s 70 minutes with the CII as well?

He had erred in the Hindi heartland. You can’t just get away by blaming your speech writers when you are a leader of such overwhelming power in your party, and, self-admittedly, a product of such deeply political DNA. He had erred, first in not reading the intensity of the aspirational upsurge, and then its meaning and implications. Even in the apparently hopeless heartland, in this decade, aspiration is not three square meals, or a hundred rupees a day. It is electricity, schools, jobs, dignity, material goods, mobile phones, even cable TV. For one living in a Bundelkhand village with no economy, migration to a big city even for a day-labourer or security guard’s job is aspirational. It is not a humiliation. In rapidly growing India, even the perspirational classes are entitled to aspiration.

That’s the intellectual moat he seems to have crossed now. While the inclusive metaphor and a tribute to a rights-based minimum guarantees programme were present, he mainly talked aspiration, empowerment and entrepreneurship. He also spoke one of his most significant, welcome and hopefully enduring lines so far, when he talked of a job being the bridge between aspiration and empowerment, and how only entrepreneurial India could produce those jobs. This is progress.

Also read: Five takeaways from Rahul Gandhi’s open letter

When Rahul Gandhi says in April 2013 that a rising tide may lift all boats but somebody, including industry, has to give the poorest Indian a boat to at least have that opportunity, it is a far cry from the awful oldspeak of shining versus declining, aspirational versus perspirational India. When he speaks of professors at IITs not even knowing the worth of their intellect and the need to link them to the markets, when he taunts India’s corporates and asks if they have any say in decision-making besides, probably, being good friends with Montek, and suggests an institutional way for them to have a say in governance, it is progress. But is this enough or, has this re-education come too late?

Doubts arise because he is still hesitant to talk about the future, about his own and his party’s politics and policies. The most important missing point was something suffixed with “If we return to power…” Isn’t that what you expect from a political leader, hard-nosed or not, particularly in an election year, when his party is seeking a third successive term? You can’t then get away merely with describing how things are. You also have to say how they will be, how you would want them to be. Could it also be because, as Rahul fathoms the contradictions within his own, his dynasty’s and his party’s politics, his understanding and appreciation of what it means to be in public life is also still a work in progress?

Which brings us, finally, to his third mistake. In his speech at Jaipur that stirred the party faithful, he talked of “this power” that “everybody seeks”, being “poison”. It might be a good idea for him to reflect on this as well. In a democracy, power is a wonderful gift, an honour and a cherished privilege that voters give you. Good leaders embrace it with joy, gratitude and humility. They must treat public office and power as public trust and try coming up to their people’s expectations. “Power as poison” is, regrettably, a feudal formulation, not a democratic one. Power, public office, the faith of the voter, even vote banks, can be looked at in one of two ways: A DNA-scripted bequest, or a responsibility you have to earn and deliver on. Also, if you see this “power” as poison, how do you persuade decent people to join politics?

Maybe that dilemma still needs settling, and maybe this is also a work in progress. You can see this country any which way: An elephant, a tiger, a beehive or a hornet’s nest. But it changes faster than any other we know. See, for example, the incredible empowerment and rise of the backward castes in the past two decades. The ranks of Mulayam and Akhilesh, Lalu, Nitish and Mayawati are now joined by Narendra Modi and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, even Vasundhara Raje, the new stars of a party as Brahmanical as the BJP. You talk of finding political talent deep down, at the panchayat level, remember that is how it was until your own party turned into an oligarchy of many minor dynasties, if not a chamber of princes. Remember where even Ahmed Patel came from: He was a taluka panchayat president.

This is a tribute to the same democratic politics and it is essential that the most significant national leaders recognise this and tailor their politics and message accordingly. Because, awful poison or humble privilege, power will no longer follow DNA and dynasties. It will need policies and programmes. Understanding the aspirational upsurge, therefore, is progress. But, in the absence of a convincing agenda on how you promise to live up to it, it is tempting to borrow a Rahul-ism and turn it on him to say that yes, we have seen progress, but there is a long way to go yet, Boss.

This piece was first published in April 2013.

Also read: Populism isn’t the end of liberalism. It’s now push-backism & Rahul Gandhi just faced it


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  1. I do not understand why senior journalist like Shekhar Gupta, more worried about Rahul Gandhi than our country? Who is going to be the chief of congress party is not what normal citizen of this country looking at now. Forget about congress Shekharji ? spend more time on current Government schemes and educate people what good or bad for the people. Stop talking about congress they had enough of public money in their accounts for last few decades.
    We will not at all interested knowing about Congress.
    Please focus on future of our country NOT on congress.

  2. At this stage, nothing can make any difference, even if he realises these mistakes. And. the way he is defiantly threatening to attack the NDA with only 53 Congress MPs to the NDA’s 353, it is clear that petulance and peevishness rule Rahul Gandhi’s mind more than sense. Neither Congress nor its beloved “Family” will ever change.

  3. I agree with other commentators that a recycled article makes no sense today. I will pick up one phrase though. In 2013 you referred to Rahul as a work in progress. Today it is more a case of regress and digress, but still not enough of sincere regrets.

  4. Is the author of this article a partisan hack or is he trying to fool everyone that he is a journalist?
    Some one mentions If Rahul had done this or that it would have been great.Thats the core problem.
    You have a guy born in an entitled family, didn’t have to put in any effort either academically or otherwise
    constantly reminded he is born to rule. I challenge any working human being to give your boss the sort
    of excuses for failing to perform your job, you will be fired and will be out on the street looking for a new job.
    I bet given Rahuls background no employer will ever hire him.what a clown.Thank god as well the intelligent
    voters of India rejecting all the lazy self centered bums.Been fifty years since I left India, but now feel
    proud of my Indian heritage.

  5. Yes…. Everything was in making for Rahul ji back in 2013 and he continued making mistakes from your 3 in 2013 to perhaps 30 by 2019.
    Indian politics is no longer a job centered in air-conditioned drawing rooms – one has to now go out in sun and rain and feel the punch. The social transformation in last at least two decades, as you rightly said, snatched the power from so-called ruling class (brahmins and associates) and gave unto so-called backwards and this was certainly due to the politics of leaders like Mulayam Singh ji,Lalu ji and other like him- it is quite another issue that later they became off the track and became like any other. The social upsurge back then and the results thereof, however, is still visible.
    The JP agitation and later Anna agitation brought another set of leaders – none of them were sons and daughters of any VIP but most of them later did not hesitate to promote their kith and kins and hence they too are marginalised.
    Rahul ji had been in making all these years but like many abandoned projects he also refused to learn anything substantial. He never really tried to know the nation he repeatedly said he loved. He did not even try to know his party too and he did never possessed the decency as well. Tearing out the paper containing Cabinet decision was just unbecoming of the ruling party top official and was deplorable. His speeches have been full of blunders. He never tried to be a serious player. He did not allow anybody to become his mentor which is essentially required if one does not progress from the lower ranks of political ladder. His grand mother had very nice grooming right from her childhood from her father and also had seen many great leaders from very close quarters and served as Minister also, thus, having very good exposure of politics and administration as well. His father too had seen his mother working. Rahul ji didn’t have that destiny. He must have allowed himself to be groomed and must have had some great brains behind him.
    But yes …. by finally putting in his paper and being firm to quit, he has shown some maturity and accountability and Congress should welcome it and permit him to go gracefully. After all, this would not be the first time that the party would be headed by someone out of the great family.
    But the great question remains – what after that. What he proposes to do for his party and the country?
    Rahul ji would be needing much more courage and cimmitment if at all he is interested in strengthening the party. As he said he would continue to work and work vigorously and indicated for others too to take responsibility and resign. Many have still not done so. This shows his lack of command. Otherwise Congress High Command always used to be invisible final power! He must start being ruthless towards status quo and think out of box. A leader must have his own people around him – at all important points. He can take some lesson from Modi ji too who filled all important positions with people of his liking. Others may or may not like this, but this is what is essential for a leader to succeed. Had he nominated the Chief Ministers of his personal choice, like his grandmother used to do, it would have made him stronger and everything would have taken shape. But he was seen compromising heavily. Unless one experiments and takes risk, one can not be a leader. He should go to study and travel with the journey of his grandmother from Gungi Gudia to Durga! He should also travel a lot and see the country and try living and seeing the people he intends to serve.
    His survival as The Leader is too difficult and he should venture if he feels this to be his cup of tea. Being casual would make him more and more vulnerable!

  6. I really wish you would stop pulling out your articles from the deep past and dust them for today. I don’t buy this “still relevant” nonsense. If you don’t have time, then step back and relax, but don’t please don’t do this recycling. Except when it comes to history, such as your piece on Operation Bluestar, this ‘I said this then’ does not wash. I follow your Cut the Clutter regularly, which are very insightful. But these recycled articles are rancid. Stop! Refrain! Desist!

  7. If and only if had he been schooled that free market capitalism is good and Socialism is worst invention of man and woman, the story would have been different.

  8. No matter how nicely written in 2013, still not able to understand, Shekarji sitting in media room and supporting Congress under Rahul Gandhi in recent elections, particularly during last few days before the results are out.

  9. Congress leaders insisting on Rahul Gandhi to continue to lead the party defies all common sense. Shekhar Gupta may cut this clutter in his next article. Regarding this post I found it too descriptive and even fogy. Something is helding Shekhar Gupta back from expressing in crispy sentences rather that lots of round about.

  10. Shekharji, what happened to you? A simple topic which you have made “ unaspiringly” confusing and complicated as opposed to “cutting the clutter”.
    Then at the end I realised two things, one that this was written in 2013 and obviously you weren’t cutting clutter then and two that you are writing about a complicated imbecile and this can perhaps baffle the best of us
    Why do you people in the press mince words about the incompetent, dimwit, lazy Maharaja? This Maharaja has no clothes and about time you and the rest of the press said so in unequivocal terms! Rahul Gandhi has no connect with the people of this country, has never done a decent day’s of meaningful work in his life, forget oratory, he can’t speak to save his life and what is worse he surrounds himself with advisors who are his carbon copies. The only reason he is the President of his Party because his Mummyji wanted him to be so and if you ask him what he truly desires, the answer will be to party in Milan. Politics and hard work is not his calling.
    It is no accident that his official bungalow is on Tughlak Road and any student of history will know what a disaster Mohammed Bin Tughlak was!!!

  11. Had Shri Rahul Gandhi joined the UPA government in 2004 and served for a decade, that could have deepened his understanding of both politics and governance. A huge missed opportunity.

  12. 🙂 Thanks for this interesting read Shekhar Gupta. Apki kaun sunta hai? These guys only listen to Prashant Kishore types.

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