He gave up being Heir Apparent. Instead, by the time he was through with his Bharat Jodo Yatra, Rahul Gandhi had become Hair Apparent. The clean-shaven, youngish man who started the yatra in Kanyakumari returned from Kashmir as a bushily bearded fellow.
In some ways, the beard served as a symbol of Rahul’s journey. When he had set off on his yatra, the jibes had come thick and fast. “What does he think he will achieve by going on a long walk?” was a typical response. But by the time the yatra had ended, nobody needed to ask that question. And even the tired old ‘Pappu’ jibes seemed inappropriate and petty.
Of all the things that Rahul Gandhi has done in the two decades since he joined politics, nothing has been as successful as the Bharat Jodo Yatra.
Despite the drubbing he gets in the media, it is not as though Rahul has not had other achievements to talk about. In 2009, the Congress won 21 Lok Sabha seats in UP, a figure that nobody had expected because the party had fared so badly in previous elections. Much of the credit for that belonged to Rahul.
Even before that, he had taken charge of the Congress’ youth wings (the NSUI and the Youth Congress) and tried to impose internal electoral democracy on them. Behind the scenes, he played an important role in supporting Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s liberalisation push and even changed his mother’s views on key economic issues. (As she was Congress President at the time and surrounded by jholawallas, this was an important achievement.)
And yet, when we think back to the Congress’s ten years in power, few of us remember any of Rahul’s achievements. His role seems to be a bit of a blur. And only his goof-ups are remembered: that infamous press conference where he talked about tearing up an ordinance, the Times Now interview or the impenetrable speeches about the velocity of Jupiter.
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His own doing
Some of this is Rahul’s own fault. He took too long to come to terms with what his critics have always said: he is not an organisation man and he is not a good judge of individuals and their political potential. Neither does he have the politician’s ability to hide his true feelings and to make everyone he meets feel important. Congressmen were made to wait for months before they could meet him. When appointments were granted, the timings were not adhered to and senior people were made to hang around. And even when Rahul did meet them, he often seemed to have no interest in what they had to say. I have lost count of the number of Congress leaders who complained, “he thinks he knows everything.” When he did give them his attention, it was often only to lecture them.
Consider now how different things might have been if Rahul had decided not to be an organisational man or to set up an alternative court at Tughlaq Lane and had simply accepted a ministerial job. He would have impressed people if he had started out as a Minister of State, only slowly working his way up to full-fledged Cabinet minister status. He would have been applauded for his humility and his willingness to learn.
There would have been no suggestion that he was an alternate power centre within the Congress. Nor would he have had to give time to all the Congressmen who came to pay their respects only to go away, either disappointed or disillusioned.
What’s more, he would probably have made a good minister. Those who know him well say that he is bright and hardworking, reads widely and has a nerdish fascination with the kinds of details others might find boring. He could have taken on a few pet projects and shown India what he is capable of.
Because he opted to be Heir Apparent, the party boss-in-waiting, nobody had any idea of what his strengths were. Instead, because people now saw leaders supplicating before him, they began to see him as entitled and spoilt.
Had he run ministries, and busied himself in the business of government, he would have seemed like a stronger prime ministerial candidate. Now, people think that he does not understand governance and is not cut out for the serious task of running India.
Friends of Rahul Gandhi say that he has never wanted to be Prime Minister; that he has no interest in power. There are two obvious problems with that. If you lead one of India’s two most significant political parties and say that you are not an alternative to the incumbent Prime Minister, people will ask: so who will run India if we vote for the Congress? This is why Sonia Gandhi never openly declared that she did not want to be Prime Minister even though she had decided this early on.
And the second problem is if you don’t want the job, shouldn’t you promote people who can do it? Yet, the Congress did nothing to promote any young leader who could overshadow Rahul.
These mistakes and misjudgements partly account for the mess that the Congress is in today. The India Today’s Mood of the Nation poll suggests that if an election were called today, the party would find it hard to cross 70 seats.
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The success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra offers Rahul Gandhi a second chance, 19 years after he first entered politics. He seems happier now not to have any organisational responsibilities and the yatra has killed off the image that the BJP had propagated of him: an entitled but foolish dilettante.
But where does he go from here? How does he build on the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra to carve out a new role for himself? He must know that people warmed to him during the yatra because the message he sent out — India needs love and unity — was positive rather than negative. (He didn’t call anyone ‘chor’ this time.) And by putting himself out there and letting strangers walk with him, by seeming open and accessible, he rose above the image of entitlement.
These are good building blocks for the future. Rahul Gandhi faces the most popular (and powerful) Prime Minister since Indira Gandhi. Unlike Gandhi who was in trouble only four years after her 1971 landslide, Modi is Teflon coated: the electorate seems willing to forgive him for anything because he is seen as sincere and well-meaning.
There was no way a flailing dynast could have taken on such a leader. But now, with the change in the way he is perceived, Rahul Gandhi finally has a shot. It is a long shot, admittedly. But then politics is the art of taking the impossible and making it possible.
Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets @virsanghvi. Views are personal.
(Edited by Prashant)