Rahul Gandhi’s political journey so far can be seen as a confused attempt to traverse the varied paths of his father, grandmother, and grandmother, and embracing the ideology of his great-grandfather.
Now, he wants to emulate Mahatma Gandhi.
Capturing a career that spans 15 years in a few lines is difficult. But, a few broad themes can be seen in Rahul’s story. Before we revisit his story, it is important to keep in mind two things about Rahul so that it becomes easier to understand some of his failures, struggles, and minor victories.
One, Rahul is quintessentially a disorganized philosopher; not a leader. His primary predilection is for ideas, thoughts that appeal to him. But, unfortunately, he lacks clarity of thought and the required depth to define his philosophy — sometimes even to himself — and, as a natural corollary, lacks the ability to implement them. This makes him a dreamer, not a doer. Someone who knows how it should be, not how it has to be done.
Two, Rahul’s primarily impulse is of renunciation. He is not hungry for power, lacks the drive to win at all costs. He would be happy if power and success came to him naturally, like the post of the Congress president. But, if they delude him, if life makes it hard for him to achieve targets imposed on him, Rahul would sit in a quiet corner and tell himself what poet Sahir Ludhianvi wrote, ‘Ye duniya agar mil bhi jaaye to kya hai? (What’s the big deal even if you succeed)?’
These two characteristics were visible during Rahul’s years in politics as a Congress backbencher. In his initial years, after winning from Amethi, Rahul confined himself to the role of a reluctant participant, happy only to listen and give the general impression of being in a place he didn’t want to be. That was his Rajiv Gandhi phase, defined by similar unease in a profession that may not have been his preference.
Even when power was thrust upon him, his first impulse was to renounce it. Six years ago, when he was anointed vice-president of the Congress, Rahul did not outline what he intended to do for the party. Instead, he stunned everyone with his musings on power being poison. It is still not clear what Rahul wanted to say that day. Perhaps, he still believed that like his mother, who had publicly announced her desire to not become India’s Prime Minister, he would also turn into an epitome of tyaag and balidaan (renunciation and sacrifice).
But, the irony was not lost. A dynast who was just announced heir to a political party had just announced that power was toxic, something that needs to be avoided. He was giving up what was being given to him on a platter. That day, the confused philosopher gave us insights into his jumbled thinking.
Around the same time, he came up with his tirade against entitlement and dynasty, saying there would be open elections for party posts, except, ironically, for the top posts and the CWC. He argued in favour of US-style primaries for choosing candidates for elections. But, since he lacked the vision to implement the ideas, the hunger to succeed, he gave them up mid-way. In electoral politics, he oscillated between alliances and the temptation to go it alone by turn, especially in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, in the end relegating his party to a confused rump.
The problem with dreamers — those who just think — is that they get exhausted very fast by their inability to see on the ground what they visualize in their minds. Doubts set in and frustration creeps in. Repeated setbacks and failures then make them look for guidance and wisdom. When this happens, they are drawn into a swamp of advisors, pulling them down.
This happened with his father during his first tenure as PM between 1984 and 89.
Lack of clarity on the Shah Bano verdict, Ramjanmabhoomi agitation, Bofors allegations, and the churn within his coterie, forced Rajiv to take contradictory, self-defeating decisions, on the basis of advice from various sources. In the end, it led to his downfall.
Rahul, similarly, couldn’t decide if he is a reformer, a votary of intra-party democracy, coalitions, a janeu-dhari (one who wears sacred thread) Brahmin or a leader with secular credentials. He couldn’t decide whether to embrace power, run away from it or publicly renounce as an evil. He couldn’t decide whether to be an angry-young man, whose defining moment was the televised rage over a bill allowing convicted criminals to contest, or a Munnabhai-esque figure who believed in giving jhappis (hugs) and flowers to rivals.
In the end, he left everyone wondering: What exactly is the point of Rahul? When a leader doesn’t know what he stands for, why would people stand with him?
For a while, he seemed to be in the Indira mould — a decisive leader ready to fight it out. This phase dawned with his campaign in Gujarat and the subsequent encores in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh. But in this avatar too, Rahul made a critical mistake: He was not Boss enough. After these victories, he should have rooted out weed from the party and handed over the reins to the next generation of leaders.
But, under pressure from the old guard, he went back to the tired, old faces who had zero acceptance on the ground. Later, he allowed the old guard to mislead him, emotionally blackmail him into letting their wards contest polls, and generally drive away voters because of their tired, conservative, uninspiring politics. That proved to be his undoing.
Rahul’s decision to now quit is a throwback to the days when Mahatma Gandhi controlled the Congress without holding a formal post. Without being the power centre, the Mahatma ran the Congress with his backroom negotiations, public sermons, and through tacit support to leaders of his choice. It worked for the Mahatma because of his towering morality and history of sacrifices and renunciation.
Rahul now wants to run the Congress with the force of his morality – by abdicating, taking up responsibility, being steadfast in his refusal to surrender to the BJP and the RSS. He wants others to quit, accept responsibility, and abdicate power.
But, instead of dictating to others what they should do, he is hoping his actions would force others to emulate him. The success of this avatar would depend on how clearly he has thought about his latest path. And how much courage and patience he has to pursue it.
His past, unfortunately, doesn’t inspire much confidence.