Rahul the Birthday Boy Lights Congress Candles
Rahul Gandhi turns 45 today amid a surge of revivalist enthusiasm in the party he is all set to lead, the Indian National Congress.
Since his return from a sabbatical in April, “RG” (as he is often referred to behind his back) has hit the ground running. The Kisan Rally the morning after his arrival in Delhi, the quick-witted and extempore interventions in Parliament, the trips in second-class railway compartments to see farmers (and interact with families along the way), have all energised the party. These have not been one-off events, but part of a continued and sustained process that has put the ruling party and its government on the defensive.
There was so much negativism about Rahul Gandhi, assiduously spread by the present ruling party, that when he stood up in the Lok Sabha and spoke with confidence on the agrarian crisis, with command of facts at his fingertips, with wit and quick repartee, his own performance portrayed him in a very different light from the caricature. The narrative about RG is changing — because he himself, not any spinmeister, is leading the change.
The problem with RG had been that his own instincts were previously not very outgoing. He saw a lot of his work as being more effective behind closed doors, within the party organisation, and not so much on the floor of the parliament, or on television. In this, he was true to the tradition of reticent reserve so effectively epitomised by his mother, but out of sync with the demands of the times. In modern politics, a leader needs a public approach, conspicuous visibility and a persona that is seen as accessible by the voters, even if it is only, as in Narendra Modi’s case, through the illusory medium of sound bites on television.
This is what the new RG is achieving, and he is on television not only through sound-bites, but tangible actions: visiting farmers in distress, sitting on the ground in solidarity with unpaid sanitary workers, sharing tiffin and interaction with families on a train. These are part of a systematic and well-thought-out outreach effort, not merely to tap discontent with the policies of the present government (which the opposition would naturally do) but to develop a new set of constituencies for the Congress.
Rahul Gandhi is thinking beyond the traditional categories of caste, religion and region to reach out to Indians in terms of their life experiences. There would have been a time when a Congress leader might have supported sanitation workers as dalits; RG spoke for them principally in terms of their occupation and income. Similarly, his support for the agitating IIT-Madras students, whose Ambedkar-Periyar Study Circle was banned, was couched as a freedom of speech issue, not one of discrimination against Dalits or against a Dalit cause. The Dalits are not being abandoned, but their problems are being taken up as national ones, involving principles that affect all Indians, not confined to a specific community or “vote-bank”.
RG had already prefigured this approach before the last election. At the January 2014 AICC session in Delhi, he announced that the party would work to create a “support base” for the millions of Indians who had broken free of the poverty trap but were not yet comfortably middle class. Tea-stall vendors, fisher-folk, sales clerks, auto-rickshaw drivers and sanitation workers are all examples of such people. RG called them “the hands that build the nation” and pledged them support, with basic rights and government-provided welfare assistance.
The Kisan Rally and the fierce opposition he is leading to the Land Acquisition Ordinance confirm that he is not abandoning traditional Congress constituencies, but there is something new and additional in RG’s approach. His interactions with middle-class home-buyers victimised by unscrupulous builders, his overt support for ex-servicemen denied the “One Rank, One Pension” that the government had promised (and the prime minister had announced), his solidarity with Kerala fishermen battling a trawling ban extended by the Centre, are all examples of a wider and more inclusive Congress politics shaped by RG’s vision.
Critics had nastily suggested that RG was reserved because he was not capable of being eloquent. There were attempts on social media to paint him as somehow slow-witted, especially in contrast to the ebullient and fluent Modi. I used to sit directly behind him in parliament during my time as a back bencher between my two ministerships in the UPA government, and I knew how false this depiction was. We would chat daily; I found him not just very intelligent but highly intellectually curious. His conversations with me were mainly about books, on which he spoke lucidly and knowledgeably; not only did he read widely but he had a talent for absorbing fully what he had read and synthesising its lessons. In this he is a striking contrast to the comparatively poorly-read prime minister.
Once I was seated next to him at a dinner in Jaipur and what he was happiest telling me was about his then recent lunch with Nicholas Nassim Taleb, the inventor of the concept of the Black Swan, who had come to Delhi the previous week. This is the side of Rahul Gandhi that the public doesn’t know —and that he never chooses to show publicly. I believe, over the next four years, that we will get to see more of the thoughtful, reflective person he is, as well as the quick-thinking politician with a clear vision for the country.
In the meantime, he is daily broadening the party’s base. RG has lit his party’s candles in a dozen different corners of the country already. There will be many happy returns of this day.
(The writer is a Congress MP and author)