Those who oppose Hindutva seek to recover the founding principles of the freedom struggle, such as religious and linguistic pluralism, gender and caste equality, a critical attitude to state power, and an open-ness to other cultures and civilizations: all principles which Hindutva threatens to abandon or overthrow. But the closer one gets to 2024, the battle against Hindutva will also become a battle of personalities. For general elections in India are now increasingly presidential. Can the person who so lamentably failed to take on Narendra Modi twice in succession succeed on his third try? A recent poll suggests he can’t. This asked voters to choose their favoured Prime Minister, finding that while 66% nominated Narendra Modi, a mere 8% opted for Rahul Gandhi.
Back in January 2013, when the Congress was firmly in power at the Centre, I published a column on the party’s heir-apparent in the Telegraph, where, after reviewing his career since he entered politics, I wrote: “The nicest thing one can say about Mr Rahul Gandhi is that he is a well-intentioned dilettante. He has shown no signs of administrative ability, no desire to take on large, important responsibilities, no energy or commitment to solving – as distinct from merely identifying – serious social problems.”
I added: “Mr Gandhi’s dilettantism would not matter so much if he was still in college or in a private-sector job or running a small business of his own. But as the vice president and prospective leader of India’s largest, oldest, and still most influential political party, and as their candidate for prime ministership, it does matter.’
Those who write on Indian politics are prone to make statements that they later deeply regret; God knows I have made my share of these. However, this is one assessment I stand by. Seven-and-a-half years later, Rahul Gandhi remains a dilettante in politics.
A telling manifestation of Rahul Gandhi’s dilettantism is his continuing inability to speak fluently in Hindi-despite his having been an MP for three terms from Uttar Pradesh. His lack of fluency in the language that a plurality of Indians speak is surely one reason that he did so poorly while leading his party in the general elections of 2014 and 2019. His stuttering, stumbling, Hindi was in striking contrast to the absolute command over that language exhibited by Narendra Modi. But there were other reasons too: among them Rahul Gandhi’s lack of administrative experience, and his being a fifth-generation dynast.
That Rahul Gandhi is the son, grandson and great grandson of former Prime Ministers is not an advantage in the eyes of most Indians, who are increasingly disenchanted with claims to entitlement based on birth and ancestry. And it is an absolute disadvantage when it comes to confronting the policies of the Modi Government. When the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi charges the Prime Minister and his government of suppressing the press and stifling dissent, the ruling party’s spontaneous answer is: And what about Indira Gandhi and her Emergency? When the Congress led by Rahul Gandhi charges the Prime Minister with allowing the Chinese into our territory, the ruling party’s spontaneous answer is: And what about Jawaharlal Nehru’s capitulation to the Chinese in 1962?
Back in 2019, Rahul Gandhi made the error of making the Prime Minister’s personal integrity the central plank of his party’s electoral campaign, through the slogan ‘Chowkidar Chor Hai’. This was profoundly ill-judged. The Congress should have instead consistently and repeatedly asked where the Acche Din promised in 2014 were. Besides, these allegations of corruption were being made by the son of the Prime Minister associated with the Bofors scandal.
Rahul Gandhi has now been in public life for a full 16 years now. An objective assessment of his career in politics would highlight five traits that make him unsuitable for presentation as a Prime Ministerial alternative to Narendra Modi. First, he lacks political intelligence as manifest in his choosing the wrong slogans and themes in his election campaigns. Second, he is an indifferent speaker in general, and especially so in India’s most widely-understood language, Hindi. Third, he lacks administrative experience, never having held a proper job of any kind (whether before entering politics or after it). Fourth, he lacks stamina and tenacity, frequently disappearing from the public stage for weeks at a time. Fifth, he comes across as an entitled dynast to voters who – in the India of the 21st century – ask their leaders what they have themselves done, not whose son or grandson they are.
If the Congress hopes to become a credible all-India party once more, a party capable of gaining power at the centre once more, it needs to do two things. The first is to choose someone to lead it who is not from the Nehru-Gandhi family. The second is to organize a ghar wapasi for those leaders and groups who were once part of the Indian National Congress. Getting the YSR Congress, the Trinamool Congress and the Nationalist Congress to merge with the parent body will greatly expand the party’s footprint across India, while at the same time widening the pool of potential candidates for the party’s leadership.
The sycophants surrounding Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi always tell us that the party will not survive unless Sonia or one of her children were to lead it. On the other hand, if one looks beyond personal devotion to the larger interest of Indian democracy, having a non Nehru-Gandhi as the president of our principal opposition party would make it more difficult for the Modi Government to deflect criticisms of its policies in the present by referring to the mistakes (real or alleged) of Jawaharlal, Indira or Rajiv in the past. If a non Nehru-Gandhi as Congress President asked the Government tough questions about its mishandling of the economy and of the pandemic, or about its suppression of dissent and its capitulation to the Chinese, it would be harder for the ruling regime to speak about Nehru or Indira or Rajiv in reply. And if this Congress President who is a non Nehru-Gandhi speaks fluent Hindi, has a mass base, a capacity for hard and sustained work, and a desire to take his or her campaign beyond Twitter and into the streets, the party might do much better at election time too.
On social media, one sometimes hears the argument that “only Rahul Gandhi is bold enough to take on Modi and/or the RSS.” The argument is spurious. Rahul Gandhi’s criticisms get noticed only because he is viewed and presented as the chief spokesman of the principal opposition party. Who is to say that if someone named Baghel or Gehlot or Banerjee or Reddy was made president of the Congress and given full independence to run the party as they wished, they would not take on Modi and/or the RSS to more telling effect?
Some also claim that “Rahul will make a better Prime Minister than Modi”. Were he to suddenly find himself as Prime Minister, it may indeed be that Rahul Gandhi will consult more widely than the current incumbent, be less obsessed with promoting his own image, be less driven by a majoritarian agenda, and allow greater autonomy to public institutions. But he is not in that job, nor is he at all likely to get there. The bitter truth that all opponents of the current regime must face is that presenting Rahul Gandhi as a Prime Minister-in-waiting only plays into the hands of Narendra Modi and the BJP.
I spoke of Rahul Gandhi as being a dilettante, and also of being well-intentioned. This latter trait is manifest in his being the only member of his family who is in any way ambivalent about his entitlement. Thus Priyanka Gandhi thinks that the statement “I am the granddaughter of Indira Gandhi” forecloses criticism of her politics. Sonia Gandhi’s dedication to family rule of party and country is arguably even deeper. It is to Rahul Gandhi’s credit that he stands apart from his mother and sister in this regard. Whether he can prevail upon them in having a non-family member chosen as Congress President, and then allowing this person to lead with authority, from the front, and with no back-seat driving from Sonia, Rahul, or Priyanka, is another question altogether.
I have been a critic of the dynastic culture of the Congress party for more than two decades now. I make these criticisms afresh because they are perhaps even more necessary than ever before. For in six years as Prime Minister, Narendra Modi has done grievous damage to India. He and his government have undermined our economy, divided our society, and degraded India in the eyes of the world. And he still has almost four years of his present term to run. Those who hope for India’s economic, political, and moral revival must find a way to remove Modi and his party from office in 2024. Presenting a dilettantish dynast as his principal opponent for the third time in a row is unlikely to bring about that much desired outcome.
(Ramachandra Guha is a historian based in Bengaluru. His books include ‘Environmentalism: A Global History’ and ‘Gandhi: The Years that Changed the World’.)
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