Will Rahul Gandhi fit the Congress president's cap?
As the 'reluctant politician' finally takes charge, India Today cover story explores what lies ahead for him.
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In 2005, we asked of Rahul Gandhi, newly elected MP from Amethi, and clearly his mother Congress president Sonia Gandhi’s successor, "Is he ready?". It was a curious echo of the question we had posed to his late father Rajiv Gandhi, another reluctant politician, in 1981, "Will the cap fit?".
Both men have been well-documented by India Today , with 13 covers on Rahul and 30 on Rajiv. And rightly so. Whether in power or in Opposition, the 132-year-old Indian National Congress is a significant political party, still in control in eight of the country’s 29 states, despite Amit Shah’s vision of a Congress-mukt Bharat. It may not be the default party of power, as Rahul Gandhi once described it, but it is the party that propelled the freedom movement, the economic reforms of 1991 and the social security infrastructure of the UPA years.
It is also the party that institutionalised the country’s peculiar feudal democracy, making dynasty acceptable at all levels and across all parties. I am often asked whether the present Congress would survive without a Nehru-Gandhi heading it. The simple answer is: it wouldn’t.
India Today cover story, Will He Fit the Cap?, for December 18, 2017.
As the great grandson, grandson and son of prime ministers, Rahul Gandhi should have had power running in his veins. But his political apprenticeship has often been solitary, marked by sudden bursts of activity and long periods of absence, reluctance or disinterest.
While he has dithered, India has changed, becoming less tolerant of entitlement. Even as he publicly struggled with the idea of power as poison (having witnessed the assassinations of his grandmother and father), the nation quickly lost patience with him, especially as a confident alternative presented itself, showing no inhibitions in laying claim to authority. The rise of Narendra Modi coincided with the sidelining of Rahul Gandhi, as one who had not only reduced his party’s Lok Sabha tally to a historic low in 2014 but also repeatedly put his foot in the mouth.
Despite some missteps by the BJP-led government, the Congress has been unable to rebuild itself, losing 15 Assembly elections in three years, most critically in its strongholds of Assam, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Haryana and Delhi. An increasingly aloof Sonia Gandhi has seemed all too keen to cede control of the party and now it seems Rahul Gandhi is finally ready to take over as president while elections for the Gujarat Assembly are underway.
At 47, after 13 years in public life, the three-time MP seems to have found his métier, giving speeches in easy Hindustani, showing uncommon wit on social media, and striking alliances with leaders across the spectrum, from Akhilesh Yadav in Uttar Pradesh to Alpesh Thakor in Gujarat.
This may be the beginning of a long climb back into the affections of Indians, both for him and his party.
But Rahul has to explain what his politics is: How does his commitment to secularism reconcile with a public display of “soft Hindutva”? And while it is clear he stands for inclusive growth, it is unclear what path he wishes India to take. He has been consistent in espousing the causes of marginalised sections but, beyond some rhetoric and photo opportunities, what is the strategy to make the economic pie grow? Although his party pioneered the liberalisation of the economy, does he still believe that’s the way forward? Or does he want an expanded role for government? How will he create new jobs, the lack of which he is complaining about?
Simultaneously, he has to re-energise his wilting party by ensuring that the old guard and Young Turks work together.
The cover story, written by senior associate editor Kaushik Deka, examines whether the reinvented Rahul will be able to pull off victories in eight critical Assembly elections next year, and eventually resurrect his party’s fortunes in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. If his mother’s stewardship of the party for 19 years has taught India anything, it is this - it is always hazardous to write off a politician.
(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, Will He Fit the Cap?; December 18, 2017.)