Rahul Gandhi riddle: Is he pro-poor or pro-poverty?

Like Indira Gandhi, Rahul has a patronising attitude towards poverty. He wants to protect the poor, not by job-creating, or economic reforms but by slogans and tokenism.

 |  6-minute read |   05-05-2015
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When I began writing the biography of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, I was struck by two things: his innate decency; and his political innocence. The decency stayed till the end. The innocence didn't.

Is Rahul Gandhi more like his father or does he have the instincts of grandmother Indira Gandhi? It is easy to dismiss Rahul as a political novice - not to be taken seriously. Many made that mistake about Indira Gandhi, writing her off as a "gungi gudiya". She spent 16 years as prime minister proving her detractors wrong.

Rajiv too was written off as a "pilot-prime minister". In spite of the taint of Bofors, history may record that had an Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) suicide bomber not killed him on May 21, 1991, at the age of 46, Rajiv would have proved a better second-term prime minister.

In principle though, political dynasties are bad for democracy. My own opposition to political dynasties is unequivocal. I wrote this around the time Rahul was appointed vice president of the Congress and primed to take over the party's leadership: "An argument advanced in favour of political dynasties in India is superficially seductive. The sons and daughters of lawyers become lawyers. So do the offspring of doctors, businessmen and actors. But professionals in medicine and law earn their degrees. Businessmen owe their position to specific financial shareholding. Actors are made and unmade every Friday.

"Political parties give tickets to disproportionate numbers of dynasts from 'safe' seats which are feudal fiefs. The result: parliament is over-represented by dynasts of questionable merit. Their safe constituencies ensure their continued electability but the constituencies themselves remain poor and backward with high levels of child malnourishment. The purpose of democracy is to widen voter choice - not narrow it. By choosing dynastic candidates over professionals, parties limit the choice voters might have had otherwise and lower the overall level of competence in parliament."

The Congress Working Committee (CWC) meeting called by Sonia Gandhi for Wednesday, May 6, will shed some light on how quickly Rahul will be elevated as party president. Clearly, it will happen sooner rather than later. What sort of leader will Rahul make?

Rahul will turn 45 on June 19. At that age his father had nearly completed his five-year term as prime minister. It is increasingly clear that the electoral battle for 2019 will be fought between an incumbent Prime Minister Narendra Modi and a "federated" opposition coalition led by the Congress. The Janata Parivar and independent parties like the Trinamool Congress (TMC) and Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) will, in a repeat of 2004, with new actors but few new ideas, provide support to a Congress-led front.

This will put Rahul, the putative leader of this coalition khichdi, under intense scrutiny. Let's examine therefore what Rahul stands for. In an op-ed in The Times of India (May 29, 2010), I'd asked questions that Rahul's public statements have still not provided clear answers to: "What are Rahul's views on foreign policy? On nuclear weapons security? On Pakistani state terrorism? On Maoism? On economic policy? On dynasty? We know little of Rahul's worldview."Five years later we still don't.

On his return from a long leave of absence, we have witnessed Rahul-on-steroids. His kisan rally may have been a flop but his interventions in the Lok Sabha on the land acquisition bill and net neutrality, while short on substance, have had an impact. His padyatras to meet distressed farmers in Haryana and Maharashtra and devotional trek to the Kedarnath temple show keen political intent. "Rahul the Reluctant" has morphed into "Rahul the Resurgent".

rahul-kedarnath_050515052538.jpg Rahul's devotional trek to the Kedarnath temple shows keen political intent. (PTI)

This actually comes as good news for the Modi government. Hit by waning popularity and under attack from all quarters, the government needs a target to direct its own attack. And Rahul makes a good target. His stand on the land acquisition bill, farmer suicides, industrial growth, inflation and job creation could have been picked up from an ageing Marxist's copybook (and I don't mean Jairam Ramesh's).

Like Indira Gandhi, Rahul has a patronising attitude towards poverty: a sort of noblesse oblige commitment to protect the poor - not by freeing them from the yoke of poverty through job-creating, wealth-generating economic reforms but by slogans and tokenism. A visit to a Dalit village today, a padyatra in Vidarbha tomorrow, a temple visit the day after. In short, provide the poor with platitudes but follow policies that are pro-poverty rather than pro-poor.

Indira Gandhi, with her 1971 slogan Garibi Hatao, did the same. Rajiv tried to break the mould but succumbed eventually to Delhi's Byzantine politics. The poor need jobs and growth. They want low, stable food prices. Their children need quality education and aspirational mobility. Farmers want incremental (but not inflation-fuelling) rises in the minimum support price (MSP) for their produce.

It is a delicate balance. The Modi government, a year old this month, is struggling to strike that balance. If Rahul wants to be even a contender in 2019, he'll have to show that he rejects grandmother Indira Gandhi's disastrous economic and governance legacy.

In a new, well-researched book, Autumn of The Matriach: Indira Gandhi's Final Term in Office,reviewed perceptively by Zareer Masani in the latest issue of India Today,author Diego Maiorano writes that many ills of India's political system can be traced back to Indira Gandhi's last term in office. Masani writes: "Like the Bourbon royal family in revolutionary France, the Gandhi dynasty in India learned nothing and forgot nothing from the Emergency. A quick return to power was the surest means of avoiding prosecution for the crimes of the Emergency; Maiorano's thesis is that most of the negative aspects of Indian politics can be traced back to the early 1980s, when Mrs Gandhi presided over a regime of almost unmitigated corruption and dynastic intrigue. Her final term was untrammelled by the anti-poverty, socialist slogans of her earlier years and was motivated by a single-mined determination to establish herself and her sons in an unassailable position of power for at least a generation to come. Maiorano's exhaustively researched account of those years shows how she set out to achieve this by systematically undermining institutions such as the civil service, judiciary, parliament and even her own party. The aim was to fill all positions of power with sycophants and the result was to compromise the integrity and independence of the institutions on which a healthy democracy depends."

Rahul has often praised his grandmother's economic and political lineage. The best thing he can do now is buy a copy of Maiorano's excellent new book.



Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

Biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. Ex-TOI & India Today. Media group chairman and editor. Author: The New Clash of Civilizations

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