Writing about a dear friend and a fellow-alumni in his Memoirs, America’s celebrated diplomat, Henry Kissinger, remarked that Nelson Rockefeller was the best President America never had. The way Mr. Kissinger saw it, Vice President Rockefeller simply didn’t have the single-mindedness to run for the highest office of his country; or as Mr. Kissinger puts it, he ‘uncharacteristically hesitated’.
He had the pedigree- after all, his grandfather, John D. Rockefeller, was, and continues to remain, arguably the richest man ever in human history- and also the political clout to do so, and yet, paradoxically enough, it was precisely this pedigree and clout that kept him from becoming America’s President. Mr. Kissinger believed that at the back of his mind, Mr. Rockefeller, Jr., felt that if he got elected, people would see it simply as a natural outcome- a logical progression- of his legacy, one that put him at an unfair advantage over his less pedigreed, less influential adversaries; and in the event that he didn’t get elected- if he lost- he would be ridiculed as one who had squandered his enormous legacy, all for the selfish purpose of personal gain and glory. The way Mr. Rockefeller, Jr., saw it, either way he had nothing to gain and much to lose. As will be observed later, Mr. Kissinger, however, thought otherwise.
This, I believe, is a dilemma common to scions of powerful families- people ‘born into greatness’- everywhere, and not just America. In so many ways, Rahul Gandhi- great grandson, grandson and son of three of India’s most illustrious Prime Ministers- too suffers from this peculiar hesitation. Admittedly, Mr. Gandhi is not quite as hesitant as he first was when he stepped into politics almost five years ago, as an MP from his late father’s constituency, Amethi.
His hesitation has worn off bit by bit in what can be described as three distinct stages: first, as MP when he confined himself to matters limited to his constituency [2004-07]; secondly, as General Secretary of the All India Congress Committee (AICC) when he limited himself to overseeing the working of his party’s student and youth organizations while also quietly working on the party’s revival in his home state, Uttar Pradesh (UP) [2007-09]; and thirdly, as leader of the Congress party’s campaign in the 2009 General Election, when he, along with his mother, spearheaded the party’s historic comeback to government [2009-]. And yet, the reluctance continues: every time a demand is made from Congresspersons- not only the youth but also from the Prime Minister himself- for him to become part of that government he steered back to power, he is the first to nip it in the bud.
I see no reason whatsoever for his ‘uncharacteristic hesitation’ in leading the nation: we’re in fact in total agreement with Mr. Kissinger’s observation that
“In high political office, a man will be measured by the challenges he met and the accomplishments he wrought, not by his money or the motives of those who helped him get there. History will judge not the head start but the achievement.” (The White House Years, Vol. 1)This same observation applies, wholly and in full measure, to yet another Harvard man: Mr. Gandhi. It would merely be a re-statement of the overwhelming opinion prevalent among India’s youth that the time for Mr. Gandhi to lead us has finally come: it is here and now. This doesn’t necessarily mean that he become Prime Minister right away. But it is not in doubt that if the youth of India is to truly find a say in the decision-making process at the highest levels of government of this country, there can be no better voice than his.
Now, it is not very common for anyone to argue with their overall in-charge- their boss, so to speak- at least not in print. The fact that we can do so, with a certain sense of impunity even, speaks a lot about both the organization and its in-charge. To our credit, we can brandish ourselves as bold, even brazenly so, but that is only half the picture: we cannot for one moment forget the reason for our bravado. That reason is, as it happens, Mr. Gandhi himself. Or to be more precise, his almost obsessive devotion to democracy, which, to paraphrase the philosophy of the great French political thinker, Voltaire, can best be espoused in the following words:
“I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” (quote attributed to Beatrice Hall, Friends of Voltaire, 1906)
In a nation where the average age of leadership remains stuck at sixty-plus, Mr. Gandhi has already given us- the youth- the courage to be ourselves: to fearlessly speak our minds. It is also thanks to him entirely that the Indian Youth Congress (IYC) today has more number of MPs than at any other time in history.
Asked about his greatest achievement in the immediate aftermath of Mandate 2009, he unexpectedly replied: “the organizational elections of the Youth Congress in the Punjab and Gujarat.” Considering that he has been universally acknowledged as the principal architect of his party’s historic comeback in that election- after all, it was for the first time in almost a quarter of a century that the number of Congress MPs had breezed past the two century mark, leaving in their wake, the Opposition in near-total disarray- this reply was at best, modest, self-effacing and altogether unexpected.
Needless to say, the Media were both puzzled and disappointed: most of them hadn’t even heard of the Youth Congress, let alone of its intra-organizational elections in the two states; on the other hand, the entire world- CNN, BBC, The Economist- was talking about the Congress’ landslide victory in the just-declared general election result. And yet, Mr. Gandhi’s comment that these two organizational elections not many knew of were his ‘greatest achievement’ offers an invaluable insight into the meaning of who he is- and more significantly, about where he is headed.
The Meaning of RG
In 1937, his great grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, quietly penned an article, “The Rashtrapati”, under a pseudonym, Chanakya. In it, he warned against what he thought was his own dictatorial streak, arguing, among other things, that
“(Nehru’s) overmastering desire to get things done, to sweep away what he dislikes and build anew will hardly brook for long the slow processes of democracy…is it not possible that Jawaharlal might fancy himself as a Caesar.” (Modern Review, 1937)
Like his famous ancestor, Mr. Gandhi- or RG, as those in the Congress now call him- too is fanatical about democracy, even to the point of visible self-criticism: he clearly believes that the success of the two youth organizations he looks after, the IYC and the National Students Union of India (NSUI), depends, above all else, on ensuring that members have their say in choosing their leaders; and not in his deciding beforehand who should lead them. This has meant doing away with the age-old practice of appointing office-bearers based on recommendations of geriatric leaders, many of who have, to put it kindly, long since lost touch with the pulse of the youth.
Although elections have been on the pages of the constitutions of these two bodies since they were first constituted, no one has really bothered with the cumbersome task of holding them. RG has changed that. Well, not yet entirely. As of date, intra-organizational elections have been held in only three states: IYC elections in Punjab and Gujarat, and NSUI elections in the hilly state of Uttarakhand. (The process of IYC-electioneering has also commenced in Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry.) Even though an independent Election Commission is now well in place, there has been no official announcement about whether- and when- they would be conducted in other states. It is not that he isn’t satisfied with elections as such, especially in light of his abovementioned pronouncement. The question, therefore, is this: why not have nationwide organizational elections, all at once?
The answer to this, I suppose, lies in RG’s working style. He is, by most accounts, meticulously methodical: it’s not enough for a thing to be done; it’s equally important that it is done properly. Punjab and Gujarat weren’t exactly ‘smooth operations’: there were problems, but they were overcome. And in the process, valuable lessons have been learnt. Lessons that would, no doubt, be applied elsewhere in due course. It has been the same with Uttar Pradesh. Following the Congress’ poor showing in the last assembly election, political pundits were quick to put the blame on Mr. Gandhi. The media, despite intense coverage of his campaign, pronounced him a novice, who had much to learn.
And learn he did: by the time General elections were held two years later, he had quietly built, almost from scratch, a formidable organizational machinery at the grassroots level capable of single-handedly taking-on the collective might of all the three other major political parties- BSP, SP and BJP- put together. (Now: this is something chronic RG-baiters, whose diatribes have reached a crescendo after the Congress' drubbing in the recent Bihar assembly election, would do well to remember.) But that wasn’t all. For more than two decades, UP, India’s largest and most politically charged state, had been plagued by a divisive kind of politics, which was centered around building various combinations of communal and caste-based ‘vote banks’: BSP was the party of Dalits; SP represented the OBCs and Muslims; and the BJP pandered to Hindu chauvinism.
Idea of India
To adapt a phrase from the Princeton scholar, Sunil Khilnani, the very ‘idea of India’- that a nation of a billion people, all coming from vastly different backgrounds could stay united- was under threat.
It is clear from Mr. Gandhi’s oft-quoted statement that “the Indian Flag is my religion”, made during his first major political speech to AICC delegates at Hyderabad, that he had realized early on that a national party like the Congress, which by its very nature couldn’t possibly represent any one caste, community or region, simply didn’t stand a chance- not if the existing rules weren’t changed totally. True, he displayed a remarkable understanding of realpolitik when he decided, against all advice, to abandon altogether the requisites of coalitional politics and go it alone in UP sans the SP. (Most at the time thought this ‘overconfidence’ was nothing short of committing political hara-kiri.) But that wasn’t all.
In many ways, he did what Mr. Nehru had done- and what the forces of casteism, communalism and regionalism had been seeking to undo ever since: Mr. Gandhi created, almost all by himself, a new Indian National Identity that once again welded people from various backgrounds and regions into one common composite whole of Indian-ness. He did so by putting the long-forgotten Common Man at the center-stage of Indian politics.
This common man, by his very definition, does not belong to any one gender, community, caste or region. In this sense, he is truly ‘common’: his problems could be anyone’s problems; his aspirations and hopes are shared by all. Thus it was that in UP- and indeed, the rest of the nation- people didn’t vote on the lines of their identities (caste, religion or region); their vote was based on one criterion, the only one that actually matters: who, or which political party, could best address the problems, the hopes and aspirations, of this Common Man? Seen from this perspective, it is not difficult to understand why the People of India voted the way they did.
A Very Uncommon Common Man
Putting the Common Man center-stage is all very well, but the question that begs to be asked is this: how common exactly is RG? There is no doubt that Mr. Gandhi’s life has been anything but ordinary.
Given that his grandmother and father were both assassinated in the line of duty, security has always been a concern. Consequently, as a schoolboy, he- along with his sister, Priyanka- was tutored mostly at home. (She also became his ‘best friend’.) Even when they went out as a family- to an impromptu quiet little dinner, even- the people they would meet were carefully screened beforehand as yet another necessary security measure. The only time, it could be argued, that he found life ordinary was when he went to live abroad, first as a student in America registered under a pseudonym and then as a consultant working with a corporation in London. It was here, some say, that he finally found love.
Strictly speaking, the only ‘common people’ he came in contact with in India were those who worked in a domestic capacity at the prime ministerial residence, or at his mother’s home at 10 Janpath: cooks, gardeners, chauffeurs, attendants and the like. In many ways, they served as his link to the world that lay beyond its high-security fences, its constantly ready-to-shoot machine guns. Almost instinctively, Mr. Gandhi developed a peculiar fascination- one verging on outright admiration even- for these simple people. When asked by a magazine about the person he was inspired by most, he replied:
“Shyam Lal, who started as a junior guy and later managed my grandmother’s kitchen all by himself. Be it handling elaborate dinners for delegations and ambassadors, he could do everything single-handedly.” (Hi! Blitz, 2004)To most, this reply would seem a bit strange, even other-worldly. This, after all, is not the kind of answer that would get one top-marks in say, the UPSE interview. Putting oneself in RG’s place, one might’ve probably found one of those lofty ambassadors, what with their interesting insights and funny anecdotes, far more inspiring than a lowly chef who nobody would’ve noticed, let alone admired. Still, this does tell us a lot about the kind of person RG is; in particular, the relationship he has with common people like you and me.
This relationship, as it turns out, is at the centre of his political thinking (it’s still too early to call this thinking ‘ideology’): replying last year to the Motion on the Civil Nuclear Energy Agreement with the U.S., Mr. Gandhi, MP, defended the government’s stance by telling the story of Kalavati, a widowed-mother he had met in famine-stricken Vidharba. To him, the single most valid justification for the Agreement wasn’t India’s rapidly increasing energy deficit (which, given his penchant for facts, he seemed to have on the tip of his fingers) but much more significantly, the promise it holds for improving Ms. Kalavati’s life.
If asked to describe RG’s politics in just one word, I would choose: Humanistic.
Clearly, he admires certain qualities about the common man, which he finds absent in others not-so-common. And what is more, this relationship is reciprocal: the common man, as it were, finds much to admire about RG.
And it’s not because of what he says- his declamations, admittedly, don’t quite have the eloquence of a Barrack Obama- but simply because of who he is- or more precisely, how he comes across. The common man has long since given up on believing the uttered word- after all, he has sat through countless speeches, each one more verbose than the other, and seen no good come out of them- but he hasn’t given up on seeing, on sensing; on feeling. And this is what he feels, senses, sees: that here’s someone who, at the very least, has his heart in the right place; someone who, like them, doesn’t quite trust words, but instead believes in the moral force of right actions.
And for him, that is enough.