I'll be upfront about this and I am reasonably sure you'll agree with me. Deep down, most of us nurture disdain towards those who come to occupy positions of power by virtue of birth. Quite honestly, that has, at least until I started researching this story on Rahul Gandhi, been my stated position. And because there is no other polite way to say it, I'll say it as it is: Respect for those in power who inherit it, usually comes from the unwashed, illiterate masses that can be manipulated. This, to my mind, is a truth leaders have always acknowledged throughout history. That explains why, as his power grew, Alexander the Great perpetuated the myth that he was sired by the god Jupiter Ammon and not Philip II of Macedon, who incidentally, used prudence as a tool to rule and outgrow the shadow of his father Philip I of Macedon, a paradigm of boundless energy.
But as I begin to write this story, I must confess, the ground beneath my feet has shifted and my stated position has taken a hammering. As this story goes into print, and I fine tune all that I've collected from my various conversations with a few dozen people about what exactly Rahul Gandhi is all about, things stand at a knife's edge and I can't help wonder which way things will go.
Right now though, I'm willing to take a punt and argue that Rahul Gandhi ought to take a call and make a go for the country's top job as its prime minister. If he doesn't do it now, there is a pretty good chance he may never get a shot at it again. The reason I say that is because he's spent a good number of years lurking in the shadows, and contrary to what many believe, has the pedigree to make for a good leader.
Sure, there are many ifs and buts and nuances to what is an incredibly complex story, all of which I will attempt to tell here. But before that, I will also take refuge under a famous Winston Churchill quip: "Politics is the ability to foretell what is going to happen tomorrow, next week, next month and next year - and the ability afterwards to explain why it didn't happen."
The way things are, urban India seems in a state of revolt. It's the kind of thing that the ruling Congress coalition hadn't anticipated. Who, after all, would have imagined urban Indians donning Gandhi caps and organising mass protests, candle light vigils, and participating in raucous street side debates across the country to support a benign Gandhian who goes by the name Anna Hazare?
His stated cause - to implement the Jan Lokpal Bill that will ostensibly go a long way in weeding out corruption - clearly struck a chord with middle class India. It is another matter altogether that while the Bill has its heart in the right place, it is most certainly not the panacea for all the evils that plague our democracy. For various reasons though, Team Anna and his campaign managers have managed to sell a dream - that if this Bill is implemented the way they want it, it will go a long way in dealing with the many evils that plague our system.
Now, Baba Ramdev, whom most of you know as a spiritualist, yoga practitioner and television evangelist, was quick to spot the potential of the assault Team Anna was mounting on the government. He, therefore, quickly attempted to hijack the agenda and mounted an indefinite fast listing a variety of issues they wanted to see achieved. These included an end to black money and promotion of the Hindi language. But the Congress, master at the art of calling a bluff, took a tough line and refused to get into any negotiations with him. Baba Ramdev was compelled to cede ground in disgrace. He quietly abandoned his fast and went back to doing what he does best.
Strategists at the Congress headquarters reckoned they could do much the same thing with Anna Hazare. What they underestimated though was the groundswell of support mounting in his favour. Some sources I've spoken to tell me that the RSS, which would do anything to topple the Congress, saw the momentum building in Anna Hazare's favour much earlier than anybody else did and infiltrated Hazare's ranks with their supporters to give the movement the mass support it needs. I'm not entirely sure how true this theory is - but I suspect it is a theory that cannot be dismissed entirely.
Be that as it may, while all of this was happening, Rahul Gandhi was away in the US, attending to his ailing mother, the chairperson of the Congress Party. On his return, he was faced with an explosive situation. The ruling Congress Party, which his mother heads and is fronted by the trusted Manmohan Singh, was in a state of disarray. The Anna Hazare-mounted assault had to be defused through backroom negotiations.
In the earlier stages, the negotiations were led by the party's strategists like P Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal and Pranab Mukherjee. But that had clearly backfired and the Gandhi family no longer trusts them to solve the impasse. Chidambaram particularly is seen as a hot potato for two reasons. One, he can take a tough line that could backfire again. And two, because the family perceives he has prime ministerial ambitions.
Sources tell me, both of these are seen as disadvantages to the family in the longer run. Then there is AK Antony, who is trusted deeply by the family, but does not possess the stature to pull off negotiations in favour of the Congress. I'm told Rahul Gandhi, then, decided to step in and told his aides that the aggressive stance taken by the government ought to be toned down; and that Anna Hazare be released. What he wanted was at complete variance with what his party had stood for until then. But it makes sense when viewed from another perspective.
In 1688, Sir Christopher Wren, the celebrated English architect, was asked to design a town hall for the city of Westminster. When the mayor saw the design, he told Wren the second floor was not secure and that it could all come crashing down. And therefore, he wanted Wren to add two stone columns for extra support. Wren didn't argue. He complied even though he knew it would serve no purpose. It was only years later, when workmen got on a high scaffold for some minor repairs did they see that the columns Wren gave in to stopped a few centimetres short of the ceiling. They were dummies. But the point is, both men got what they wanted. The mayor could relax and posterity demonstrated Wren was right.
I am told that right now since Rahul Gandhi has stepped in with his overtures, Anna Hazare has softened his stance. Chances are, by the time you get to read this, the logjam would have ended and the Hazare-induced crisis would have significantly reduced, if not blown away completely.
To my mind, the episode highlights a key aspect of Rahul's personality that is crucial for any leader: Win through action, not argument.
Until a few months ago, I hadn't thought of Rahul Gandhi from this perspective. As recently as July 9, I travelled from New Delhi to Aligarh to listen to him speak at a farmers rally. I was sceptical because in all the time I had been tracking him, I hadn't heard him speak anything substantive. I mean, you can't get away by telling battle-hardened journalists that the Congress-led Haryana has a better land acquisition policy than the one in Uttar Pradesh, which he will be leading into elections early next year.
I wasn't wrong. When it was time to speak on a heavily overcast day, he spoke for exactly 15 minutes and 30 seconds. He thanked the 7,000-odd people who had gathered there, many of whom I suspect where rounded up by local Congress workers to impress their leader. He thanked everybody for all that he had learnt over the last couple of days during his padayatra through the state. "There he goes again," I muttered in my head. "He's learning all the freakin' time. Why doesn't he just take up office and prove his mettle?" I wondered!
I asked senior Congress leaders the question. Off the record, they told me that they intended to wait until the crucial Uttar Pradesh state elections next year; which they expect to work in their favour, and use that as a springboard to launch Rahul Gandhi's prime-ministerial journey. "These are all rumours. If I know him, joining the government is a possibility but only in the future, not now," another leader told me. I shook my head in frustration. Why was everything about him so contradictory and shrouded in mystery?
This episode from the July revolution of 1830 in France comes to mind. After three days of riots, the statesman Talleyrand was sitting by his window in Paris and listening to the bells pealing away in Paris that signalled the end of the riots. "We're winning" he muttered. "Who's we?" his assistant, asked him. "Shush," said Talleyrand, "I'll tell you who we are tomorrow." The point being, in power games, commitment deprives you of the advantages time provides. My first guess is, Rahul Gandhi is perhaps playing Talleyrand's game. Let others rush in. On your part, hang on in there, and for all that it is worth, gain as much time as you can.
There's a part of me that tells me that this is perhaps the best course of action because there are a couple of things that are playing out simultaneously.
- Consider for a moment, the current mood in the country. Things most certainly don't look pretty. If things continue to go down this path, there is a chance that a few months down the line, a united Opposition could move a resolution in Parliament for a No Confidence Motion. There are some indicators already that suggest the Opposition is sniffing that potential. These are early days yet, but there is nothing to suggest the possibility can be dismissed entirely either. Factor into the situation that a section of the UPA government led by the Congress is already upset and party watchers believe they may just end up voting against the current government. What makes it easier for them is the fact that the BJP, the main Opposition party, has not put up a prime ministerial candidate. There seems to be a loose consensus that Nitish Kumar could be propped up as a consensus candidate by the Opposition. At least on the face of it, there is no ideological resistance to him as an individual. The only issue there is the North-South divide. But if a majority of parliamentarians from North India rally around him, whether those from the South will also come around is an academic discussion.
- Then there is Uttar Pradesh. Like I was telling you earlier, the Congress is divided on which way the winds are blowing. I come from there, and I know how people there think.
Sample this: Jawaharlal Nehru, Lal Bahadur Shastri, Indira Gandhi, Charan Singh, Rajiv Gandhi, VP Singh, Chandra Shekhar and most recently, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. That's eight out of the 14 people who served as India's Prime Minister. UP's electorate is too used to electing bold, confident visionaries as prime ministers as against a diffident Rahul Gandhi who mostly raises local issues. And especially not when the material girl of Indian politics, Mayawati, seems to have worked out the caste-driven electoral arithmetic of UP perfectly.
Add to that the Congress' dismal record over the past 20 years that saw it steadily lose all its traditional 'vote banks' in successive elections, thanks largely to some of the most significant upheavals in Indian politics. Starting 1989, the Reservation for backward castes, the Babri Masjid dispute and the emergence of Dalit politics in the form of BSP meant that Congress lost the Yadavs, Rajputs and the minorities, especially Muslims, to SP; upper caste Hindus to the BJP; and the lower castes to the BSP. By 2007, Congress had been reduced to just 22 seats in the 403-seat-strong state Assembly!
Rahul Gandhi's personal record as a leader too hasn't been very inspiring. In the recent past he has led some eminently forgetful election campaigns for the Congress: Bihar (2010) and Tamil Nadu (2011) being glaring examples.
So, barring the surprise result from UP in the last General Elections in 2009 - when the polarisation of Muslim votes in favour of Congress, thanks to BJP's communal tilt, suddenly improved Congress's tally to 21 out of 80 Lok Sabha seats - there is little to write home about the Congress in UP. Add to all of this the infighting among its cadres in UP.
This result had lifted the mood so much that as recently as three months ago, party strategists were convinced that the Congress could easily manage to garner roughly around 100 seats for itself at the hustings. The party think tank and his mother Sonia had then argued that this was the kind of number that would provide Rahul Gandhi with the tailwind to propel him into the forefront for the top job. After much soul searching, it was an argument Rahul had bought into. However, a senior politician in the party who has a reputation of getting his electoral math right, told both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi a month ago that the Congress would end up with not more than 35 seats. And that it would effectively scupper Rahul's chances at the national level. It was an argument coming from a veteran that could not be ignored.
- And finally, there are the serpents within his own party that he has to deal with. If the Central government totters and then they lose UP, all of those chest-thumping-banner-holding Gandhi family supporters will abandon him. Right now, the family name is his calling card. If that calling card loses its resonance, they will see no reason to hold on to it. In the murky world of politics, they might as well move on to greener pastures. As things stand right now, there are some whisperings of discontent that have made its way to the world outside and make both the Gandhis and loyalists in the party uncomfortable.
Given all of these complex dynamics, I would imagine it works to Rahul Gandhi's advantage to keep to himself and use the Talleyrand ruse. But that doesn't take away from the fact that gaining power is also about timing. As Robert Greene puts it in his book, The 48 Laws of Power, "Patience is worthless unless combined with a willingness to fall ruthlessly on your opponent at the right moment. You can wait as long as necessary for the conclusion to come, but when it comes it must come quickly."
But to be fair to Rahul Gandhi, when he joined national politics in 2004, he was acutely aware of what he meant for the rest of the Congress Party. He knew that at some point or the other he would be pushed to take up the leadership of the Party since the Congress rarely fought elections on ideology or issues. It was driven by the charismatic personalities of the Nehru-Gandhi clan.
He was, however, not willing to be a pawn in the hands of the Party. He had learnt his lessons from the mistakes of his father Rajiv. In fact Rahul, along with his mother Sonia and sister Priyanka, regretted how his father's sudden elevation to the top job gave him little time to form his own political ideas. Instead, Rajiv ended up blindly following those who propped him and not realising their motives. By the time Rajiv was out of power in 1989, he felt deserted by many of his close associates and supporters. Rajiv had also made many hasty and ill-advised decisions, one of which actually led to his assassination.
Unlike Rajiv, Rahul's first nature is to look inwards. In his view what ails Indian politics and indeed the Congress Party is the lack of correct political leadership right across various levels of governance. He could see how the lack of inner party democracy has led to small dynasties right across the Party. Decision-making is completely ad hoc and only people with money or dynastic support can rise in the Party rungs.
"He understood from his father's experience that once you are part of the system [government] it is way too difficult to change it. In fact, if he was weak, he would have given in to the pressure from the party cadres and become the PM a long time ago," said an aide.
To get around this unique problem, he connected with G.K. Jayaram, founder–director of the Institute of Leadership & Institutional Development (ILID) in Bangalore in 2008. Jayaram had worked with national and international companies and organisations like Infosys, Arthur D Little and Coopers & Lybrand to bring about organisational change. Jayaram says Rahul Gandhi wanted him to translate these set of ideas for the rejuvenation of the Youth Congress, which he had taken over.
"The idea was to unleash the energy of the Indian youth and open the doors of politics to them," says Jayaram. This led to the formulation of 'Vistar' or Vision Strategy Structure Action Plan & Review.
The first move was to hold a three-day camp for about 40 young workers who were asked to reflect on three broad philosophical questions within the overall context of India: Why do you exist at all? What do you want to do? And how do you want to do that?
Depending on their answers, candidates were then asked to formulate customised programmes to achieve their goals. So, if someone saw himself as promoting literacy, he was expected to devise programmes around that ambition. He was then judged on the performance of this programme.
Over time, Jayaram helped Rahul frame the '7 pillars of Wisdom'. They lay out Rahul Gandhi's vision and have been undertaken by the Youth Congress and National Students Union of India.
Jayaram says that the leaders so elected are working at the grassroot level in various rural areas of the country. Their functioning is closely monitored by the national executive headed by Rahul and his close associates like Meenakshi Natarajan and Jitendra Singh, both of whom are also MPs.
As of now, this process has reached only 14 states. It is expected to reach all the remaining states during the course of the next year. But just one round of training will not be enough. Rahul believes they would require at least five such rounds, roughly 10 more years, to really throw up his kind of leaders.
"Another 10 years?!" I shout in my head. "But where are these leaders, sir," I ask him. "When you sit down on an uneven ground to eat rasam with rice on a banana leaf, you find that the rasam promptly flows away from the rice towards the borders and to eat you need to bring the rasam back and mix it with rice. That is 'inclusion' without which growth will create problems," says Jayaram. The task of the Rahul brigade is to be the leaders who bring about such inclusion while India grows.
I remain unconvinced. Ten years sounds way too much. But Jayaram continues undeterred. As part of the 7 Pillars of Wisdom, Rahul had invited India's former chief election commissioner, JM Lyngdoh's Foundation for Advanced Management of Elections (FAME) to regulate elections in the Youth Congress in 2009.
The FAME team put in place a democratic system, which required a candidate to be elected by his supporters as against the usual practice of being selected from the top. However, many a Congress leader used this as an opportunity to promote their kids. Money and power came into play more than ever since to build one's support base required one to get more new people to join the Youth Congress; each enrolment cost Rs. 15.
Rasheed Kidwai, who has just written a brief history of Congress titled 24 Akbar Road, recounts that in Chhattisgarh, Amit Jogi, son of the former Chief Minister Ajit Jogi, managed to get the maximum number of fresh youth enrolled in Chhattisgarh Youth Congress. As a result, he became the obvious choice for the Youth Congress president's post until Rahul's intervention ruled him out, as he was facing criminal charges. Similar issues cropped up with Home Minister P. Chidambaram's son Karti in Tamil Nadu. Even in other states like Punjab and Himachal Pradesh, the eventual winners are directly or indirectly supported by the dominant family in the state Congress.
Moreover, it is increasingly becoming clear that unless there is democracy in the main party and a system that allows Youth Congress leaders to organically grow in the main party, such efforts, even if successful, will not bear fruit.
I must admit that by now I had slowly started to respect the man. I mean, how many in his position would have given up on power and chosen the struggle? How many of us truly push ourselves to "deserve" what we "desire". Moreover, in all his public life he has steered cleared of scandals and controversies. And going by the mood of the nation, that in itself is an achievement.
On July 31, Arvind Kejriwal, a mechanical engineer from IIT Kharagpur, met with a rousing reception at IIT Chennai. Now a social activist, he spoke eloquently and passionately on the Lokpal Bill, what it means, and what it stands for. The audience heard him out quietly, and applauded wildly. His face and his speeches are emblematic of the leadership challenge Rahul Gandhi now faces.
The audience that Kejriwal was addressing ought to have been listening to Rahul. The movement that Kejriwal stands for is the biggest non-violent protest Indian civil society has mounted against the government. As I write this story, newswires are reporting that the government is backing off its original non-negotiable stance and is opening itself to talks. And that, in the days and weeks to come will test Rahul Gandhi's leadership capabilities.
Over the years, he has practiced a brand of democracy and politics in rebuilding an organisation that he inherited. Question is how does he transplant that into public life? Because fact is, the youth, the core constituency he was groomed to represent, are being weaned away by the likes of Kejriwal. Rahul's challenge is to keep them in the fold.
Then there is his mother's illness that keeps her away from party politics. Over the years, she has watched him like a hawk and her political presence has been a powerful one. In her absence, his sister Priyanaka advises him. The core group now includes Janardan Dwivedi, Ahmed Patel and A.K. Antony as well. But fact remains, they cannot make up for the vacuum that now exists in the absence of Sonia. In that sense, this is Rahul's first solo flight as a leader.
And if all that is not enough, there are variables like the powerful 'Bombay Club' - the high and mighty of the country's business who see him as aligned to the left of centre. Over the years, Rahul has cultivated for himself a persona that throws him with the masses. To remain a formidable player in politics, it is important to have the 'Bombay Club' on your side. How Rahul manages to maneuver this cesspool as well remains to be seen.
In the public eye, Rahul continues to come across as a bundle of contradictions. He wants a system that pays no attention to your name, notwithstanding the role 'Gandhi' has played in his own life. He raises concerns on important issues like land acquisitions, tribal rights and environment without really giving a clue to what his stand on the issues are.
His calls for greater direct contact with the masses is quite contrary to his availability to the rank and file of his own party workers, most of whom do not even have his contact details. His style of functioning is laced by using the latest technology, but his office at Congress headquarters is rarely visited.
Opinions about him vary wildly, even among those who have met and interacted with him, ranging from "zombie-like" to "astute". One of the senior Congress leaders said he has yet to grasp what Rahul Gandhi is trying to do.
Him taking the plunge for the prime minister's job may just end the guessing game.