Rahul Gandhi: Another son rises on India

Scion of Nehru-Gandhi family emerges as presumptive PM candidate, reinforcing India's penchant for dynastic politics.

    Rahul Gandhi: Another son rises on India
    Rahul Gandhi was recently named vice president of the Indian Congress Party, led by his mother, Sonia Gandhi [AP]

    Many in India's political circles saw it coming.

    In a bid to infuse fresh vigour in the beleaguered party, the Indian National Congress Party announced last week that 42-year-old Rahul Gandhi would be its next vice-president.

    His mother Sonia Gandhi heads the party and also chairs the ruling government coalition led by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. But given her reported frail health, its a certainty that Rahul Gandhi would be the face of the party and the prime ministerial candidate during the next elections scheduled for 2014. 

    At the recent Congress conclave in Jaipur, the normally reticent Rahul Gandhi addressed his party colleagues and the youth cadre of the party following the announcement of his new role.

    "His speech expressed conviction and style, and many onlookers observed that the cadre of the party felt energised with his words."

    - Shoma Chaudhury, Tehelka editor

    In what has been described as an emotional speech, he tackled cynicism by echoing the regular lament about India's dynastic politics. "We only empower people at the top of a system," he said.

    Senior Congress leaders hailed it as India's "Obama moment" given his emotional pitch and earnestness.

    "His speech expressed conviction and style, and many onlookers observed that the cadre of the party felt energised with his words," said Shoma Chaudhury, managing editor of Tehelka magazine and a political commentator.

    Yet doubts persist about Rahul Gandhi's ideological stance and the change he can bring about in the rowdy world of Indian politics.

    Dynastic politics

    Rahul Gandhi's ascendency has not come as a surprise to many Indians.

    The Indian subcontinent has a long history of dynastic politics. The most prominent family is the Nehru-Gandhi clan: three of its members (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi, and Rajiv Gandhi) have become prime ministers in the 66 years since India's independence.

    Many regional parties across India are now controlled by political leaders and their offspring, emulating what is often called India's first family in politics.

    The Congress Party, too, now has many young politicians whose parents served the party in senior positions.

    Following the assassinations of his grandmother in 1984 and his father in 1991, Rahul Gandhi's reluctance to take on a larger role in politics has been viewed by many as understandable. In his speech, he briefly mentioned that his mother shed tears at the role he would assume.

    Journalist N Ram claimed the deaths of his grandmother and father "toughened his [Rahul's] inner fibre and demonstrated to the nation his resilience as well as his dignity in the face of calamity".

    Why now?

    The timing of the announcement has been assumed to be a reaction to the mass protests India witnessed in December after a brutal gang-rape in New Delhi led to the death of a 23-year-old student. Congress Party leaders had come under attack for its response to the protest, allowing the police to use tear gas and water hoses to disperse the demonstrators.

    "This government is living by the week, hoping a change in headlines will armour the party," said Krishna Prasad, editor of Outlook magazine and a political commentator.

    The main opposition party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is said to be planning to field Narendra Modi, the chief minister in Gujarat state, as its prime ministerial candidate.

    Congress leaders like Jitin Prasad have said that Rahul Gandhi could run a positive campaign against the negative politics of Modi in the elections.

    However, Rahul Gandhi's lack of experience and his debacle in the Uttar Pradesh elections in 2012 - where the Congress Party suffered a humiliating defeat - is casting doubts on his ability to compete and win over the poor and common voter in the forthcoming elections.

    Election watchers have said that the younger Gandhi, despite his thoughtfulness and earnestness, lacks the emotional appeal and charisma that his late father and grandmother had.

    The reluctant leader

     India ruling party suffers poll losses


    In 2004, Rahul formally entered politics in a bid to defend his Italian-born mother, who was attacked for her foreign origins. But he refused prominent party positions and instead chose to work with the youth wing.

    Rahul Gandhi has also remained mostly silent during parliamentary debates, and has not been vocal on issues like foreign direct investment, corruption such as the coal and telecom scams, and the wave of protests last month after the gang-rape.

    Aarthi Ramachandran, author of a definitive biography of Rahul Gandhi, writes that he has been practising "a brand of politics that involves wielding considerable clout in politics and policymaking with very little accountability".

    His actions have been unlike other scions of political families. For instance, Gandhi has chosen to mix with the poorest of the poor and to endear himself to the common man. He has often avoided the cavalcade of cars and retinue of party followers and chosen to meet poor tribals, dalits (untouchables) or India's most downtrodden in their hut. He has travelled in local trains and even visited restive, Maoist-infested areas in West Bengal and Bihar.

    But in last year's elections in Uttar Pradesh, India's largest state, his reaching out to the poor and dalits did not pay electoral dividends, and Congress lost heavily.

    Rahul Gandhi keeps his distance from the media. "Inaccessibility contributes to the mystique factor of Rahul Gandhi. Key leaders in India, including those in the Gandhi family, have opted for silence as a policy. This reticence on Gandhi's part is part of his persona," explained Prasad.

    Heavy burden

    Rahul Gandhi's family forbears in the Nehru-Gandhi clan, including Indira Gandhi and her sons Sanjay and Rajiv Gandhi, have had to battle accusations of misgovernance and corruption.

    Some political watchers have warned that they have yet to see Gandhi's political sagacity or wisdom.

    While he sounds earnest in tackling corruption and elitism in his own party, Gandhi has not yet offered solutions.

    He may have assumed the post of privilege, but what he will do to address economic slowdown, growing disillusionment with public institutions, Maoist rebellion, and poverty remains to be seen.

    It's a burden that will not rest easy on Gandhi's shoulders.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera



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