Priyanka Gandhi said it first. Her brother’s great skill — she told me on the campaign trail — was his willingness to “sacrifice the now for the future.” Not just was he never given enough credit for this, she argued; he was often needlessly “berated” by a fickle media. Looking back, her words now seem eerily prescient. When Rahul Gandhi first pushed for travelling solo in the badlands of Uttar Pradesh and when he refused to accept the piddly little offer of three seats from Lalu Prasad, there were enough snide sniggers, some from within the Congress itself. I remember, Lalu quipping on a TV show, “Is Rahulji planning an election for 2014 or 2009?”
But that’s the irony — Rahul Gandhi probably was planning a long-term overhaul for 2014 or even further ahead, and made no apologies for it. In other words, let’s think of what would have happened if the Congress’ seats had not soared in UP. The media that is gushing today would have swung to the other extreme and editorialised on supposed political “naivete.” Every sentence uttered during electioneering would have been deconstructed for potential failure. And the Opposition would have been stomping all over the story.
It’s now conventional wisdom to pitch Rahul Gandhi as the big winner of this election. But I think, the real reason that he is a victor is not so much the fact that Rahul Gandhi’s courageous risk won the Congress the Hindi heartland; it’s the fact that had his party lost, he would have still believed in the need to pursue a lonelier, but braver political path. There are very few politicians who can stand up to the public scrutiny of a decision that doesn’t yield immediate results. It’s my guess that the 39-year-old Gandhi is probably one of those few. And that’s what makes him a winner.
Going through my old notes on the same interview with Priyanka Gandhi, I found that she had emphasised back then how little her brother cared about how he was perceived. “He does (what he has to do) regardless of what anybody thinks of him,” she said. “I mean, remember the UP Assembly election, where he was berated and in the press everything was piled onto him. But he just went ahead with what he thought was right. The other thing that I think is great about him as a politician is he doesn’t have this thing that he absolutely has to succeed every time. He’s very good with things in which perhaps maybe in the short-term he won’t succeed but he can see that there is a long- term success. He will work through that short-term failure.”
It’s the willingness to divorce politics from the popularity stakes that makes Rahul Gandhi so unusual.
Of course there’s a difference between following your heart and mind and being entirely indifferent to public opinion. It is sometimes a thin line that separates courage from hubris. And many politicians have lost their balance in this tough trapeze walk.
That’s why I think, despite all the clamouring for Rahul Gandhi to be part of the new council of ministers, his instinct to stay out is probably much wiser. Not just because the party organisation needs strengthening and rejuvenation, but also because it’s the more grounded way to climb to the top. It’s a path designed to sidestep the hurdles that ingratiating sycophancy within the party can prop up.
And that will be what Rahul Gandhi will be most closely watched for in the months and years to come. Will he manage to live up to his word of delivering democracy within his own party? He’s often said that just because he’s a product of a system doesn’t mean he can’t try and change it. Fair enough. So will he be able to replicate the Youth Congress model within the parent party? He’s spoken so often about how political parties shouldn’t be designed in a way that empower only those “whom the leader likes.” These are brave, but I think felt words from someone whose party-men are always tripping over each other to flatter him in public and in private.
Finally, while so many deconstruct Rahul Gandhi in terms of his father and his grandmother (his own sister said he combined the best of both politically), I think, he may have another unexpected example to emulate — his mother. Sonia Gandhi, the shy, reluctant politician, permanently silenced her critics since the day she declared she had no interest in being Prime Minister. Five years later, she holds not just the party; but also the alliance together. Every time there is a crisis — a recalcitrant partner, a dissenting old leader, a sulky party colleague — it is she who is called in to apply the balm. Those who dismissed her as a novice from abroad have had to swallow their words and accept that old fashioned stuff like hard work and sheer goodwill still have a huge space in Indian politics. It’s the same goodwill and simple integrity that most people associate with the Prime Minister.
And it’s that mix of decency and humility that we will look for in the man destined to lead the Congress into its new future.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV.