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Becoming one of us

Rahul Gandhi may not have all the aces he wants, but his ability to speak from the heart is a trump card that many don't have, writes Chanakya.

columns Updated: Jan 26, 2013 23:38 IST

The words of India's first prime minister and the new Congress vice-president's great grandfather - "Life is like a game of cards. The hand you are dealt is determinism; the way you play it is free will" - could not have been more apt to describe the task before Rahul Gandhi. The hand he has been dealt is perhaps not as loaded with aces as he would like, but now he has to rely on his skill as a politician to make it a winning one.

In the ossified world of Indian politics, it is rare to see anyone revealing glimpses of their private world in public. Certainly Rahul's imperious grandmother would not dream of letting on such emotions as the young man displayed at the party's Chintan Shivir in Jaipur. The speech made no bones about the fact that he intends to shake up the party, that vested interests will not be allowed to flourish, that the young and the restless must find their place in the sun. But what took many by surprise was the emotional part of the speech. Rahul Gandhi spoke of the death of his grandmother at the hands of her two bodyguards he considered friends in his childhood and how her death knocked him off balance.

He spoke of how broken his father was, how frightened he was when he had to take up the reins of the country following his grandmother's death. He spoke of his famously reclusive mother's tears when he was elevated to vice-president, her words of caution about power being a poison. In those moments, we felt pain for the little boy's lost childhood, his trauma at confronting death, the sorrow of the fatherless child, his mother's fear for her older child. It was in these moments too that he was able to go above politics and connect with the people, something that happens so rarely in Indian politics.

I think Rahul has been rather clever in speaking only of his concern for 'Indians'. The Congress today cannot claim the allegiance of any particular caste, class, community or religion. Those have gone to regional formations. The youthful demographic of India requires, if not now then in the very near future, a different kind of political discourse. It cannot be predicated on caste and class, it has to be on merit, it has to be pan-Indian.

The age when politicians can assume superiority over the people is over. In fact the age of the figure of authority is fast becoming extinct. I find that I can no longer tell my children that I know best. The internet and social media have taken that away from me as I am sure it has for many of you. The youth are more savvy, more connected to the world and certainly do not take kindly to pontification from older people. They may respect us and we must be thankful for that. So, the politician can no longer tell the people anything they do not know. The focus now has to be on delivery. And people are not willing to be shortchanged anymore.

Many may think Rahul Gandhi is a greenhorn, but unlike other parties, particularly the BJP, he is at least trying to bring about a paradigm shift in politics. One in which people's voices will be heard and heeded. One in which the accent is on delivery of schemes to improve people's quality of life. One which affects all of us, irrespective of where we come from or to which social formation we belong.

Cynics feel that the young Gandhi is trying to replicate his father's strategy of ushering in a new culture. A strategy that failed in the end. What they don't reckon with is that today people are changing politics and not the other way around. Geography and social boundaries are being erased by the social media. You can make common cause with someone who you have never met, whose social credentials you may not want to know.

This generation, India's future, knows what it wants and it is vociferous in demanding its rights. In Rajiv Gandhi's time, he spoke of only 15 paisa for every rupee meant for the poor reaching them. It is quite possible that even today, the poor don't get half their due. But now we have whistleblowers, we have civil society activists, we have the right to information Act, we have public interest litigation. No politician can afford to ignore these anymore.

But the most important thing is that today's politician must be seen to be as human as the next person. He must not be afraid to show that he is frail, he has moments of pain and doubt, that he is one of us. Rahul Gandhi displayed that vulnerability, that emotional connect. In many ways, I feel this is a sign of someone who is comfortable in his skin. American leaders are famous for their people connect, their public displays of affection for their family, their admissions to their failures. He may not have all the aces he may want, but his ability to speak from the heart is certainly a trump card that few others can claim to possess in the Indian political landscape today.