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Is Rahul ready?

We don't know. At a testing time, his government and an impatient India get only silence. What you should know about the heir apparent. Samar Halarnkar writes.

columns Updated: Sep 02, 2010 10:44 IST
Samar Halarnkar

So, what do we know about Rahul Gandhi?

We know he's 40, the same age his father Rajiv was when he became Prime Minister of India.

We know he's an alumni of Modern School, New Delhi; Doon School, Dehradun; Rollins College (B.A.), Florida; and Trinity College (M.Phil in development studies), Cambridge (in Britain). We know he was an average student.

We know he went by a name he will never use again, Raul Vinci, when he worked three years at a global management company in Cambridge (in America).

We know that since he became an MP six years ago, he has moved slowly, gradually easing into being general secretary of India's grand old party.

We know he is “as his dogged reorganisation of the Congress grassroots shows” imbued with decidedly unIndian political traits of setting goals and attention to detail and execution.

We know he's rather personable and routinely winds up atop those tiresome lists of ‘men you would like to date', though we don't know whether, as the rumours go, he really has a six-pack.

All this is pretty common knowledge, but it isn't enough if this young man stakes his claim to take charge of our collective destinies on a day that may rapidly be approaching. Much as I abhor dynastic politics, large swathes of India embrace it, as our past and present indicate. The latest poll on the issue, conducted by India Today last month, showed that 29 per cent of India wants Rahul to be our next prime minister (at second place, 11 per cent, the incapacitated Atal Bihari
Vajpayee).

Polls and the people they poll are notoriously fickle, but they are indicators of the moment. The mood of the moment is Rahul.

So, what else should you know about him?

You should know he listens a lot. Though no one whom he's brainstormed with is willing to be identified, I gather that his political interests centre on tribal affairs, panchayati raj (local self-governance) and their links to the growing Maoist insurgency. Earlier this year, he quietly slipped into the Indian Rural Management Institute (IRMA), Anand, Gujarat, and spent a day listening to presentations on panchayati raj and the insurgency.

You should know that he wins over people quickly. One expert I spoke to recently was leery of the Gandhi family's dynastic politics, explaining how it clashed with the local self-governance ideals Rahul and his mother Sonia were trying to promote. As I was talking to him in Delhi, a call came from 12 Tughlak Lane. Would the professor please spend an hour with Rahul later that day? The chat went on for nearly three hours and after it the professor said: "Well, I must tell you, he seems really sincere and knows a great deal about the subject." He would rather I not mention the subject.

You should know that Rahul is not the politically naïve Gandhi he's often made out to be. There was no greater evidence than his I-am-your-soldier-in-Delhi speech to the tribals of Orissa's Niyamgiri Hills, two days after confidant and Union Minister of State for Environment and Forests Jairam Ramesh denied a mining lease on tribal land and struck down the expansion of Vedanta Resources' aluminium refinery. Though it's a good thing for India's long-abused tribals, forests and the laws that govern them, there is a political design to Ramesh's environmental crackdown. To determine if Rahul's politics are not self-serving, we must now see if this crackdown widens into Congress-ruled states.

You should know that Rahul stays away from anything that might mar his widening appeal. This is why he flew to Leh during the devastating mudslide, but stayed away from the troubled Valley to its south. In these days of Kashmiri trauma and anger, a Rahul visit to a couple of Srinagar hospitals, some time with families of dead teenagers would have had an impact. Before the current intifada, two young Kashmiri men came to Delhi in response to his call for a few good men. It's another matter that the two men were picked up by the police for being Kashmiri, and are probably throwing stones now.

So, after a prime minister who shepherded an era of — and talked about little other than — economic growth (now at 8.8 per cent), we may get a leader who may focus on those left behind. In a selfish nation devoid of empathy for its poor and damned, this is welcome. But India is equally a young, entrepreneurial country with superpower dreams. It also requires clear political signposts, to roads allowed or forbidden, hammered into the ground by the man who would be king. Rahul and his mother's pro-poor proclivities are causing contradictions in the government because what they are thinking is not being articulated.

Rahul's carefully crafted air of inaccessibility could backfire. This is not the India of Indira, or Rajiv. There are still a few million who cannot identify their prime minister "even, incredibly, their own states" and so might vote in any Gandhi. But this is a nation whose politics are increasingly determined by a revolution of relentlessly rising expectations. These expectations require quick, clear, articulate expressions of governance, which the government isn't presently delivering. Rahul's silence makes it worse. One 60-plus Congress minister said to me: "Brother, why you, many of us do not know what he thinks about many things."For a nation sworn to a democratic destiny, that isn't good enough.