Rahul Gandhi: the Insider as the Outsider
Rahul Gandhi's rebellion against the restrictions of his political inheritance may first need a more genuine distance from the Establishment. Barkha Dutt writes.columns Updated: Oct 26, 2013 11:46 IST
At first, we barely knew what Rahul Gandhi thought. He hardly ever spoke, except during elections.
His interventions in Parliament were erratic 'Kalavati' moments - headline grabbing narratives of sincere anguish that swiftly retreated into the mostly silent spaces from where they had suddenly emerged, just like the story of the Vidarbha widow who became a national name after he mentioned her, only to find that her life did not substantively change.
This year we know the Congress vice-president a little better. He still doesn't speak from anywhere but the ramparts of an election stage. In his disdain for and suspicion of the media, he has something in common with his chief challenger, Narendra Modi.
But, since taking charge of the party campaign, there is now a unifying pattern to his speeches. He is trying to position himself as the politician of the poor while nudging his rival into the camp of the corporates.
As a political salesman, the product he is attempting to pitch is empathy; he invokes the tragedies of how his father and grandmother were assassinated to seemingly make the argument that he can feel the pain of all those who suffer.
He has clearly shifted gears in the race against Modi. The earlier strategy to avoid framing the electoral argument in terms of a battle between secularism and communalism has been abandoned.
Unlike in Gujarat, where the Congress wasn't even willing to put Sonia Gandhi and her son on poll posters, to perhaps save them from being the defeated parties in a foregone victory, the national battle has seen Rahul pretty willing to wrestle in the gladiatorial ring.
This week, he has tripped and stumbled on his own rhetoric after an embarrassing controversy has erupted around his claim that Pakistani agencies were trying to woo young Muslim boys brutalised in the Muzaffarnagar riots.
Even some Muslim clerics have criticised him for questioning the patriotism of the community. But on the chess board of political moves, the gambit has been played.
Having charged the BJP with "starting fires in Muzaffarnagar, Gujarat and Kashmir" he has set the stage for an election year that will witness one of the most polarising and volatile political clashes in recent memory.
In itself, Rahul Gandhi is entitled to his rhetoric, even to overstatement and oversimplification - both age-old weapons in all political armouries. The problem is less with the content (which the voter will be the ultimate judge of) and more with the persona that the party's future leader has adopted.
If you study all his speeches since he took charge as vice-president, kicking off his new assignment with the personal yet platitudinous anecdote of how his mother told him that "power is poison" Rahul Gandhi has consistently sought to appropriate the role of the rebel for himself.
In the demand that the ordinance to protect convicted politicians should be torn up and thrown away, Gandhi was clearly positioning himself as the disruptive force that would uproot the status-quoist culture of his own party.
It's not that the Congress doesn't need this upheaval; it does. It's just that Rahul Gandhi, as the automatic, unquestioning inheritor of political power in his party is the ultimate Congress Insider. It's disingenuous for him to try and play the part of the Outsider. He simply cannot be both.
He could argue of course that he is trying to change the system from within, promising as he does that power will no longer be controlled and distributed by an influential minority.
But how can he miss the paradox of this formulation? He represents precisely that minuscule group that determines the fates and fortunes of others within the Congress without any robust interrogation of his own decisions from his peers.
While he has openly trashed dynastic politics, as long as he remains its most famous contemporary symbol, that critique seems flimsy. If a political meritocracy is his utopian ideal then let him start by announcing that he is not interested in the country's top job.
In any case, those who know him say that's possibly true. So, let him say that his energies will be devoted not to the pursuit of prime ministership, but to building intra-party freedom.
In his speech in Madhya Pradesh, Rahul Gandhi indicated that he had been "asked" to put a "brake" on his plans to end the system of "political quotas" because of the impending elections.
During the Uttar Pradesh elections, it is said that Rahul Gandhi was keen to run as a contender for chief minister to indicate the seriousness of his commitment to the state, but was "asked" to focus on the national stage instead.
Notwithstanding the real pressure from his party base to run for PM, it's tough to believe that Rahul Gandhi can't get his way, if he is sure of what he wants. But the current ambivalence around his political ambitions makes the Insider-Outsider debate even more relevant.
The attempted disassociation can in fact be damaging for its selectiveness. For instance, the emotional reference to how his grandmother was murdered by the same men who taught him how to play badminton as a child would have been much more effective and moving, had he also followed it up with remorse for the thousands of Sikhs who were killed in the aftermath of her assassination.
To mention one, but remain silent about the other is to wear the scars of the tragedies of his political inheritance, without owning up to the accompanying mistakes.
The experience of growing up as the grandson of Indira Gandhi and the son of Rajiv Gandhi consigns Rahul Gandhi to an inescapable position of access and privilege. An Amitabh Bachchan like angry-young-man rebellion against its restrictions may first need a more genuine distance from the Establishment.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal