At a roadside tea-stall on the way to Amethi the day after the Congress announced his candidature for 2004 Lok Sabha election, Rahul Gandhi spotted a toddler. Amid jostling crowds, heat and high-pitched slogans, Gandhi took the child in his lap — only to provoke wailing. "It seems he is not your voter", someone joked. "Yes. But I have to convert him!" said Rahul, RG for quick reference in a party that has at least three Gandhis at the helm.
If converting the boys wasn't tough enough — as RG's efforts to overhaul the youth and student wings of the 126-year-old party for the last four years show — now, he is being pressed by the party elders to lead them too. "He should now take care of us also," Congress general secretary Digvijaya Singh recently said. In August, when Sonia Gandhi went abroad for a medical procedure, RG had ignored suggestions that he take over as working or vice president of the party. "Sonia wants him to take up larger responsibilities," says a party source close to both the mother and son.
The pressure is mounting on the 41-year-old leader who initially nurtured only his constituency. While Priyanka helped women self-help groups in Amethi, RG's focus was on social sectors such as health and education. He introduced unique printed forms in Amethi's Sanjay Gandhi Memorial Hospital where patients ticked appropriate boxes and the case was referred to the department concerned, even if it was in a hospital outside Amethi.
His rise up the ranks came in 2007 when he got charge of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), the Congress' students wing, and the Indian Youth Congress (IYC), the way his father had also evolved.
Gradually, RG began to unveil a plan for restructuring these organisations by emphasising on merit in a stodgy party where a culture of coterie and nomination was firmly entrenched. He resumed internal elections in the Youth Congress, although many Youth Congress key posts still went to family members of Congress leaders. Other cultural changes also came in.
The Blackberry-toting general secretary's tenure saw many more power-point presentations in the Congress office. While preparing a campaign document during the height of political tensions over the Indo-US civilian nuclear deal, Rahul asked party managers to keep it simple: a one page-document with lots of bullet points: "So that workers in rural areas also understand."
When Lok Sabha elections were due in 2009, a more assertive RG emerged on the national stage with suggestions related to forging electoral alliances and later, in government formation. His stamp was evident in joining hands with Mamata Banerjee's Trinamool Congress and shunning Mulayam Singh Yadav's Samajwadi Party. Later, when the Congress assumed office, he reportedly influenced portfolio allocation to ministers perceived to be close to him such as Jairam Ramesh and Pradeep Jain. RG's long hand was also seen in reshuffles when associates Beni Prasad Verma, Milind Deora, Jeetendra Singh and Rajiv Shukla came into favour.
"He is certainly playing a larger role in UPA II. His influence can be seen in the issues that the government has prioritised such as land acquisition and fighting corruption," says Professor Sudha Pai of JNU's Department of Political Studies, who has kept a close watch on Rahul Gandhi's career.
Over the years Rahul has nurtured a brand of politics around a few populist issues such as land acquisition, MGNREGA and tribal rights. But critics say Rahul has kept away from expressing opinion on contentious issues that require strong leadership to resolve: caste reservation, AFSPA etc.
Taking up an organisational role now could distract him from the UP assembly polls. Sources say all his energies these days are channelised on Uttar Pradesh, although he also holds meetings on other election-bound states like Punjab and Uttarakhand. "The ideal timing for him (to take on a bigger role) would be after the UP elections, depending on the outcome," adds the source.
There is another school of thought in the party, led by the outspoken Digvijaya Singh, which is egging RG on. And as Congress watchers point out, his recently cultivated maverick image notwithstanding, Diggy is rarely off the mark.
But then, unlike all other Congressmen, RG can decide for himself what he wants to do and when.
The cause and the effects...
Critics say Rahul Gandhi has kept away from expressing opinion on contentious issues that require strong leadership to resolve: caste reservation, AFSPA, the Indo-Pak tangle etc. His focus has been on populist issues that are never risky as a political proposition. Here are the top causes he's been involved in...
Rahul gave a big push to Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) expansion. Two days after his meeting with PM Manmohan Singh in September 2007, the government announced the scheme's extension to all districts of the country. Earlier, the rural development ministry was facing a funds crunch. Once Rahul came into the picture, no one cribbed about "wastage" of resources. He made a nice photo-op working alongside MGNREGA labourers (see photo, right). But Rahul has failed to address the biggest problems — leakage and corruption— that afflict the MGNREGA.
As his trusted lieutenant Jairam Ramesh took charge of the rural development ministry, the long-pending land bill was reworked to lend the "Rahul Gandhi touch" in rehabilitation and resettlement of tribals. Till date, Rahul's biggest padyatra was also on the land issue following the violent protests in Uttar Pradesh over land acquisition. He has successfully made land acquisition a political weapon for the party for the Uttar Pradesh polls. But the real task of passing the bill is yet to be achieved. Even with the strong backing of Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, the UPA was unable to table the bill till the last monsoon session.
Rahul Gandhi played a key role in bringing technocrat Nandan Nilekani from Infosys to lead the ambitious identity programme. In most of his rallies, Rahul harps on the benefits of the UID project for the common man, especially how it can help curb corruption. He keeps a close watch on the progress of the project. Rahul was specially invited to a seminar in Vigyan Bhawan where the rural development minister and Nilekani spoke about how the UID scheme can benefit rural development projects. No wonder, the finance ministry had to quickly back-track a couple of years ago, after saying that UID expenses might be cut.
This an issue close to the heart of both Sonia and Rahul. While the mother spent several hours at National Advisory Council meetings and shot letters to the Prime Minister to implement the Tribal Rights Act, Rahul's best political move came at the Niyamgiri hills after the Jairam-led environment and forest ministry said no to a Vedanta mining project. "I am your soldier in Delhi. Whenever you need me I am there," he declared while addressing a rally of the Dongriya Kondhs. In the land bill, Rahul's intervention added a clause ensuring the Tribal population's permission for any project or land acquisition in forest areas.