Two young Indian men are on a unique journey. Rahul Gandhi, 37-year-old MP from Amethi and bearer of India’s most important political surname has just returned after racing around Orissa on his ‘Discover India’ tour assuring tribal elders that he is their ‘sipahi’ in Delhi. And Mahendra Singh Dhoni, 27-year-old superstar captain of the Indian cricket team has returned home in triumph, heading into a hysterical welcome in Ranchi where thousands thronged his home.
Last year, when Rahul Gandhi was inducted into the Congress as general secretary, party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said that Rahul was the Congress’s Dhoni. Just as Dhoni had at that time led a young Indian team to victory in the Twenty20 World Cup in South Africa, so too Rahul would galvanise the Congress Twenty20 for a victory in 2009.
Yet the Congress spokesperson perhaps failed to appreciate an important difference between Rahul Gandhi and Mahendra Singh Dhoni. Rahul and Dhoni are in the same generation, yet they illustrate two very different faces of contemporary India.
One is a representative of his undoubtedly exceptional family, trapped as well as enhanced by his surname, a member of a political party that is finding it increasingly difficult to open its doors to new young talent precisely because of its reliance on members of premier families. The other represents a family-less universe of talented individuals, who have clawed their way up through a tough system, who learnt to be streetsmart by the time they were adolescents, who had no doting fathers or mothers by their side and no cadres of family loyalists to ease the pain of daily competition. Two spheres: one, where sons follow their family businesses and take them to new heights or fail to perform. And another sphere that is steadily growing and proving far more seductive to the youth: where family and fathers and legacy are irrelevant. The only thing that matters is raw talent and luminous skill.
In fact, the great Indian story of our times is precisely the story of the journey from nowhere to the stars. Be it in the career of Shah Rukh Khan or a Sunil Bharti Mittal or a Praveen Kumar or even a Mayawati or a Narendra Modi, what sets us apart from our feudal neighbours is this revolution of upward mobility. We are a country of the nouveau riche, living in the midst of a social revolution. When Indian politics finds its Barak Obamas, they will not come from the cautious young men carrying forward their family names. The Barak Obamas will come from dusty alleyways far away from the power drawing rooms, from the sweat of hard work and the passion for upwardly mobility and achievement. But does the Congress or Indian politics have the system to go out and find those talents, just as the Indian cricketing system has done? Not yet.
The Indian cricket team is a microcosm of India’s social revolution and that’s why it is the focus of such frenzied adulation. The frenzy and hysteria is not just about corporate sponsors, but also because someone like Praveen Kumar is the son of a Meerut constable whose father wanted him to become a pehalwan. Instead, he became a cricketer for India. It is because Manoj Tiwary is the son of a railway fitter and now wears the tricolour on his back. It is because Ishant Sharma’s father ran an air-conditioner repair shop. And it is because Harbhajan Singh’s father used to make screws and ball bearings at home to make a living for his family of five daughters and one son. And because that son has now become tough enough and talented enough to look a white man in the eye and even declare that one Sikh is equal to several thousand Australians. Dhoni’s father was a junior engineer and Dhoni was born and brought up in Ranchi.
Compared to India’s new-age cricketers, the young MPs of the Congress have never had to fight to measure up to equal competition. Rahul Gandhi is a well-intentioned and thorough technocrat-politician who always does his homework and never pushes himself forward. Yet, his public utterances are mostly centred around his family. He caused a furore in the Uttar Pradesh election campaign last year when he said that the break up of Pakistan was an achievement of his family. He also declared that if a Nehru-Gandhi had been in power, the Babri Masjid would not have been demolished, again a reference to his family. He has invoked his family name repeatedly on his recent trip to Orissa. He has remarked that at least the people of Orissa got to hear his father’s last speech that he didn’t and has inaugurated a park named after his father and even unveiled his father’s statue. The Congress’s belief that the Gandhi name is a 100-year-old brand and still sells among voters may not be mistaken, but on the other hand, India’s youth icons are no longer upholders of family names.
Sociologist Ashis Nandy once said that there were four areas in Indian society where family and privilege did not matter and sheer talent was always rewarded. These areas were Bollywood, the stock market, organised crime and sports. Leaving aside organised crime, where the definition of ‘talent’ is perhaps subjective, in all three sectors, this is quite well borne out by examples. In Bollywood, the star sons who have become stars in their own right are those whose talent has been as great if not greater than their fathers, such as a Hrithik Roshan. Alas, the fate of Esha Deol or Tushaar Kapoor, also the offspring of talented parents, shows that family name no longer wins rewards as a matter of right. The Tata and the Ambani brands once again have been taken to new heights not because of a simple family name or blind loyalty to legacy, but because the legatees of the brands have reinvented and infused their legacies with new talent and a new direction as shown by Ratan Tata or the Ambani brothers.
Yet the Indian cricket team remains a foremost example of the meritocratic society, where the doors are swinging open to welcome talents from every corner of the country. By contrast, the Congress, and politics in general, is fast becoming monopolies of families where the captain’s position is inherited rather than earned.
Instead of a four-day calculated tour to Orissa to invoke the family name and reiterate the aam aadmi commitment just after the farmer’s budget, how much more electrifying it would have been if Rahul Gandhi had launched a padyatra throughout India for five years. Travelled third class, slept on platforms and instead of a single well-publicised night in the house of a Dalit, earned love and admiration throughout the land by choosing to actually live his life among those who loved his father and grandmother. Ah, we would have said then, another natural born leader from the Nehru-Gandhi family. Yes, the Congress has found its Dhoni, a young man who leads from the front and is reliant only on his own talents. But, alas, we can’t say that yet.
Sagarika Ghose is Senior Editor CNN-IBN