In his private engagements, Rahul Gandhi is mostly seen in polo t-shirts and a pair of blue jeans — a stark contrast from the trademark all-white kurta and sneakers dress code, which he has copied from his father, late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. And like his father, who had declared war against “brokers of power” in the party, the junior Gandhi too, has made it amply clear that his main business is to change the “system”.
Every year, Rahul Gandhi reportedly goes to Myanmar to meditate at a renowned Buddhist monastery, far away from the hullabaloo of Delhi. But in the past two years of his career, the Gandhi scion has emerged more like an angry young man — who often rolls up his kurta sleeves in political rallies, tore a rival party’s manifesto to pieces on a public platform and is aggressive in pushing his agenda within the establishment.
Last month, in a rare public show of anger against his own party and the government, the 43-year-old Congress vice-president slammed an ordinance that was cleared by Congress core group and approved by the Union cabinet.
He dubbed the ordinance as a “complete nonsense” which “needs to be torn up and thrown away”. Rahul, however, revealed later that his mother, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, felt the words were “very strong”.
The ordinance episode was, no doubt, a huge embarrassment for the government. But it also underlined for the first time that Gandhi will not shy away from taking decisive steps, even to the extent of overturning a major policy decision of the UPA government.
Rahul Gandhi has been spotted at farmhouse parties, cricket stadiums and upscale gymnasiums and restaurants in his private time. But the incident reaffirmed his arrival at a position of authority in Congress affairs, after spending many years in his mother’s shadow.
His colleagues claim that in closed-door meetings, he had always been vocal and frank — a trait that is finally getting reflected in public platforms as well. “On many issues, RG has very clear and strong ideas,” says a close associate. Gandhi’s political opponents, however, regularly accuse him of keeping mum on major national issues. Gandhi so far has participated in just six debates in his nine-years in Lok Sabha.
Rahul, however, is a voracious reader. “He also does not depend on just one or two advisors. There are several people from different quarters who provide inputs on issues. Many of them are not even associated with the party,” said a source who works with him.
On his way to a convention on Dalits at capital’s Vigyan Bhawan earlier this month, Rahul was engaged in a chat with an aide. He was all ears to the latter’s views on a range of issues related to the plight of the Dalits and the need for an additional force to uplift them. When the aide finished, Gandhi muttered: “escape velocity!”
“Even after we finished talking, I had no clue that he will actually use the analogy of Jupiter’s escape velocity while talking about Dalits’ progress. It came as a surprise,” says Koppula Raju, the key aide who left an IAS career to become an active Congressman.
“He seldom misses an opportunity to interact with some of the finest professionals”, family-friend Sam Pitroda had told this correspondent earlier, “Some time back, Rahul met renowned Harvard law professor Michael Sandel for the first time. He was so impressed that he called me and said, ‘this man should be engaged more in India.’ We started a lecture series with Sandel.”
A Congress minister who is not considered very close to this Gandhi, feels he lacks patience while discussing issues with colleagues. “He would not listen quietly for even five minutes but start asking questions or simply give his final opinion,” the minister says.
Recently, at a review meeting of a key infrastructure ministry, Gandhi reportedly stood up to leave the room even before the presentation was over.
But Raju, who had extensively toured with Gandhi in villages claims, “Gandhi not only listens to villagers and poor people but learns from them. Once, an old lady kept on speaking for 20 minutes. Even we were getting impatient but he encouraged her to speak.”
His rivals too, acknowledge Gandhi’s new style and agenda. “He seems to be focused to turn the Congress entirely pro-poor and populist. But the middle-class, which dominates the BJP’s agenda, is clearly missing in Rahul’s radar,” Biju Janta Dal’s Lok Sabha chief whip Bhartruhari Mahtab said.
A Korean speciality restaurant in South Delhi sports a photo and autograph of their client Rahul Gandhi. But more pictures have appeared where the Congress youth icon has broken bread with a Dalit family or slept in their huts. He spent days in rural belts of Andhra Pradesh to gain first-hand experience of MGNREGA job scheme and the self help group (SHG) movement.
He played a key role in replicating the Andhra model of SHG in his political home turf of Uttar Pradesh. Today, as of June 2013, the scheme has reached out to over 1 million poor households in 252 blocks of 41 districts of UP.
Gandhi is also carefully associating himself with rural, pro-poor issues. After the legislation on food security and land acquisition, the Congress has decided to build the campaign of the two flagship laws around Rahul and Sonia Gandhi. “He is more rural than many villagers,” says Raju.
Several times Gandhi has clarified that he is not keen to take the job of the Prime Minister but prefers organisational challenges. “Rahul told me clearly that he avoided joining the cabinet because he never wanted another power centre which could have affected Manmohan Singh’s authority. He feels Singh has done an excellent work, especially under this difficult economic situation,” Pitroda said.
With 2014 elections round the corner, Rahul, however, is taking more interest in government policies and programmes. His policy interventions — on ordinance, land law, etc — have struck the right tone so far. His organisational reforms to promote new talents have also shown positive effects.
But next year the biggest challenge lies before Rahul Gandhi: can he emerge as a dependable vote-catcher for the Congress? Gandhi, for the first time is handling all aspects of the party’s poll preparation and will lead its campaign in 2014. In short, it will be a Rahul Gandhi show for the Congress. If the party loses miserably, the clamour for Priyanka Gandhi Vadra may not remain restricted only to the banks of Allahabad.