As the opulent spectacle of the British royal wedding rolled out to full worldview on Friday, Rahul Gandhi was getting ready to launch his 2012 Uttar Pradesh (UP) poll campaign from drought-hit Bundelkhand. The contrast between Gandhi and Prince William could not have been starker as a wave of goodwill for the monarchy washed over England. In urban India at least, public anger over corruption threatens to produce the opposite effect for the Congress. Paradoxically, the two heirs, one, from the Congress’ political dynasty, and the other, to the British throne, have many things in common that throw up that perfect pause-for-thought moment, but accompanied by one fundamental difference that won’t allow it to become anything more than interestingly superficial.
The difference is of job description. The Nehru-Gandhis are in the business of winning elections, whereas the British royals, as writer Matthew Engel points out in Financial Times, are in the “happiness business”, as coined by a former private secretary to the Queen, Lord Charteris. Indian and British social milieu are a world apart. According to British Labour MP Meghnad Desai, “Rahul Gandhi is more of a prince than William, as India is far more feudal”. However, since British monarchs don’t take flak for tough political decisions as the Nehru-Gandhis do, they are almost automatically ruled out of the “happiness business”.
Yet, the similarities between the two men are numerous. Think of Prince William riding his beloved Ducati motorbike just 48 hours before his wedding to play a stress-busting, five-a-side football match with friends and it is not difficult to imagine Rahul Gandhi, sports-buff and motorbike enthusiast, doing the same.
Katie Nicholl, author of The making of a royal romance and royal correspondent for the British paper Daily Mail, says in the preface to her book, that like their father, both William, and his younger brother Harry, have struggled with the idea that their lives are “pre-destined”. She says they “recognise the unique privileges that their royal titles bring, (but) they both still crave normality”. She explains that is why William likes to ride anonymous around London, in leather and helmet, and Harry often wishes he was not a prince. There are numerous instances of Gandhi trying to play the commoner. The latest was before the Cricket World Cup final in Mumbai when he made a quick trip to the New Yorker restaurant on Chowpatty for a meal of pasta, pizza, salad and diet Pepsi with friends and then went Dutch.
Politically, Rahul Gandhi has dealt with the pressures of a privileged and cloistered upbringing by aiming to “open up” the system that is partial to family connections. His admissions that he is the face of the problem signalled that he was not taking his own position too seriously. It helped to bring him closer to ordinary folk and students. However, the attempt to chip away at the influence of family ties in the functioning of the Congress has come a cropper so far. The episode has shown Rahul, like his father Rajiv, to be naïve about the Congress system’s resilience.
Rajiv Gandhi’s move to rid Congress of its “power brokers” backfired in the scam-tainted late 80s. He ended up mishandling crucial political developments such as the Shah Bano judgement and the Bofors and Fairfax exposes.
However, if any Nehru-Gandhi has done normal things like enjoy a carefree ice-cream at India Gate with his fiancé then it was Rajiv Gandhi. “He was someone in the Gandhi family who had a proper ordinary job (as a pilot with Indian Airlines). And he did marry a commoner, Sonia Gandhi. That’s the real romance. He could do this because he was not expecting to be PM,” Desai said. Rahul’s instinct did not seem different in his pre-political years.
William too looked beyond the sequestered world of British aristocracy when looking for love. Rahul Gandhi, according to his own admission, was dating a professional, a Spanish architect named Veronique. However, that revelation happened in 2004 before the Congress coalition won the parliamentary elections and little has been heard of her since then. Also, like his father but not for the 13-years he was an airline pilot, Rahul worked at the London office of the management consultancy firm, Monitor. He was there for a few years from 1995. Rahul has said he worked in Britain for five years. William, likewise, according to Nicholls, has found a “sense of purpose” after becoming a search and rescue pilot with the Royal Air Force in Wales.
With the British royals, the quest for normalcy may have had something to do with Lady Diana’s death. “The English royalty wants to be nearer the middle class. They have learnt from Diana’s death and would not have recovered as an institution if they did not acknowledge their mistakes,” Desai said. According to Engel, it is hard to remember Queen Elizabeth II making a mistake in her long reign other than her “slow and frigid response to Diana’s death”, but it led to the royalty opening itself to the public. However, with the Nehru-Gandhis, the quest for normalcy has driven them to live secretive lives away from media glare.
With the death of a parent having broken the rhythm of their growing up years, both Prince William and Rahul Gandhi found themselves anchored by a group of close friends. One of Rahul Gandhi’s closest friends is his sister Priyanka Gandhi Vadra. Among Rahul’s other friends are Sameer Sharma, Congress leader and Rajiv Gandhi’s flying companion Captain Satish Sharma’s son. Another is Amitabh Dubey, Gandhi family friend and Rajiv Gandhi’s media advisor Suman Dubey’s son, whose wedding Gandhi recently attended in Kerala. However, the unsaid rule is that his friends don’t speak to the media.
William has, like Gandhi, known to share a close bond with his brother Harry. Remarkably, both Prince Harry and Priyanka Gandhi Vadra are more natural, effervescent and relaxed in public than their elder siblings. Also, both heirs come from households with powerful women who were central figures of authority. Engel describes Queen Elizabeth II as an “enduring, indomitable, yet still simpatico matriarch”. Indira Gandhi was very much the personification of power in India, much more than the queen in Britain.
Yet, their differences are bound to become apparent as soon as one talks of Rahul’s marriage. “There will be no big tamasha if Rahul Gandhi gets married,” Desai says, explaining that the Indian elite are more wary about security. However, security issues aside, which might prevent a William-Kate style public ride through the streets, the Nehru-Gandhis have fashioned themselves as the standard bearers of a genteel-chic, khadi-brand austerity that does not sit right with the pageantry of wedding celebrations associated with the middle classes and the new rich.
How much more restricted a life Gandhi leads as compared to William will be given away by his choice of bride. William, though he broke with family custom to marry a commoner, could afford to do it without any consequences for the royal family. Rahul Gandhi in contrast will have to weigh political considerations much more carefully before taking that private, personal call.
The writer is a journalist.
She is currently working on a book on Rahul Gandhi's politics.