The truth is I’m rather impressed by Rahul Gandhi’s recent statements but also a little perplexed. Did he really mean what he said or was this just casual banter? For now, I’m prepared to accept he intended to speak out and reveal his actual thinking. The question is what does that tell us about him and what are the implications for the Congress and Indian politics?
First, what exactly did he say? Let’s be sure we’ve got it right.
According to the newspapers he said: “I am not in politics for the sake of power. Becoming the prime minister is not a priority for me. In fact, when I am asked about it, I feel: ‘what a wrong question to ask’.” He also said: “If I get married and have children I will be status quoist and will like my children to take my place.” Finally, he disavowed the Congress’s high command culture and promised to dismantle it.
To begin with, this suggests Rahul Gandhi is a remarkable politician. Apart from his mother, he’s the only one I know who doesn’t hanker after the top job. He’s also hinted at the end of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and isn’t embarrassed to distance himself from the way his family has run the Congress. In India such reflective honesty is more than unusual. It’s rare.
This, no doubt, will endear Rahul Gandhi to India’s middle classes. It’s what we want to hear. In fact, it’s calculated to project him in a favourable light.
However, all of this has serious implications for the Congress and India’s politics. These could be very different and even worrying.
If Rahul Gandhi is not to be prime minister of a future Congress-led government then he needs to find his own Manmohan Singh. But who? There will be many aspirants so has he unwittingly sparked off a struggle for this slot? And could that destabilise rather than strengthen Congress?
The implications for India’s politics is, possibly, more disturbing. It suggests that the present arrangement of ‘dyarchy’ will continue under any future Congress-led government. But is that in the best interest of India’s democracy and, specifically, its need for good governance?
In a democracy the prime minister is the leader of the ruling party and MPs owe their first allegiance to him. That’s not the case with the Congress in India. Here the party leader is more important. This confers power without full responsibility on the party president whilst reducing the prime minister to responsibility without full power. Experience has shown this is often unsatisfactory.
Rahul Gandhi’s comments about high command culture and marriage again presage widespread change.
His mother has been the Congress ‘High Command’ for 15 years. During that period not a single election for the Working Committee has been held whilst chief ministers have been appointed by her and merely ratified by state legislature parties. If this is to change not just the Congress but Indian politics itself will be very different.
So, too, if the Gandhi dynasty ends with Mr Gandhi. In the first instance, this poses a great challenge for the Congress. Can it survive without a Gandhi at the top? If not, what would that mean for our politics?
These are questions that may demoralise Congressmen. Just as outsiders might admire Rahul Gandhi’s renunciation and realism, his Party could respond with apprehension and doubt.
It’s a strange way to prepare for the 2014 elections but it’s made the future exciting and challenging. Views expressed by the author are personal.