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India's Ultimate Insider Tries for Outsider Status

By Chandrahas Choudhury
January 22, 2013 5:28 PM EST

(Corrects to delete reference to Gandhi family members as head of state in third paragraph.)

Last weekend, India's Congress Party, which has enjoyed power for almost nine years as the majority party in the current UPA coalition government, set down a roadmap not only for its own future but also for that of the world's largest democracy. At a party convention in the northern city of Jaipur, it appointed the young parliamentarian Rahul Gandhi, 42, the vice-president of the party. Not coincidentally, Gandhi's mother, Sonia Gandhi, has been president of the Congress since 1998.

Mr. Gandhi's closely watched, if largely undistinguished, political career is now eight years old. In this period he has served as a general secretary of the party and as the president of the Young Congress, but has never held a post in government. His accession to second-in-command was widely expected, and brought an end to what one commentator described as "one of the longest political gestations in Indian history." It also set him up to become the next prime minister if the current coalition government is voted back into power in next year's general elections.

Should this happen, Gandhi would represent the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family to become prime minister. (A slideshow of how power has passed through the family since India gained independence is here.) But victory in next year's elections will surely prove more challenging than Gandhi's foreordained ascent of the Congress's ranks. Over the last four years, the current government, headed by the economist Manmohan Singh, has been wracked by crisis after crisis on a range of issues including corruption, policy paralysis and reverses in elections in major states.

There was something both daring and disingenuous, then, about Gandhi's speech to the party faithful after he was chosen as vice-president. He attempted to present himself -- perhaps after having studied closely U.S. President Barack Obama's first election campaign in 2008 -- as an outsider whose youth and idealism could be relied on to speak truth to power, reform a moribund establishment, and evade the net of special interests that had choked the political system. He declared:

Radical innovations were possible only because of the growth provided by the Congress Party and the UPA. But there are many challenges ahead. … A billion Indians … want a greater say in government, in politics and in administration.

This can’t be decided by a handful of people behind closed doors who are not fully accountable to them. They are telling us that India’s governmental system is stuck in the past. It has become a system that robs people of their voice, a system that disempowers instead of empowering. ... Power is grossly centralized in our country…

There is a young and impatient India and it is demanding a voice in the nation's future. Let me tell you they are not going to watch silently. Our priorities are clear. … The answer is not in running this system better. We have to relook at things in the system and we have to transform them completely.

Gandhi also revealed his mother's advice to him the previous day:

My mother came to my room and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many people seek is actually a poison.... She can see it...because she is not attached to it. The only antidote to this poison is for all of us to see what it really is and not become attached to it. We should not chase power for the attributes of power. We should only use it to empower the voices.

Gandhi's speech had an immediate and visible impact on his audience. In a piece titled "Rahul seeks sweat, party has tears" in the Indian Express, DK Singh reported from the conclave:

Rahul Gandhi took centre stage in the Congress on Sunday terming power as “poison” and issuing a call to transform the “system”. The party’s response was an outpouring of tears, with many chief ministers and senior leaders crying and hugging Rahul as he finished his speech.

From those members of Congress who weren't entirely verbally disabled by the spectacle of the scion of the party's first family describing its woes and wants, there was a flood of approbation. Much of it was so effusive it seemed to be part of an epidemic of political mass hypnosis. The erudite parliamentarian Shashi Tharoor -- who, with his long experience as a senior bureaucrat at the United Nations, books interpreting modern Indian history and foreign policy, and ideas for political reform, has a far better resume for a future prime minister than Gandhi -- led the line.

Tharoor said in a Twitter post: "Rahul Gandhi made one of the great speeches of contemporary Indian political history: political&intensely personal, inspirational&emotional." And further: "Indians are not used2their leaders laying bare their souls. RahulG touched every heart in the room as well as stirring our minds. A triumph." The septuagenarian, three-time parliamentarian Mani Shankar Aiyar, a close associate of Rahul's father, former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, said, "Rahul has prepared the ground for change. It seems like Obama's voice."

Elsewhere, though, Gandhi's speech was questioned and often mercilessly lampooned by members of a citizenry made severely skeptical by the current government's dismal record and the Gandhi family's long and determined hold on power, aided by a decadent and sycophantic cadre that, as the columnist Santosh Desai writes, "needs the certifying legitimacy of someone from the dynasty to contrive a sense of coherence and purpose about itself."

On Twitter, the columnist Tavleen Singh suggested that there is something disingenuous about Gandhi's critique of the establishment, saying, "The only thing that puzzled me about Rahul Gandhi's speech was why he has not done anything to implement his ideas all these years." The cartoonist Manjul produced a picture of Gandhi at the convention saying, "Power is like poison. How can I let anyone else drink it?"

In Mint, Sundeep Khanna made the sarcastic suggestion: "North Korea officially refers to Kim Il-Sung as `The Great Leader' and he is designated in the North Korean constitution as the country’s`Eternal President.' We might as well do the same and embed a Gandhi scion as 'eternal successor' in our Constitution."

And the satirical website The UnReal Times made up a story on the "news" that the Congress Party had decided to codify a set of "best practices," neither overly detached not excessively obsequious, "in dealing with Rahul Gandhi to rise within the party."

A perceptive essay-length critique of Gandhi's accession speech was provided by Lakshmi Chaudhry in a piece called "My tragic history: Rahul reveals why he is unfit to lead":

Rahul Gandhi's speech in Jaipur may have dispelled his image as the aloof, ever-reluctant prince in one soul-baring swoop. But in baring that soul, Rahul also revealed just why he can never be prime minister — or, at least, a revolutionary one. And why he can never be an Obama who can rescue and remake the Congress party for a new generation of leaders.

Obama took the Democratic Party by storm precisely because he was able to distance himself from past leaders — including the legendary Bill Clinton — and age-old bases of party support. ...

Rahul cannot be a harbinger of change for a far more important reason: He is the son of Sonia and Rajiv, and the grandson of Indira Gandhi. He is the establishment, the quintessential insider....

Rahul’s vision... is forever crippled by the enormous burden of his emotional debts. Trapped by his own personal history, he can never be the change he wants to see in his own party. ...

Rahul can be “emotional, candid and blunt”... about the shortcomings of his party and his nation, but cannot be so about the people responsible for the same.

And Santosh Desai wrote in "An Absence Called Rahul Gandhi":

The trouble with Rahul Gandhi and in a larger sense with the Congress is that it has come to think of the question of leading the country as an internal one. ... Mr Gandhi is fighting against his legacy with earnestness, as if that were the central question facing the country today. He cannot both exercise the presumptive power vested in him, and act as if he is a detached observer occasionally giving abstract input for the good of the party.

To many young Indians (such as myself) who want their nation's politics to embrace a more open and meritocratic culture instead of the weary euphemisms and rationalizations of democratic feudalism, it's clear that Gandhi could indeed do more than anyone else to transform the country's biggest political party. But he won't.

He could, for a start, decide that the presidency of the Congress Party would be determined by an internal election (the last such election was in 1997). He could also declare that, in the interest of generating a level playing field and for the health of Indian democracy as a whole, neither he nor his mother would contest such an election for the next decade.

That would allow voices of real promise in the Congress Party to seek and exercise power and build independent political bases without always having to truckle before either Gandhi. And it would mean that for a decade Rahul Gandhi would have to be a genuine foot-soldier of the party instead of a pampered blue blood.

Should he still retain ambitions of being prime minister after this hiatus, Gandhi would then have to work his way, at 52, past opposition from within his own party (as Obama did), instead of merely claiming legitimacy from the democratic imprimatur of voters from a particular constituency. Indian democracy, meanwhile, would be tremendously improved, and partly restored to the first principles of its founding, by a 10-year break from the suffocation of dynastic politics.

That would be the Congress Party's real "Obama moment." Until such a day arrives -- and regardless of whether he wins next year's elections -- Gandhi will be essentially nothing more than a modern-day version of Oedipus, seeking passionately to root out the infection that plagues the body politic without realizing that it lies within himself.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. Follow him on Twitter @Hashestweets. The opinions expressed are his own.)

To contact the author of this blog post: Chandrahas Choudhury at Chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com

To contact the editor responsible for this post: Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net

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