For Indian youth, wrote a columnist in the Times of India, politics had become “a sphere of terrible murkiness”, symbolised by greed, ruthlessness and violence. Yet the young fellow had changed all this. Through “talent hunts, membership drives and student meetings” he had made young Indians believe that politics was a realm that could extend beyond the “narrowness of nepotism”. He had empowered a new breed of “Real Young Turks” as opposed to “Privileged Young Jerks”. He was “the most refreshing arrival on the political block since decades”.
A couple of points briefly trouble the mind over this assessment. First, Rahul Gandhi, more than any of his 1.2 billion compatriates, is the embodiment of privilege, and hardly an encroaching outsider. In colonial days his great-great-grandfather led the Congress party. His great-grandfather, grandmother and father became prime ministers (Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi respectively). Privilege comes at a terrible price. Both grandmother and father were assassinated. All the same, his family, like no other, has shaped the course of the republic. It believes in its due.
Today Congress stands ready to do the family’s bidding, like a well-upholstered Ambassador car always at the front door. A second, even more impressive vehicle, known simply as India, boasts wheels of state, and its chauffeur is respectfully called “prime minister”. It offers an exhilarating if often erratic ride (it belches smoke and lurches in unexpected directions, when it is not stuck in traffic). It is currently on loan to a loyal and honest retainer, Manmohan Singh, no mean driver for a man of his years. But this car is Rahul’s heirloom. It is just a question of time before he asks for the keys back.
A second troubling point has to do with all the recent references to Rahul’s youthful age. Forty, after all, is not really that young. By then a man might be expected to have made his mark in the world, rather than be celebrating his coming-of-age. By the time they were Rahul’s age, Mozart and Alexander the Great had both been dead for several years. At 33 Jesus Christ had preached, healed, died and risen. The comparison is not wholly unfair, since Rahul’s disciples talk of him as India’s saviour.
Consider, too, his own family. By Rahul’s age Nehru had already spent several years in British imperial jails; thanks to his enormous charm and political talents he had ascended to lead Congress by 34. By 40 Rajiv had been elected prime minister, admittedly as much thanks to a wave of sympathy after the assassination of his mother as on his own merits.
Rahul Gandhi, by contrast, though officially general secretary of Congress, has no place in government, while his mother, Sonia, grips the party tight. To be sure, being viewed as a political outsider keeps Rahul’s image pure. He is, at once, everywhere and nowhere. Mr Gandhi’s face is on billboards across the country, and television shows him descending by helicopter towards vast crowds of rural folk, the kind whom his grandmother, Indira, considered to be her beloved poor. But Mr Gandhi’s thoughts on policy remain a mystery. And as for press conferences or interviews that might test his mettle, forget it.
To set against these doubts is one very big plus. For the past three or so years, Mr Gandhi has campaigned relentlessly, often staying with the poor—no politician has travelled more. His energies help explain Congress’s unexpectedly strong showing in general elections last year.
More than that, Mr Gandhi, through the party’s youth wing, is rebuilding Congress from the ground up. His efforts include not just membership drives but also a measure of intra-party democracy. There are limits: no one is suggesting that party panjandrums should be liable to be voted out, let alone the Gandhi clan. Still, it acknowledges Congress’s deep atrophy and lack of organisation—what one academic, Mahesh Rangarajan, calls its “lobotomisation” under Gandhi family sway, particularly Indira’s.
The efforts have paid off. In Punjab, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Bihar Congress’s fortunes have revived. But the big prize still to come is Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state with perhaps 180m people, which holds elections in 2012. For now, Mr Gandhi’s helicopter draws crowds of up to 100,000 coming to see the “Prince of India”. Success in Uttar Pradesh might prime Mr Gandhi for the big time. Some commentators speculate that might be when he steps into the prime minister’s shoes, while Mr Singh is ushered upstairs to the largely ceremonial presidency.
A riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside a leader-in-waiting
Yet the question that remains is what Mr Gandhi believes in. Mr Singh, we know, seeks an “inclusive” growth that blends market liberalism with stronger state institutions. That is fine as far as it goes. But as Pratap Bhanu Mehta of the Centre for Policy Research puts it, he lacks the political clout to kick arse. So education and police reform and much more that could improve the security of the poorest are bogged down.
Does Mr Gandhi share Mr Singh’s views? Or, rather, like his mother and her mother-in-law before that, does he view India’s poor as deserving recipients of welfare rather than people to empower? Who knows? India’s thronging, unruly streets are a dangerous place in which to take the wheel, yet the learner driver remains an enigma.