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Monday, November 21, 2011

A Look at the Man Who Could Be India's King

The Gandhi family scion may turn out to be an empty suit. Indians, now used to meritocracy, won't like that.

In democracies, dynastic succession should be a deviation from the norm. In India, many political parties are anyway led by sons and daughters of former bosses, but nowhere is this more prevalent than in the ruling Congress party, which the Gandhi-Nehru family has dominated since independence. Another succession is now in the offing, assuming of course that Indians keep tolerating this deviation.
India's "first dynasty" has been the subject of much speculation in the past three months. Family matriarch and president of the Congress party Sonia Gandhi is reportedly suffering from an unspecified illness. Talk of succession is natural and there is a growing clamor for her son Rahul to assume what numerous party functionaries have dubbed "greater responsibilities." The current Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was always thought to be preserving the throne for the young Mr. Gandhi to ascend to it one day.
That day may be arriving. The 41-year-old Mr. Gandhi may soon be appointed working president of the Congress, to take charge of his mother's day-to-day responsibilities. His public rally this month in Phulpur, Uttar Pradesh, was widely seen as a first step in that direction, since that constituency was once represented by Mr. Gandhi's great-grandfather and India's first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru.
But banking on the young Mr. Gandhi as a future prime minister is a shot in the dark. His words and actions so far hardly justify the aura surrounding him.
European Pressphoto Agency
Sonia Gandhi (left) confers with her son and the heir apparent, Rahul.
Naturally shy, he has hitherto confined himself to photo opportunities. The media has made much of the night Mr. Gandhi spent at a poor untouchable's home; the ride he took in Mumbai's crowded suburban train; or the motorcycle trip into a village protesting land acquisition—all these acts symbolizing that he is in touch with the downtrodden. At a time when the country is sick of the septuagenarian politicians running the country, his 41 years of age have made him a "youth icon."
For all these tributes lavished on him, Mr. Gandhi lacks substance however. His parliamentary interventions have been patchy and confined to prepared texts; he has sometimes been shouted down by older parliamentarians. WikiLeaks revelations show him as someone prone to making casual remarks about "Hindu terrorism" posing a greater danger than Islamist terror. Meanwhile, he is spearheading his party's campaign in state elections next year in Uttar Pradesh, one of the largest states in India. But Congress is poised at best to win third place, and Mr. Gandhi may be stuck with the tag of an under-achiever.
Most worrying, the future leader seems to stay away from the burning questions of the day. He also hasn't involved himself much in the party's crisis management in the last year. Such aloofness may have contributed to the mystique around him but it has also prompted questions about what he believes.
The few indications Mr. Gandhi has given about his political beliefs are not encouraging. Like his mother, he has positioned himself as a "sepoy" of the poor, untouchables and tribals, as he himself tells it. He has played down his commitment to economic modernization in favor of mega-welfare schemes run by the central government. In many ways, he seems inclined toward a controlled economy run by "pro-poor" politicians, a thrust that is at odds with India's restless entrepreneurship today.
The full contours of his political views, of course, are conjecture. Mr. Gandhi has been wary of unscripted interactions with the media. Despite being in the limelight for seven years since he became a member of parliament, he remains a distant and unfamiliar figure to both the political class and the media.
Perhaps Mr. Gandhi thinks this aloofness will help him, as it helped his mother. As a widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the former prime minister who became a martyr when Tamil Tigers assassinated him in 1991, Mrs. Gandhi was treated with feudal deference. Her son, though, is not going to be the beneficiary of that generosity.
Mr. Gandhi enters the political fray in an India that has unrecognizably changed in the past two decades. With wealth and social mobility, the country has grown more assertive—and perhaps even insolent to the authority earlier imposed by caste, family or dynasty. One part of the anti-corruption movement that has grabbed headlines this year is a pushback against the politics of privilege. Indians have enjoyed success in the economic arena out of meritocracy, and find the lack of it in politics outdated. They are not going to take kindly to an empty suit like Mr. Gandhi, whose only claim to fame is his name.
This social churning should make the Congress Party sit up and question the old ways of dynasty. Instead, the possibility of a new leader from the Gandhi family has the party cadre suddenly energized. Mr. Singh's government has hurtled from crisis to crisis and many are now doubling down on the idea of dynasty to rescue the party. That idea is soon going to be tested.


vivek said...

"One part of the anti-corruption movement that has grabbed headlines this year is a pushback against the politics of privilege."

Sure, there is pushback but that is it. Nothing has changed or will change in a hurry. Wasn't there a recent article which showed that 100% of the MPs in their 30s are there aided by family connections. This sort of thing takes atleast a generation or two to fade away and it is very deeply ingrained in the India way of family above society/country.

"Indians have enjoyed success in the economic arena out of meritocracy, and find the lack of it in politics outdated."

Huh? Capitalism sure (instead of old socialism) but meritocracy? No! Half the country being poor, and a third being illiterate, ensures that meritocracy is not understood, important or, has a completely different meaning. Free markets sure, Family loyalty yes, meritocracy nowhere (yet).

Vivek said...

On the previous note, as an example, I am dumbfounded, confounded, perplexed by the information that Vilasrao Deshmukh was elected as Maharashtra Cricket Association's head. Didn't he have to resign because of corruption charges? What's the point of resigning if people are going to elect you back and don't care about corruption charges?

Poltergeist said...

Swapan, your faith in India's desire for meritocracy in politics is touching. But rest assured, Congress will not lose the next election if it goes with Rahul. There are lots of stupid people who will vote for that party in 2014 because of Rahul. This is shameful for sure, but you will be disappointed in May 2014 if you think the NDA or 3rd front can defeat this guy.

Anonymous said...

Swapan da, please write/speak about this. It is deeply disturbing:

"26/11 Mumbai terror strike: Three years on, sacked politicians back in corridors of power

A week after the attack that left 166 innocent persons dead, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi was quick to sack then Union home minister Shivraj Patil. Subsequently, NCP boss and Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar dismissed Maharashtra deputy chief minister R R Patil, who also held the home portfolio. Following Pawar's bold political move, Sonia was forced to ask chief minister Vilasrao Deshmukh to step down.

A year later, Shivraj Patil was appointed governor of Punjab while Deshmukh was inducted into the Union cabinet as minister for rural development. Now Deshmukh is minister for earth science.

Even more surprising is the fact that Pawar not only reinducted R R Patil into the cabinet, but entrusted him with the the home portfolio again.

A former chief secretary pointed out that even in the case of high-ranking bureaucrats and police officials, no action was taken despite adverse observations made by the Ram Pradhan Committee. For example, the panel had passed strictures against then Mumbai police commissioner Hasan Gafoor for his failure to provide leadership in the hour of crisis, but no action was taken against him."

Jitendra Desai said...

If he continues to talk, move around and campaign the way he is doing, opposition may not need further help.
But it appears that the family has started enjoying power without responsibility.Why become a PM and collect all the flak.Become a Chairperson instead, set up NAC like bodies and then DICTATE!and also make money on the sly.That appears to be the plan.Get ready for Mr Shinde or Mr Antony or Ms Miera Kumar to be declared as the PM candidate.Parties like BJP then will not know what to do!
better have your plan B.
Agenda should be to provide an alternative that has a better plan of governance.

Deep Mkerj said...

Rahul Gandhi as Prime Minister ??!! What a dreadful and terrifying thought !

I would rather it be Varun Gandhi. At least his stance is very clear.

VaK said...

Time, political parties including of course the prime-culprit Congress, thinks beyond accepting leadership roles from 'lucky sperms' rather than giving a serious thought to meritcracy.