When the Congress party was busy celebrating Rahul Gandhi’s elevation as the party’s vice president, something interesting was happening half way across the globe. Henrique Capriles, the man who lost the Venezuelan presidential race to Hugo Chavez, was demanding that elections be held again (as mandated by the constitution) since the cancer stricken president, recuperating in Havana, could not attend his own inauguration. Though Mr. Capriles is two years younger than Rahul Gandhi, the former has already served two terms as a mayor and 1 term as governor of Miranda, Venezuela’s 2nd most populous state. Mr. Caprilles is not seen as a budding politician or a potential challenger – he is firmly in the big boy league. Closer home, even neighboring Pakistan has a feisty foreign minister in Hina Rabbani Khar – a woman 8 years younger than Rahul Gandhi. Yet, Rahul Gandhi has , like his mother, shown an inexplicable reluctance to formally wield executive power.
Like any other politician, Rahul Gandhi too has seen ups and downs in his 8 years of political life. His supporters point out to his efforts to revitalize the party by inducting droves of youngsters. They also point out that he travelled over 90,000 km covering 125 constituencies – more than any Congress leader- during the Congress party’s surprisingly successful re-election campaign during the 2009 parliamentary elections. 60% of the candidates he campaigned for emerged victorious. His detractors point out to his lack of leadership during times of crisis – the stand out examples being Anna Hazare’s anti corruption campaign and the recent protests that rocked the country following the brutal Delhi gang rape. The Congress has also faced a string of stinging electoral reverses in several states – the most embarrassing being the mauling in Uttar Pradesh.
Rahul Gandhi’s electoral strategy has a heavy focus on organic growth for he believes that regional alliances have hurt the Congress. With no national party having a pan-India appeal, both the Congress and the BJP have courted powerful regional leaders. The power dynamics in Delhi has changed so much that today the regional satraps can armtwist the government and force furious back pedaling on crucial policy issues. Despite what the spin masters say, the Congress owes its shock win in the 2004 parliamentary elections to clever alliances. Soon after Sonia Gandhi became party president in April 1998, party leaders met at Panchmahri and declared their readiness for alliances– a significant departure for the GOP. During the NDA regime, the Congress consciously cultivated allies of its own. For the 2004 general election, the Congress didn’t have to beat people’s expectations; it simply had to beat the BJP at its own game. And, it did that in splendid style. Against this backdrop, it is hardly surprising that Rahul Gandhi’s ‘go-alone’ strategy has met with limited success.
Performance as MP
Rahul Gandhi has represented Amethi since 2004. Official government records show that in the last 2 years, Rahul Gandhi spent a mere 6% of the funds available under MPLADS (Member of Parliament Local Area Development scheme). Since the formation of the15th Lok Sabha in 2009, Rahul Gandhi has utilized 39.18% of the funds released for the development of his constituency. The average for Uttar Pradesh is 56.27%. The intelligentsia, while closely scrutinizing the performance of Rahul Gandhi’s rumored rival for prime ministership, has been remarkably kind to this ‘youth’ leader. Rahul Gandhi’s political appearances, interactions and interventions in parliament score very high on symbolism. Since independence, every member of the Nehru-Gandhi family has passionately talked about equality, upliftment of the poor and empowerment of the oppressed. It is perplexing that despite this commitment over the decades, the 4th generation Nehru-Gandhi scion is able to find so many poor people to break bread with during his carefully choreographed rural visits. Even more perplexing is his willingness to share this ‘accountability-free’ approach with foreign heads of state. According to Wikileaks, he told the US Ambassador to India in 2009, Timothy Roemer, that if President Obama were to visit India, it would be significant if he made some rhetorical or symbolic gestures that acknowledged India’s poor. It should come as no surprise then that little has changed on the ground since President Obama’s heart warming speeches in Delhi and Mumbai.
Be it electoral strategy, performance as an MP or international relations, Rahul Gandhi sure has room for improvement. It is not clear which of his achievements made him deserving of this sudden elevation. We also do not know whether there were other contenders. However, it is clear that he will formally play a big role in shaping the Congress party’s future. But, the party has cleverly stopped short of declaring him as its prime ministerial candidate. It suits the Congress to keep the suspense on.
Like mother, like son
The Gandhis have faced several personal tragedies during their political careers. His mother didn’t become prime minister when she led a winning coalition in 2004. He shares several of his mother’s traits – both are enigmatic, are surrounded by a close circle of trusted advisors, seldom interact with media, embark on carefully choreographed public interactions, have persistently avoided assuming a formal role in the government and wield overarching influence in the party and the government. Given that he has followed in his mother’s footsteps, it is very likely that he may not become the prime minister if the UPA wins a third straight term in the 2014. Sonia Gandhi was the face of the Congress election campaign in 2004. Yet, in what has proved to be a political masterstroke, she turned down the post of prime minister and picked Dr. Manmohan Singh instead. The renunciation act has worked like a charm. In a way, this arrangement was the Indian adaptation of the Iranian system where the supreme leader is more powerful than the elected President. There are key differences – the Iranian system is based on theology, while the Indian system is rooted in ideology. Also, unlike the Ayatallah, Mrs. Gandhi must face the electorate periodically. However, the striking similarity is the power wielded by the supreme leader without having direct accountability for executive actions. If Forbes is to be believed, Mrs. Gandhi has indeed played her cards very well for she ranks higher than both Dr. Singh and Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamenei. Even if her ill health forces her to vacate her perch, she would want her son to take her place.
The build up fits well with the political pattern of the Congress party. In 2004, Kanishka Singh, the Wharton-educated Congress strategist who is now a powerful member of Rahul Gandhi’s inner circle, wrote ‘The Congress has chosen not to project a prime ministerial candidate. However, Sonia Gandhi remains the party’s (and its alliance’s) indisputable and singularly formidable ‘presidential’ candidate and campaigner’. Exactly a decade later, the Congress may retain the act but change the actors. Whether the audience will have the appetite for old wine in a new bottle will only be known on counting day. The odds are heavily stacked against Rahul Gandhi – double anti-incumbency, massive corruption charges, an opposition that has smelled blood, muscle flexing allies and a deteriorating economy. If he does lead his party to a winning tally, it would mark his biggest electoral achievement and would go a long way in silencing those who questioned his political mettle.