Rahul Gandhi can force the Congress to get rid of its old socialist baggage and become a truly secular and forward looking political formation.
Instead, he has confused minority communalism with secularism and entitlements with development.
This 'youth icon' is too busy fighting 20th century wars to worry about India's future, feels Rohit Pradhan.
If gushing television journalists and political analysts are to be believed, Rahul Gandhi is India's next Great Hope who will rescue Indian politics from the vice-like grip of caste and communal politics.
With Sonia Gandhi still convalescent and Dr Manmohan Singh well on his way to sinecure, Gandhi is generally seen as the Congress's unquestioned leader and India's next prime minister.
Most certainly, Gandhi deserves credit for attempting to revive the dwindling fortunes of the Congress party in the Hindi heartland. It is quite conceivable that in the ongoing Uttar Pradesh elections, the Congress' performance will be a significant improvement from the lows of 2007. Nevertheless, it is important to understand the agenda he truly represents.
Take UP, for instance. It is the one state where Rahul Gandhi has concentrated most of his energies. Again, if media reports are to be believed, UP has finally awakened to the issue of development with the Congress party leading the charge.
But look beyond the manufactured hype for a moment and think of the recent headlines from UP which have dominated the political discourse. Two immediately stand out.
The Congress party has repeatedly raked up the false controversy over the Batla House encounter during the course of campaigning in UP. Rahul Gandhi's lieutenants have demanded a judicial inquiry, dropping dark hints that it was a conspiracy hatched by the Delhi police which by happenstance also killed one of its most decorated officers in the same incident.
With the important role the community plays in deciding the UP polls and the Congress party's desperate need to attract the Muslim vote bank, the Congress has happily played the communal card.
But there is a little hitch which gives the game away. The Batla House encounter happened when the Congress party ran governments in Delhi as well as at the central level. If Digvijay Singh or Salman Khurshid are really concerned about holding an impartial inquiry, all they have to do is to ask their own government. In fact, Salman Khurshid continues to be a minister in the UPA government!
But Batla House is to the Congress party what the Ram Janambhoomi is to the BJP: Both benefit more from keeping the pot boiling rather than arriving at an amicable solution. Rahul Gandhi may be careful enough to keep his hands clean but surely it stretches incredulity to believe that Digvijay Singh will make his rabid pronouncements without Gandhi's tacit encouragement.
Or that Salman Khurshid will report the alleged tears the news of the encounter induced in Sonia Gandhi and survive the inquisition. By exacerbating the estrangement between Muslims and the security establishment, the Congress may gain some credibility with certain sections of the Muslim population, but it is only damaging the cause of national security.
If anything, the issue of reservations for Muslims in government jobs is even more ridiculous. It is no one's case that large sections of the Muslim population remain socially and economically backward. But more than two decades after India embarked on the path of economic reforms and with a still growing economy, all the Congress party can offer Muslims is reservation in government jobs!
Worse, Congress ministers have undermined the moral authority of the Election Commission by deliberately playing martyrs protecting Muslim interests from the tyranny of the Constitutional body.
And what is the endgame here?
Community leaders are already demanding that the central government hike the 4.5 per cent quota granted to Muslims in central government jobs. The so-called Other Backward Classes, OBCs are unlikely to tolerate further dilution of their 27 per cent quota.
So instead of concentrating on ensuring that India's growth story is protected and the policy paralysis in New Delhi is corrected, India is likely to fight the quota wars all over again.
Is this the definition of a forward-looking polity?
For short-term electoral success, Rahul Gandhi is directly and indirectly fueling the politics of resentment and encouraging communal polarisation. And when the inevitable Hindu backlash arrives, the government is likely to indulge in soft communalism to assuage Hindu concerns.
If this script sounds familiar, it is because it is reminiscent of what Rajiv Gandhi attempted in the 1980s. Trying to simultaneously ride the tigers of both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalism, he only empowered the Ram Janambhoomi movement with disastrous consequences for the Indian nation.
Or think of it this way. When was the last time Rahul Gandhi talked of economic growth?
Or argued passionately for creating newer opportunities for India's young?
Or detailed his policy agenda beyond bromide about helping the poor and delivering social justice.
Sure, it appears that Rahul Gandhi believes fervently in redistributionist policies, but what exactly are his economic policies?
Indeed, is there any discernible difference between the economic agendas of Rahul Gandhi and Mayawati? Or Uma Bharti, for that matter?
Rahul Gandhi's performance as a political leader is perhaps the most disappointing because unlike the Jaitleys and Swarajs he faces no internal challenges.
He can force the Congress to get rid of its old socialist baggage and become a truly secular and forward looking political formation. Instead, he has confused minority communalism with secularism and entitlements with development.
In India, affiliation to a storied family name and being of certain age almost automatically confers on dynasts the title of 'youth icon.' Rahul Gandhi is a youth icon, we are told. So is apparently Akhilesh Yadav. But to his credit Yadav at least has attempted to move the Samajwadi Party away from an era of openly hobnobbing with criminals and encouraging goonda raj.
In contrast, with Rahul Gandhi at helm, the Congress is rapidly and happily riding and embracing the past.
Rohit Pradhan is a fellow at the Takshashila Institution. The views are personal.