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The marketing of Rahul Gandhi

November 21, 2011 18:29 IST

If a creed has to work, it must carry the weight of conviction, not just the frippery of an electoral tactic. Is Rahul Gandhi indulging in ritual appeasement, or is he seeding the climate for economic policies that he will implement when he becomes prime minister? asks M J Akbar.

The Nehru-Gandhis seem to have a soft spot for great grandfathers. When Rajiv Gandhi posed for India Today at the launch of his public career to establish a public image, he ignored Jawaharlal Nehru's trademark red rose on a khaddar sherwani, and slung a Kashmiri shawl over the shoulder in the manner of Motilal Nehru, the aesthete barrister who forswore a lucrative practice and elite lifestyle to become a Gandhian exactly 92 years ago.

When Rahul Gandhi launched his first independent-responsibility campaign on November 14, at Phulpur, for Uttar Pradesh, he revived Nehru rather than Rajiv Gandhi. Jawaharlal was born on November 14, 1889; and Phulpur was his constituency in the first general elections. November 14 is also celebrated as Children's Day.

If Rajiv's preference was iconic, Rahul's choice is political. His electoral persona is being shaped. The foundation remains true to character: an edgy on-and-off stubble and rolled-up kurta sleeves designed to swoop up campuses and cricket fans. This is layered by a patina of left-of-centre rhetoric aimed at the poor who are beginning to feel a bit ripped off by the trickle-down theory that is the standing rationale for economic reforms, which were envisaged, with minimum fuss, by Rajiv Gandhi, but have become synonymous with P V Narasimha Rao and Dr Manmohan Singh. In the Rahul calculus, eternal youth plus dynastic charisma plus poverty politics equals 100-plus seats in Uttar Pradesh.

Nehru became a socialist long before he had to fight an election. Rahul Gandhi's speechwriters tend towards American Ivy League academic glamour for intellectual inspiration. Here is something they could use the next time Rahul Gandhi goes to Phulpur. His great grandfather was elected president of the Congress for the first time in December 1929, at the Lahore session, which, under his pressure, adopted the historic Purna Swaraj (full freedom, rather than mere dominion rule) resolution.

Discussing his convictions, Nehru told delegates: "I must frankly confess that I am a socialist and a republican and no believer in kings and princes, or in the order which produces the modern kings of industry, who have greater power over the fortunes of men than even the kings of old, and whose methods are as predatory as those of the old feudal aristocracy."

During his first campaign, for the 1937 elections, Nehru was assertive enough -- or brash, as his critics might put it -- to claim that the socialism he had injected had visibly strengthened the Congress. He said in Mumbai on May 20, 1936, "If the Congress has grown stronger, it is because I raised the issue of socialism." It was at the very least an audacious assertion in the shadow of a Mahatma who had converted Congress from a lawyers' forum into a mass movement.

Gandhi knew the art of the gentle rebuke. He told the 1942 AICC session, after the Quit India resolution, "In Jawaharlal's scheme of free India, no privileges or privileged classes have a place. Jawaharlal considers all property to be state-owned. He wants a planned economy¬Ö He likes to fly, I don't. I have kept a place for the princes and the zamindars in the India that I envisage."

Gandhi wanted his heir to understand him, just as he sought to understand his heir, but that socialist gulf was never bridged. Nehru got his Planning Commission in free India, but the Mahatma was more perceptive. The princes and zamindars are still with us, not to mention modern kings of industry, quite a few of them in Congress, possibly queuing up to polish Rahul's Nehruvian sentences. Such are the paradoxes of politics.

If a creed has to work, it must carry the weight of conviction, not just the frippery of an electoral tactic. Is Rahul Gandhi indulging in ritual appeasement, or is he seeding the climate for economic policies that he will implement when he becomes prime minister? Has he thought through a simple proposition: social justice is essential to social stability, but what precisely does it mean in 2011 and 2012? Surely it cannot mean what it did in 1929 and 1937.

How do you reconcile the needs of the impoverished with the demands of an expanding middle class? The relevance of any idea is determined by objective reality. India is no longer a colony; it is still cursed with poverty but not crushed by famine and helplessness.

Rahul Gandhi's slogan for UP is a curious defensive feint disguised as an aggressive jab: hum jawab denge. It is the sort of phrase that looks more convincing in an advertising agency than a village tea shop. Is it a subliminal plea by a new leader, eager to answer questions that no one has yet asked? Maybe we could begin with a simple one: has Rahul Gandhi thought through a philosophy for the future? Rahul Gandhi likes to fly, but to where?

M J Akbar is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi and London, and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.

M J Akbar