Politicians are supposed to get into the business to change the world around them. But it seems Gandhi got into the business to help keep a party running, says Mihir S Sharma
It is difficult to feel sorry for the Congress' vice-president, even when he is being mocked and misunderstood. Rahul Gandhi is a relatively unsympathetic public figure not because he is where he is thanks to his lineage; it is because of his own words and actions.
True, Gandhi could point out that we complained when he said too little, and now that he's talking, we complain about what he says. But that wouldn't be a completely legitimate argument. And that's because when we ask that he communicate more, it's because we want him to enter into debates on real issues and lay out a policy framework to address them, and not to simply state and restate the problems India faces.
Especially since he doesn't do that restatement bit too well. Consider his latest soaring metaphor, that Dalits need "the escape velocity of Jupiter" in order to break out of the constraints of their birth and succeed. Like other statements before it -- "India is a beehive" (meaning that, unlike monolithic China, India is composed of innumerable industrious little interest groups) or "poverty is a state of mind" (meaning that the poor suffer not just material deprivation, but a crippling lack of confidence, too) this one made an essentially unexceptionable point.
But, in trying to reach for an above-the-fray, analytical approach, Gandhi sounded false.
The problem lies right there: not in the fact that Gandhi is an imperfect communicator, but in the fact that he believes that people expect and need above-the-fray analysis from a politician in his position. That's simply not correct.
Yes, we need more Dalit leaders, as he said. But unless Gandhi wants to swap jobs, he should leave op-ed-level observation to us professionals, and get on with the policy prescriptions.
But nobody in India has worked as hard as Gandhi has at avoiding policy discussions. Wrangles over policy have been everywhere these past few years, except in Gandhi's public pronouncements -- with one major exception that I'll come to in a moment.
The problem is that Gandhi has a confused view of what his role is. He is expected to be more than a party manager. Politicians are supposed to get into the business to change the world around them. But it seems Gandhi got into the business to help keep a party running. Big difference.
Gandhi's recent speech also featured a dreadfully unsubtle reference to "my grandmother". In case you have somehow luckily forgotten India's recent and dreadful history, he meant Indira Gandhi.
It turns out Indira Gandhi told the young Rahul a story about cheering for an underdog team in Nazi Germany, and the less-young Rahul is now dutifully repeating it.
Here's the problem: for a man who claims to want to remove the shackles his family has placed on his party, he really seems to invoke them a lot.
Whether it's the "Babri Masjid would never have happened had my family had power" remark, or the various references to stuff his mum told him, we are never allowed to forget his name and lineage. That's the very opposite of what he says he's trying to do; and, so, every time he invokes some glorious ancestor or the other, he comes across as hypocritical.
Here's one big problem with dynasty: it means that you find it difficult to break out in new directions and to leave the past behind. The veneration of Indira Gandhi by her daughter-in-law and grandson means that they glorify even her errors, such as bank nationalisation.
It means that they can't warn against the excesses of authoritarianism, given how Indira Gandhi maliciously assaulted constitutional values. And every time Rajiv's memory is invoked, the inane 1984-2002 comparison can be made by Modi-toadies and their useful idiots.
So, instead of properly condemning the real sins of the past, you try to break out by improperly condemning the imaginary sins of the present. And, thus the one time Rahul Gandhi addressed policy, in his by-now-legendary "nonsense" press conference on the convicted-MPs Ordinance.
He may not have intended to undercut and insult the prime minister. But anyone with peripheral political vision could have seen that's how it would appear. In that appearance, yet another disadvantage of a dynasty's presence in politics was apparent: through his words, he reminded people of their impressions of the arrogance of Rajiv's later years as PM; in his unshaven sleeve-rolled aggression, of Sanjay. These are not the family memories he'd want to resurrect.
In any case, the idea that he can somehow distinguish himself as an insurgent against a government stuffed with those rushing to prove devotion to him is so painfully ridiculous that I would love to meet the person whose idea it was, and offer him a golden investment opportunity in, say, an emu farm.
Even if Gandhi had any dreams of being seen as somehow apart from the government, the immediate capitulation of the Cabinet put paid to those. Now we can all ask: why didn't you suggest tearing up a few other nonsensical things they have done? We all have lists we can send you.
Perhaps the only good thing about Rahul Gandhi's career so far has been that, like a good Indian boy, he has listened to his mother. But, last week, he complained -- in a way that will only come across as petulant -- that "they said I did not oppose the Ordinance at the right time. But is there a right time to tell the truth?"
Umm, yes there is, Rahul. When it is being discussed, in all the various high-powered Congress committees you are a member of. The wrong time? When your PM is about to meet Barack Obama.
If you can't learn the difference, then quit your job now. Because a leader has to weigh more than just what incenses him at that moment. He has to judge the importance of whatever else is going on, too. And, by that yardstick, you're no leader.