The Nehru-Gandhi family has never been a transparent entity. So it is not surprising that Rahul Gandhi's public image is not only confusing, but also full of riddles.
He has been full of enigmatic characteristics for many reasons. Aarthi Ramachandran, journalist-turned-author, has tried to understand Rahul Gandhi and his politics in her recently published book, Decoding Rahul Gandhi.
It's known that Rahul Gandhi, a force behind many recent decisions within the Congress party, is reluctant to join the government led by Dr Manmohan Singh, his mother and Congress president Sonia Gandhi's confidant.
On the eve of the Cabinet reshuffle and Rahul Gandhi's rejection of the offer to join the government, Aarthi Ramachandran tries to help understand the young leader, his potential and his politics.
Do you think Rahul Gandhi will become a successful minister, if and when he decides to join the government?
This question cannot be answered without knowing what ministry he will choose for himself, and whether at all he will become a minister in the government headed by Manmohan Singh. However, one of the problems that has bogged down Brand Rahul is a lack of focus and inability to route his ideas through politics. He appears to be spreading himself out in many directions at once without focusing on a selected few areas where he can make a political impact. We saw this in his discovery of India tours; his moves to revamp the Indian Youth Congress and the National Students' Union of India; and his trips to Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and other states to revive the Congress party there.
This factor could become a problem area in any ministry Rahul decides to take charge of.
That said, Rahul could make a good minister with sound advice and clever identification and articulation of what he wants to do in the ministry. He has many positives, among them is a technocratic, process-driven approach to things which could work well if the larger goals are clearly marked out.
He has been so reluctant to become a minister for the last seven years. Why?
Rahul Gandhi's attitude to politics is at the root of this. As I have explained in my book, there are several factors behind Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia Gandhi's reluctance to accept political office.
In Rahul's case, one of the reasons has to do with the fact that he sees himself more as a management consultant for the Congress party organisation rather than a politician out to win elections or an important position in government. This was always a given for the Nehru-Gandhi heir since his position within the Congress is unchallenged and it is understood that Rahul Gandhi will be anointed as the party's prime ministerial face sooner or later. Therefore, he has seen his job as rebuilding the Congress party in states where it is doing poorly. It also fit in with his idea of meritocracy, which he has espoused in the revamp of the IYC and the NSUI as well.
Though the irony of Rahul Gandhi endorsing meritocracy in a family-driven party such as the Congress is not lost on anyone, it was his stated position that he wanted to "learn" before he was in a position to lead. While these factors were the primary reasons for his staying away from the government, it cannot be dismissed that there has been also been a reluctance on part of both Rahul and Sonia Gandhi to be accountable for the power they wield as India's most powerful politicians.
Does he have an idea of India to run a ministry independently?
Rahul Gandhi's tours to rural areas and India's backward districts over the years have, in my opinion, given him a good idea of India that he is often not given credit for. I believe that his 'discovery of India' tours, for example, were well-intentioned and he was sincere about wanting to know first-hand how some of the poorest people in India live.
However, where he has faltered is in translating this information into a political programme and a well-defined position that he stands for and which he can articulate consistently and clearly. It remains to be seen if and when he joins the government whether he will be able to overcome this problem area.
What will work well and what may not work for Rahul Gandhi in the Union Cabinet?
This is far too hypothetical a question without knowing for sure whether he will join the United Progressive Alliance II government and, if he does, what ministry he will choose for himself. However, having said that, I think Rahul Gandhi's biggest plus points are that he is willing to meet a cross-section of people and get first-hand information on issues before he plunges into something.
The problem with Rahul's politics, however, is that he has approached this as a data collection exercise rather than use this information in a way that is politically prudent from the point of view of the changes he wants to bring about. The revamp of the IYC and NSUI are examples.
In any ministry headed by Rahul, we will see a lot of talk of accountability, meritocracy and efficiency. But all these things will impact Indian politics in a positive way if they are a means to an end, and do not become an end in themselves as it has with the revamp of the IYC and the NSUI.
This over-emphasis on a technocratic approach to things and his own group of advisors who are not political operatives but corporate managers (I'm talking of the likes of Kanishka Singh and Sachin Rao) may pose problems for Rahul Gandhi.
Is he likely to eclipse Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, if and when he joins the government?
At the moment it is not clear whether he will at all join a Cabinet headed by Manmohan Singh. With the next general elections due in May 2014, and the possibility of it being advanced a little not ruled out at this stage, this is possibly the last big Cabinet reshuffle before the next general elections. Therefore, to answer it hypothetically, he would have definitely become a rival centre of power within the government and eclipsed Manmohan Singh in terms of the power he would wield.
To also answer your previous question about his reluctance to join the ministry, this is one of the reasons he has stayed away.
Can you tell us why he has shied away from becoming prime minister all these years? If he really wants to, can he become the prime minister of India?
The reasons for not becoming the prime minister of India are similar to the ones I mentioned for his reluctance to join the government. The meritocracy factor would in fact play an even bigger role in this case. Rahul Gandhi has put himself through a self-appointed apprenticeship during these last seven-eight years and he is only now beginning the transition from learner to decision-maker as his involvement with the discussions preceding the expected Cabinet reshuffle shows.
However, I think by accepting the mantle of the Nehru-Gandhi heir when he decided to enter politics in 2004, he agreed to the unspoken pact that he was grooming himself to become prime minister of India when he felt he was ready for the job. However, time is running out for him and, whether or not he wants the job, he could be the party's prime ministerial face in the 2014 elections.
His mother's uncertain health and the credibility crisis that has gripped the UPA II government after a spate of corruption allegations has meant the Congress needs a new face to lead it into the next general elections due in 2014.
Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Congress general secretary Rahul Gandhi (left) | Image courtesy: PIB