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'Modi has no baggage like Rahul does'

Last updated on: August 23, 2023 10:07 IST

'When the Congress is put against someone like Narendra Modi, they do not have anything new to offer to the people of India.'

IMAGE: Congress leader Rahul Gandhi. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

Every Indian voter has an opinion on Rahul Gandhi.

Even if the person is voting for the Bharatiya Janata Party, he or she surely has an opinion on Rahul Gandhi.

Social media is full of posts either praising Rahul or ridiculing him all the time.

In 2014, he got the infamous tag of 'Pappu' stuck on him and even today there are numerous jokes cracked about him.

But Rahul Gandhi soldiers on. After a humiliating defeat in the 2019 general election, he stepped down as Congress president and does not hold any official position in the party apart from being its member of Parliament from Wayanad in Kerala.

Though Mallikarjun Kharge is the Congress president, every party worker knows that it is the Gandhis, or rather Rahul Gandhi, who calls the shots.

So what keeps Rahul Gandhi going, and what kind of politics does he practise?

To know more Syed Firdaus Ashraf/ spoke to Sugata Srinivasaraju about his just published book, Strange Burdens: The Politics and Predicaments of Rahul Gandhi.

The first of a two-part interview:


Why did you feel the need to write a book on Rahul Gandhi? What was so compelling about him that you had to write a book on him?

Actually, I did not intend to write a book on him. I was working on something else which was related to his grandmother, the late prime minister Indira Gandhi.

I was looking at the Emergencyand how international opinion was built against the Emergency.

I was in the middle of this project when my publisher asked me if I could do a small book on Rahul Gandhi before 2024.

Initially, my reaction was that there is not much to write and maybe I will do it later, but perhaps my publisher's persuasion was good enough for me to write this book.

So, I thought I will write a small book, not like a biography, because you will need a lot of access to the person and references to archival material. This I know from my previous book experience.

I suggested to my publisher that I will write a long New Yorker-like essay which should come to about 100 pages or so.

But when I started writing the book, I felt that it is important to place Rahul Gandhi in a larger context on what is happening in India today.

And when I started writing, it became a bit longer and now it is close to 360 pages with notes and references.

What has Rahul Gandhi achieved in life besides having the surname Gandhi? After Prime Minister Narendra D Modi attacked him he has become the face of nepotism in India today, isn't it?

That is right and this criticism is one part of the story, which is the dynastic credentials of Rahul Gandhi.

If you want that you can do that in a couple of tweets or a television byte, but when you write a book, much more goes into it.

I have tried to situate him in the political context of India today.

How does he look? And how different is he from his predecessors? How is he different from his own family members? Why is he failing? That is an important question to ask.

He is not successful. And the fact that he is not successful makes him a fascinating character and everyone speaks about his privileges.

Privileges are not a standalone thing as it comes with the burden as well.

IMAGE: Congress MPs Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi leave Parliament after Opposition MPs staged a walkout from the Lok Sabha during Prime Minister Narendra D Modi's reply to the debate on the no confidence motion, August 10, 2023. Photograph: Jitender Gupta/ANI Photo

Do you have an answer on why Rahul Gandhi is failing?

When you write a book, at least it is not my style to be judgemental about him. It is not my style to judge his successes and failures, make it a SWOT analysis or put in a tabular column.

My writing style is narrative, like you are walking in a garden and surprised to see a few things and disappointed by a few other things.

Narrative grows in a certain way and it is not necessary to be consciously judgemental about the character you are writing.

What you are essentially doing is that you allow the character to surprise you, confront you and if you get fond of the character then you as a journalist ask yourself why are you getting fond of this person?

So you try to balance the character and you meander in what you do. You build a larger narrative than be judgemental, and this is what the book is all about.

IMAGE: Rahul Gandhi addresses the media in New Delhi, August 11, 2023. Photograph: Altaf Hussain/Reuters

Rahul Gandhi speaks of ideology and committed Congress workers, but he has not been able to revive the Congress Seva Dal into an RSS kind of cadre? Why has he failed here?

What I say in the book is that he is ideologically strident, which is very different from his father Rajiv Gandhi or grandmother Indira Gandhi or even his great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru.

Rahul Gandhi is ideologically strident because he is facing a completely different situation.

He is facing an opponent with the might of the BJP and RSS machine.

He probably thinks that he needs a committed cadre out there to counter it. I say in my book that the Congress is an umbrella party.

After Nehru, the party had all shades of thoughts and opinions.

I also quote in the book that Indira Gandhi had a great relationship with the RSS at one point of time.

I quote my sources in the book. The RSS also supported Rajiv Gandhi at one point of time.

The RSS is an organisation which says that whoever is with their agenda, they are with them.

They are not necessarily pushing the agenda of the BJP because the BJP was not the same party what it is today.

The RSS says they have their party workers in every political party in India, including the Communists.

Now, Rahul Gandhi is taking a completely divergent route and says he has nothing to do with right-wing politics.

So, he has distanced his party as a result of which the Congress, which was much more a centrist party, is a far more left-leaning party now.

IMAGE: Congress President Mallikarjun Kharge and party leaders Rahul Gandhi and K C Venugopal after a meeting with leaders of the Karnataka Congress at the party HQ, New Delhi, August 2, 2023. Photograph: ANI Photo

He did visit temples before the 2018 assembly elections and even displayed his janaeu, showing his brahmanical ancestry, isn't it?

Those are contradictions in him as a person. He tries to embrace organised religion and at the same time speaks in spiritual language.

He tries to embrace Vedic Hinduism and tries to go to the bottom-most people in the Hindu ladder.

These are contradictions and confusion. That is why a larger argument I make in the book, which is the Congress has not sat down and thought through its cultural line.

They are fighting the cultural nationalism of the BJP and they do not have anything to do with a cultural line so this makes the Congress look like a deracinated party and entity.

IMAGE: Congress workers protest in New Delhi, March 27, 2023, after Rahul Gandhi's disqualification as as MP. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters

An interesting point you make in the book is that nobody seeks to join the Congress for spiritual salvation, but to seek power.
How can the Congress then get committed spiritual salvation wallah workers?

I wrote this in the context of Rahul Gandhi's spiritual salvation and not the Congress party. Rahul Gandhi expects everyone to have a certain kind of detachment from power.

People come into politics with certain ambition, and that is not wrong at all.

It is a part of the democratic set-up. The BJP seeks power and unabashedly so but it offers cultural reasoning to its workers to seek power.

The Congress has no cultural reasoning to seek power.

The example I give in my book is that the BJP worker will give you 10 reasons why he needs power.

Any worker of the BJP will say that he wants to change this, he wants to change that.

He will say he wants a temple here. He wants to demolish a mosque there. He wants to change policies.

He wants the abrogation of Article 370, wants the Uniform Civil Code and he will give 100 reasons why he needs power.

The Congress gives you platitudes which are very universal and it does not matter what the BJP does is right or wrong.

And when the Congress is put against someone like Narendra Modi, they do not have anything new to offer to the people of India.

If you go to any park early in the morning in India and the people are talking about the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya and by chance if there is a Congress worker among them, how does he counter them?

What alternative does he have to give them? The Congress has not though through this problem, and this is a problem for them.

The Congress can talk about their ideology and make a wishlist, but at the end of the day, if you want to be successful, you need to have a strategy and the Congress lacks that strategy.

Is it the reason you say in your book that it is easy to be Narendra Modi but extremely tough to be Rahul Gandhi?

That's right, because Narendra Modi has no baggage and Rahul Gandhi has it.

The burden of expectations on Rahul Gandhi is enormous.

He is not only electorally compared (in terms of victory), but also compared to his (ancestral) predecessors like Pandit Nehru and Indira Gandhi.

Their images are used to pull Rahul Gandhi down. He is also compared to his mother Sonia Gandhi who people say was more collaborative in nature and had good advisors which Rahul Gandhi does not have with him.

People irritatingly push him and compare him, which is an enormous thing to handle.

Anybody else would have psyched out.

In the case of Modi, he has nothing to lose.

He has probably got a post which he himself never thought he would get. All that he wants to do is leave a mark behind.

Feature Presentation: Aslam Hunani/