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Rahul Gandhi and the Art of Vacationing

By Mihir S Sharma
February 24, 2015 08:14 IST
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A Congress party worker holds a broken cut-out of Rahul Gandhi, Congress party vice president in Kolkata. Photographic: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

The party has tried to downplay its vice-president’s sudden move, saying he is the leader and will come back soon to play a pro-active role in party affairs.

Finally, Congress vice president Rahul Gandhi has done something with which we can all sympathise. I mean, who doesn’t like holidays? Or sabbaticals. Or Periods of Reflection or Moments of Contemplation or Vipassana or Stages of Enlightenment or whatever Gandhi is off to do.

Personally, whenever I want to have a quiet think I just tell my boss that I want a few weeks off, though that conversation isn’t usually conducted over a family dinner or whatever.

Haters gonna hate, people, and some ill-intentioned small-minded types will point to the frankly minor point that this Time of Deliberation comes in the middle of the budget session of this thing we have in this country called Parliament.

And so yes, this is a time when the member of Parliament for Amethi should technically be working for the people of his constituency -- why didn’t he ask them for leave, instead of the president of his party? -- but, come on, that’s unfair.

After all, why should he start being an MP now? He’s been the second-least productive member of our council of representatives after Sachin Tendulkar who at least wears more interesting shirts and also was God for a bit in the late 1990s while the highest Rahul ever scored was 21 in UP in 2009.

Any number of reasons could be given for his Period of Consideration. After all, the almost frenetic pace he has been setting for himself since his last vacation six weeks ago will have taken its toll. In the interim, he has addressed at least three rallies for the Delhi assembly, and was only about four hours late for some of them.

Yes, the local Congress candidates fell over themselves to stop their vice-president from exerting himself, gallantly willing to attempt to win their seats without his help. More than one such candidate has been heard wishing (and this is true) that Rahul did not have to land up to remind voters that the leader in question happened to be in the Gandhi Congress.

Some party insiders claim that a couple of winnable seats were actually lost as a consequence. Even if that is an exaggeration, who can deny the efforts involved in delivering the Congress’ unprecedented result in Delhi would have exhausted anyone?

Or perhaps the extensive consultations he has been holding with stakeholders on the Congress’ future are the reason. Judging by the incomplete reports that have emerged from these sessions, Rahul has had to explain at length to several people on the ground exactly how they are doing things wrong.

The people in question may have thought they were finally getting an opportunity to air their grievances, but proper leadership has no place for such things. If you have a grievance or a suggestion, please submit it in triplicate and we’ll get to it.

For now, shut up and listen. Revolutionary changes are ahead.

Yes, true, perhaps he should have been around for the most important budget session since 1991, a session that might set the path of this country for decades, and a session that will either make or break the current government.

Some leaders might think that is a reason to postpone their Stint of Rumination. But it seems perhaps Rahul takes a longer view. What are a few decades? A government’s tenure?

The Congress has been around since the 1880s. Rahul’s eyes are fixed firmly on the bicentenary. By the 2080s, the Congress in Uttar Pradesh will definitely have revived.

The seeds have been sown.

Yes, also true, land acquisition is a bit of an issue now, and Rahul had tried to make it his own recently. The Congress might score a victory in making the government back down from some of the amendments that it wished to make to the land law.

However, why let the Congress get any credit for this? You might imagine it’s a win-win -- if the government backs down, the Congress has looked them in the eye, and won; if the government doesn’t, the Congress can use it to lead protests across the country, and win again. But this is short-term thinking.

What is ‘winning’, after all? All you get when you win is power. Poisonous stuff, power. Kills proper politics. Pure politics requires you to never win, and that is clearly where the vice-president wishes to take his party.

The Interval of Consideration is, we are told, likely to last as long as the Budget session. Well, that’s quite a while to make up your mind, isn’t it?

One does wonder if those around Rahul, who have spent the months since last May spreading vicious and graceless poison about how the dithering of Manmohan Singh lost them the 2014 election, have paused to consider that they had better stop complaining the last prime minister was indecisive when their boss apparently needs six weeks in even greater isolation than normal to make a decision?

What could Rahul be thinking about? Is it a bit of a break before his coronation, as some think? Is it a preliminary to exiting, as some hope? Is it the consequence of a disagreement with his mother?

Is it because after the South Africa win he thinks we actually have a chance on Australian pitches and wants to wake up early for India matches? We can’t know, because Rahul thinks that not telling us his genuine reasons for doing anything is a great strategy.

 

After all, that has really worked for him so far. Absolutely nobody in the country thinks he’s a stupid, lazy disaster.

Seriously, though: The sad fact is that he is almost certainly none of those things. Many people who should know and have no reason to lie insist that he is, in fact, smarter and more dedicated than most people in politics.

But an inexplicable refusal to engage with his party or the wider public has caused his entire identity to be defined by his opponents. Perhaps what happened is that Rahul has, for the first time since 2009, Googled himself. The results would send any self-respecting person into seclusion.

I have, to my surprise, reached the point where I just feel bad for Rahul. I think anyone with an ounce of human compassion in their soul must feel bad for someone so incredibly out of touch and with so little control of their own story.

At this point, it’s perilously close to being the worst of bad taste, kicking a man when he’s down; it’s just that Rahul seems unaware that he’s down.

Consider this: even Ramachandra Guha, one of our greatest public intellectuals, recently wrote a depressingly mean (and wrong) piece comparing Gandhi to Arvind Kejriwal. The former dropped out of Harvard to go to RollinsCollege in Florida, he said, while Kejriwal finished his course at the Indian Institute of Technology and then chose to do the civil service exam.

Ergo, the first is a slacker and the second a finisher. Rot, and I am not just saying this because failing to finish your chosen degree at a good school is nothing to be ashamed of, whatever our leading historian may say.

(I have done so myself, after all; and, as I got my consolation piece of paper, listened to J K Rowling talk about why such failures are important, and there is no better response to Guha’s plain wrong implications than that famous speech.)

No, I say this because of the simple fact that Rahul shifted out of Harvard after his father was assassinated, not because he was stupid or lazy.

But this is the kind of thing that gets written about you when you disdain the narrative of your own life, of your own career. I feel bad for Rahul because he has become a national joke, a national punching-bag, an easy punchline, a giant target, and he has done very little to deserve it.

But he has also done very little in general.

We don’t know what or why has caused this sabbatical. But I do hope that Rahul comes back with a clear idea of how to recover his life and reputation.

Because, frankly, even the jokes are getting tired.

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Mihir S Sharma
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