There was an incredibility and inevitability about the announcement last night (Saturday) that Rahul Gandhi has been appointed vice president of India’s Congress Party, confirming his position as number two and heir apparent to Sonia Gandhi, the dynastic leader of the party and of the country’s United Progressive Alliance (UPA) governing coalition. It also made him an heir apparent to Manmohan Singh, the prime minister.
It was inevitable because Rahul Gandhi has been seen for years as having the right to rule India in his genes. But it was also incredible because, aged 42, he has shown little ability or interest in fulfilling that destiny, yet last night was accepted without question by grown and able Congress ministers and other party leaders. Arguably, some of those leaders would make a better job of being vice-president, but they and others see a Gandhi – and Rahul is the one to hand – as the best bet to hold the party together and provide the sort of iconic image for it to win at the polls and keep them in their posts of power and patronage
People danced in the streets outside the party headquarters and Sonia Gandhi’s Delhi home, hailing him as their leader and future prime minister as though salvation and election victory had just been announced, not merely the long delayed elevation of an apparently reluctant candidate.
The next general election, due by April next year, will be tough for Congress, which has performed poorly since it was elected for a second term in 2009 – as it will be for the Bharatiya Janata Party that might be led by Narendra Modi, who has the support of leading businessmen. The election is expected to lead to a hung parliament and another coalition government.
The announcement came at a party conclave in the Rajasthan city of Jaipur, which next weekend will host a large annual international literature festival that will air far more genuine and original debate and fervour than Congress’s party managers have allowed. Rahul’s elevation was proposed by A.K.Antony, who seems to put more energy into being a dynastic loyalist than he does as minister for defence into equipping the country’s depleted armed forces. It was immediately greeted with acclaim.
Today Rahul made an acceptance speech to the conclave that was strong on emotion and on what is wrong with the corrupt and power hungry in India. It reflected a famous speech made by his late father, Rajiv Gandhi, as prime minister in 1985, attacking Congress power brokers who he said handicapped ordinary party workers. Rajiv Gandhi failed to change the system and his son today offered nothing positive, apart from a pledge that he would work for the party and country.
That generated a rousing standing ovation from the audience and tears from some leaders, but Rahul has taken so long to accept this heir-apparent appointment, and has performed with such lacklustre since being made one of the party’s several general secretaries in 2007, that he seriously lacks credibility.
This was demonstrated by newspaper headlines this morning that said he would need to prove himself to the party in the general election. “Cong named Rahul No. 2, stops short of giving him poll leadership” said the Indian Express, while The Economic Times noted that “To get the party, he needs a victory”, adding that “his star has dimmed”..
As general secretary in charge of the Youth Congress, he has reorganized structures and local party elections, and has contributed to other organisational matters. But he has shown absolutely no grip or interest in policy. His problem is not just that he did disastrously in Uttar Pradesh state assembly elections last year.
More importantly, he has shown no continuity of purpose, often vanishing without trace from the public scene, and showing no follow-up interest when he visits poor areas. He rarely speaks out on major issues and crises, such as country-wide mass protests about corruption last year and recently on gang rape and the treatment of women. He makes adequate election-style speeches to crowds of thousands, – as he did today to the Congress meeting – but rarely engages in public debate or gives media interviews. That matches his mother’s reclusive approach, but he has seemed far more detached than her.
His private life is a mystery. Everyone of course has a right to privacy, but that reduces the more public a person becomes, and Rahul is possibly India’s next prime minister.
So little is known that Delhi buzzes with gossip about where he regularly vanishes – is it abroad as is often rumoured (Dubai, Bangkok, London?), or just to houses of friends in elegant roads near his central Delhi home? Does he have a girl friend? The only one every publicly seen was Colombian (or Spanish as he reportedly said in 2004), but she is rumoured to have married in Colombia. More recently, there has been talk of an Afghan girl friend.
Such questions and gossip would fade if, over the past eight years that he has been an MP, he had begun to become more accessible and play a visible active political and policy role.
None of this means that Rahul should not be prime minister, nor that the Gandhis should not be in politics if they prove themselves and leave room for others to emerge. But whereas his mother has been a unifying force for the Congress party, Rahul has done virtually nothing to gain the title he received yesterday, and instead is blocking other young and able politicians’ careers. He now has a year or so (less if the general election comes early) to prove himself and fulfil promises of personal commitment he made in his speech today.