Is Rahul Gandhi preparing not just to renounce the Indian prime minister’s job, as his mother Sonia did in 2004, but also to organise events so that the chances of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty continuing far into the future are greatly reduced?
It is beginning to look as if that might be what he ideally wants, with democratically elected grassroots members of his family’s Congress Party rising up through the ranks. If that is so, then his critics (including this blog) need maybe to stop regarding him as an indecisive, work-shy, reluctant politician, and consider whether he could eventually turn out to be a significant political reformer.
The peg for these thoughts is remarks he made to reporters and Congress MPs in the Central Hall of the Indian Parliament on March 5, when he indicated that he neither wants to be prime minister nor to marry and produce dynastic heirs.
“Asking whether you want to be prime minister is to ask me a wrong question,” he was reported to have said. “Today, I see how MPs feel without power and it is the same story in all the parties, be it the Congress or the BJP. I want to empower the 720-odd MPs in Parliament. I want to give voice to the middle tier, empower the middle-level leaders. There are some parties in India which are run by one leader, two leaders, five to six leaders and 15 to 20 leaders. My priority is that I want to empower the MPs as also the 5,000-odd legislators in various states,” he said.
There are varying versions of exactly what he said about marriage. The Indian Express reported: “I feel we should all be detached from power. Only then we can contribute to the society better. You people ask me about my marriage plans. Sometimes, I think, if I marry and have children, I would want my children to take my position. Sometimes, I feel that status quo is better.” The Times of India and others quoted “If I get married and have children, then I will become a status-quoist and will be concerned about bequeathing my position to my children”.
The Express also reported that he regretted political parties were designed in a manner that prevented youth from acquiring key positions at a time when they were seeking a greater say in political affairs. “At one point, the pressure from the youth will be such that there will be an explosion,” he said.
Either way, Rahul Gandhi, who will be 43 in June, indicated that he is shying away from marriage. As I mentioned on this blog in January, the only girl friend publicly known about was a Colombian (or Spanish as he once reportedly said), but that was ten years ago and she is rumoured to have married someone else in Colombia.
The High Command
Coupled with Rahul’s frequently repeated criticism of the Congress Party’s “high command” culture (with Sonia currently in command), the logic of the remarks is that new people would rise up through the Congress Party. But it is not clear whether Rahul is envisaging them being ready to take over the top job in 20 years or so when he might retire, leaving nothing for the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty to do after dominating Indian politics since independence.
In his remarks, he only seems to have talked about giving power to MPs and “voice to the middle tier, empower the middle-level leaders”. That echoed his emotional speech when he was anointed the Congress vice-president in January and promised to work for the development of the party. Does it mean however that he envisages a dynastic glass ceiling above that middle-level?
Life, especially in politics, is of course not simple and no-one can predict that far ahead. Would Rahul ever be prepared to step aside? Despite a friendly and approachable manner, he can be dynastically haughty, and seems to enjoy the trappings of power and the exclusive privacy it provides. Just five days before his recent remarks, he was criticised when his cavalcade clogged Mumbai city traffic, with no apparent apology.
Even more importantly, what line would the family take? There is his personable and politically appealing sister Priyanka who has always been seen as an able fallback should Rahul step aside. Then there is Sonia Gandhi, who is 66 and has undergone treatment for what is believed to be cancer. She has said that she entered politics seven years after her husband was assassinated in 1991 in order to save the Congress Party from collapse, but she also saw herself as a dynastic bridge between her late husband and their son. Would she approve if Rahul aimed to secure the future of the party but not the dynasty?
Certainly, with its current national and regional leaders, the party needs the dynasty in order to hold together. Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express, summed up the situation well in a column two weeks ago when he wrote that, while the Gandhis were no longer vote winners for the party, they were essential for its discipline. When he asked a senior long-term Congress leader why the Gandhi family was still so important and had total sway over the party, the reply was: “They cannot help anybody win elections, but they keep the party together. Their word is law and the party needs that discipline”.
Rahul’s remarks have sharpened speculation about who would be prime minister if Congress won a leading coalition role after next year’s general election – with Palaniappan Chidambaram, curently the finance minister, being a current favourite, since he is by far the most experienced and competent minister in the government.
But that may prove to be academic because there seems little likelihood of Congress winning a leading role. This would bring the focus back to Rahul as the party leader, and the huge task he would have in transforming an organisation that is hamstrung not just by the Gandhi dynasty but by many others in the states – often appointed and encouraged by the Gandhis to hold top posts. He has already been facing opposition from established regional leaders who resent newcomers.
If Rahul means what he says, then he has a huge task, not just to halt his own dynasty but to change the way that the patronage and privilege-based Congress Party operates. Let’s see if he means it!