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When Rahul moved to the Congress centrestage

By Sheela Bhatt
Last updated on: May 06, 2009 15:15 IST
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'I am the new reality.'

That was the message that came out of Rahul Gandhi's first-ever formal press conference on Tuesday in the nation's capital, which has seen many dynasties, colonial rule and democratic dispensations under various political parties.

Today, many things were clarified in Indian politics. Processes that were shyly lingering in the shadows tip-toed centre-stage. Though there were no serious doubts ever on that score, it is finally getting clear that Rahul Gandhi will own the Congress party as part of the family silver and he is steeling himself to lead the Congress for decades to come.

Equally it emerged that Rahul will chariot the Congress into the 21st century on the very same old, much-debated ideas of secularism, economy and development.

When Rahul entered politics, the pervasive feeling was that he bore a child-like innocence -- as distinct from freshness. Some even derisively saw him as a trifle childish. But all that was yesterday. Today it became clear that the Congress is Rahul, and Rahul only.

Rahul talks with elan and passion when he opens his mind and underscores how he wants to inject the serum of inner party democracy into the tired old veins of the Congress party. He seems to often forget the delicious irony that it falls on the ears of his audience as double talk and that he himself is a progeny of the Congress culture that he so intensely wants to discard.

When a journalist asked him about it, Rahul was straight, blunt and the moment was quite a thing to remember.

"I agree it is undemocratic, but it is also a reality," Rahul responded. "My position gives me certain advantages to do certain things. I am the outcome of the system, (but) that does not mean I cannot change the system. I want to change the system. It is my honour and duty."

Certainly, whoever is choreographing Sonia Gandhi's public persona and Rahul Gandhi's calibrated steps as he embarks on what is unquestionably a long, long journey in Indian politics is not doing a bad job at all, given the realities.

What do you do when it is all pre-ordained that the reins of Congress will at any cost remain within Gandhi family? Today, Rahul Gandhi spoke as if he is responding to some divine call to lead the Congress and bring in 'change' in systems that are just not working in the country.

During the press conference when Rahul Gandhi was answering questions, M Veerappa Moily, the old, battle-scarred Congress warhorse, was observing the boy quietly. It almost seemed that after every answer that Rahul gave to the journalists, Moily was heaving a sigh of relief. He seemed so relieved when the press conference finally got over -- like a school master who anxiously watched his ward pass an 'entrance exam'.

For the first time since she brushed aside then Congress president Sitaram Kesri and took over the Congress leadership, one could sense that Sonia Gandhi is retreating slowly to the background and leaving her son on the stage. Her daughter Priyanka said in a recent interview that she foresees her mother enjoying retirement in the hills engrossed in gardening and reading.

One could see how slowly, tactfully and imperceptibly, the baton is being passed on from the mother to the son. It is done in front of the cameras and on the fascinating stage that Indian democracy provides the family. Congressmen are a perceptive breed with extra-terrestrial sense perception. They were right when they began chanting five years back, 'Rahul is learning politics and discovering India.'

Rahul Gandhi devoted much of his press conference to issues of development. He seems to be heavily influenced by the 'development-politics wallahs' of the IIT-IIM variety. It is unclear whether he has thought through issues, but at any rate he played safe by insistently placing himself on the well-known Congress philosophy of the centrist path of economy and politics with a gentle slant towards the left.

Paradoxically, the more Rahul Gandhi talks about the poor, the more he sounds elitist. At the end of the day, he presents a picture of a person from the highly-privileged class whose heart happens to be in the right place.

He is at pains to present himself as a decent human being who wants to remain within the Laxman Rekha in politics, but his confidence, his attempted friendliness with the media and his plain kurta-pyjama looks still do not add up to present the picture of a strong national leader who can deliver the goods. He comes across as a stubborn leader, but not strong enough.

Somewhere along the line, he leaves the impression that they have been here before. That is, even without his pointed references to his late father.

Rahul Gandhi talks of democracy and development issues with a clinical detachment. It is a bullet point presentation without the depth that could represent the complex and cerebral contours of Indian social-political systems. His views on political-economic issues strike one as so patently unrealistic that at times one feels embarrassed. He dwells on macro issues only and he offers hardly any concrete solutions. In sum, he only talks about the importance of the 'trickle-down effect' of a growing economy.

But there is nothing new in such ideas at all. He talks about how the New Delhi ministries have crores of rupees in their coffers but they are not being used productively at the village level. But as a journalist pointed out to him, what prevented successive Congress governments from addressing the flawed, corrupt system? After all, Dr. Manmohan Singh himself has been in the driving seat for a period not less than 10 years.

It seems that with his feeling for the poor people and his ambitious idea of bridging the gap between people who enjoy the fruits of 9 percent growth, the BJP's core constituency -- the ever-growing urban middle-class -- is quite out of Rahul's mind and sight.

Rahul Gandhi hates the BJP no less than Sonia Gandhi or Manmohan Singh and as and when Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi crosses his state's boundaries and begins advancing towards New Delhi, India is destined to witness an ugly confrontation between these two diverse personalities.

There is no telling how long the two gladiators will fight it out and what might be the outcome. All that can be said is that it will be a nasty, no-holds-barred fight.

Things came the easy way for Rahul. He entered politics as recently as 2004 and yet it is evident today that he will have an easy run to take over the Congress from his mother. But Modi has come up the hard way. Even now, he will have to first fight a long legal, political and even a hugely controversial socio-cultural battle to establish his claim for the BJP's top leadership.

Nevertheless, when and if Rahul gets pitted against Modi is the day the country's politics will get dangerously polarised. The entire political class will be called upon to make a choice. 'Either you're with us, or you're against us,' as the Americans say.

If in the current election, the BJP doesn't improve its tally substantially in Gujarat it will be construed as a setback for Modi. But Rahul faces no such hazards. He is not called upon to deliver. He faces no accountability. Even in defeat there will be no punishment.

Just two days ago Rahul met senior political editors and gave them the idea that he is quite ready for the Congress to sit in the Opposition in the 15th Lok Sabha.

Look at Modi, on the other hand. He was guilty of leading the state when the worst-ever anti-Muslim riots took place. That issue is still ongoing and may take many more years to settle even as Rahul gets ready to take on Modi in the post-Advani era.

Leaders like Nitish Kumar and Sharad Pawar and the Left parties will surely remain relevant in Indian politics, but in the 24x7 television-era, it is personality-based politics that hogs public attention, and Modi will be difficult to ignore.

Rahul is the heir of India's most powerful family, whereas, in spite of Modi's tremendous exposure in the public view, we still don't know his parents' names.

Rahul, technically speaking, is a Parsi because his grandfather was a Parsi, but at his father's funeral, Rahul was performing all the Hindu rites. Today, for all practical purposes, Rahul stands for decent secularism, while Modi, in contrast, is clearly projecting himself as a hardcore Hindu.

Modi belongs to the Ghanchi community, which is listed in Gujarat as a Other Backward Caste. Of course, he underplays his caste and arguably he has no political use for it, either. He is most at ease addressing roti-kapda-makaan issues.

Modi is brash and often his one-liners can be couched in a harsh idiom, but his language is not difficult to understand. And his most critical difference with Rahul is that somehow, in spite of his harsh image and his controversial political aura, he instills confidence in his listeners that he will be able to deliver far more than ten paisa out of every rupee spent in India's villages.

The day Modi wriggles out of the shadows of the Gujarat riots, the real battle with Rahul Gandhi will be joined. Till then, Rahul is taking a five-star excursion into the hurly-burly of Indian politics.

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Sheela Bhatt