Rahul Gandhi and the fear of failure

In a 2005 interview, he acknowledged this fear “around him” and that he needed to lose elections to learn.

Shivam Vij July 25, 2013
The writer is a journalist in Delhi whose work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor and The New York Times. He tweets @DilliDurAst

No Congress party members accuse Rahul Gandhi of being smart. Most people describe him as sincere, a polite way of saying he sounds immature. He can sound embarrassingly naive. By the time he leads his party into the 2014 elections, Rahul will have spent 10 years in politics — with very little to show for it. The nickname that online right-wingers have coined for him — Pappu — seems apt. However, even as a staunch critic of the Congress party, I think the world is unfair to Rahul. I think there’s something to be said about him, even at this low point in his career.

Firstly, Rahul Gandhi is at least conscious that he is a crown prince born with a silver spoon. It is not as if he does not have a dynastic sense of self-entitlement but, at least, he tries to hide it. Dynasty can breed tyrants — think of his uncle Sanjay Gandhi who thought he was king when his mother Indira imposed Emergency. The mother’s love for her son is also said to be Sonia Gandhi’s weakness but that hasn’t turned Rahul into a Sanjay. It is only luck whether a society gets a good prince or a bad prince.

The right-wing critics are right in criticising the Congress’ dynasticism in the first place, but it is not as if dynasticism is not practised in the BJP. How does the BJP explain poaching Sanjay Gandhi’s son Varun Feroze Gandhi? If the BJP is allowed to have a mother in the RSS then the Congress is also allowed to have a mother in the Gandhi family.

Rahul has till date given only one face-to-face on-record interview in 2005. He said he could have been prime minister at 25 if he wanted. The uproar over the statement led him to deny it, but Rahul was right. If he wants, he can be prime minister right now. Given that everybody agrees he is a fool, shouldn’t we be grateful to him for not exercising the option he was born into?

Rahul, instead, chose to rebuild the party in places from where it had been wiped out — particularly, the crucial state of Uttar Pradesh. Rahul chose to concentrate on improving the fundamentals instead of enjoying the fruits of power. Deserves a brownie point, no?

He did not succeed in this enterprise for two reasons. Firstly, you cannot rebuild or run a political party with modern management techniques. You can do so only by walking through the heat and dust of this land and becoming part of the lives of its people. The parties that are ruling Uttar Pradesh between them did just that. Rahul Gandhi only parachutes to a village to sleep one night. God knows who the gimmick fools.

Rahul is seen as a failure for being unable to build his party in Uttar Pradesh or even introduce inner party democracy in the Youth Congress, but to be fair both are Herculean tasks and I doubt if another Congress leader can achieve them. Rahul Gandhi deserves credit for trying despite knowing it’s nearly impossible. It would have been so much easier to be PM.

Public memory is short. People forget that in the 2009 general elections, Rahul overruled his colleagues and did not enter a pre-poll alliance with the Samajwadi Party, taking its tally of seats from UP from nine to 21 seats, surprising everyone including itself. I have attended Rahul Gandhi’s election rallies in UP and while his speeches don’t impress me, they do impress his audience. They like his spiel of being a different kind of politician, of not sounding power hungry and trying to understand them.

Rahul Gandhi’s problem is the fear of failure. In that 2005 interview, he acknowledged this fear “around him” and that he needed to lose elections to learn. And yet, he treads carefully for fear of making mistakes. This fear makes Rahul look like a reluctant politician who doesn’t put himself out there; and when he does, it backfires. He does not want to be prime minister because he likes his mother’s model of power without responsibility. Uneasy lies the head ...

I asked a Congressman why the party wasn’t bringing forward the smarter sibling, Priyanka. “Then what will happen to Rahul ji?” he asked.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 26th, 2013.

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