Congress scion Rahul Gandhi is a nice guy. He is polite, clearly well brought up, gentle, non-aggressive, nicely naive and as many of the young girls insist, even good-looking. ‘Cute’, one believes, is the appropriate word. He is the kind of chap parents would not mind their daughters bringing home, in fact, would love it. Given his close ties with his family, he is reputed to be a good ‘family man’ as Indians like to describe their menfolk.
But all these assets disappear from view and re-emerge as negatives when the vice-president of the Congress party speaks up on politics. And since he is a politician leading the oldest party of India and aspiring to be prime minister some day, his naivety turns into ignorance bordering on stupidity, his non-aggressive demeanor becomes a huge liability, his gentle smile becomes inane and vacant, and the persona that girls’ parents would embrace wholeheartedly becomes a personality that the electorate ridicules and is clearly not comfortable with.
Is the Congress party being unfair to the Nehru-Gandhi family by insisting on being led by it even when the current family is clearly inept for the job? Congress President Sonia Gandhi is visibly unhappy outside Delhi and rarely visits other parts of the country we know as India. Her daughter, Priyanka, excited Congress members with every appearance, with the media too frenetically examining the possibilities of her entry into active politics, but clearly, she is a teaser and is not going to take the plunge. Besides, her charisma has been tried out in Amethi and Rae Bareli and it has not really worked beyond a point.
But Rahul Gandhi seems to be the problem for the Congress. Not as a person of course, but as a politician. He tries very hard, and to be fair, has been actually trying to shed the image of reticence by reworking his speeches and relations with the media. His address at the meeting of the All India Congress Committee recently was seen as a great performance by his party used to ‘Rahul ji’s’ rather lacklustre, hesitant speeches. But the newfound enthusiasm dissipated rapidly when his media managers decided to launch him for an interview. The questions were not particularly difficult but appeared so because of the vague, hesitant and increasingly faulty answers.
Somehow those managing Rahul Gandhi overestimate him. If he wants to persist in politics, he and his advisers must realise that the good, ever-young image does not work for him. He has to change this to a more defining image of a decision-maker. If not, the Congress can sing a swan song for him and for itself as it will cease to exist without a Nehru-Gandhi leader at the helm. He needs to play more of the decisive man and less of the young boy. He has to get new speech writers, as the ‘my-family’s-sacrifices’ jargon has been overdone. Also, the ‘I- am-a-new-face’ jargon does not work either. For instance, he does not need to have been an adult in 1984 to know about the massacre of Sikhs — there is something called history, right? And he is no longer ‘new’ really; it is just that his prowess in the field has been so slow that he does not appear old in the job.
The Congress scion needs to take a position on issues. India has moved beyond what his advisers are willing to concede, with the young electorate responding only to direct stands and positions. Narendra Modi is able to make inroads because he appears to be speaking a direct language (although to wise old crows like us, that is not at all true), but Gandhi does not even give the appearance of doing so. He needs a speech written with his personality in mind perhaps, but one that is able to pinpoint and articulate issues clearly and categorically. He then has to be trained to ensure that he follows through without visibly blanching before an adverse reaction.
This does seem to be a tall order. And clearly, Rahul Gandhi has written himself out of these elections altogether. There seems to be a realisation within the Congress that it will not come to power and even if it does, it will be as a supporter and not the leader of a coalition. This is one of the reasons why it has extended support to the Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi. The Congress motto seems to have been reworked to better to be slightly in, than totally out.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 1st, 2014.
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