Gandhi in name, not in deed

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 16 March, 2008, 12:00am

Rahul Gandhi is out to prove two things to two different groups: to the public, that he is a committed politician rather than just a lucky young man born with a famous last name; to the Congress party, that he can lead the troops into battle.

That is quite a challenge for the scion of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty variously known as the crown prince of the Congress party, the prime-minister-in-waiting and, in society magazines, the country's most eligible bachelor.

As he toured the dusty villages of Orissa, in eastern India, last week - a region so poor that desperate mothers sell their babies for the price of a chicken curry - Mr Gandhi, 37, strove to connect with ordinary countrymen and convince them that he can make a difference to their lives.

For the first time outside an election campaign, he addressed rallies in the blistering heat, endured teeth-loosening rides on crater-pocked roads, sat on string cots to chat with poor farmers and dined in mud huts with impoverished labourers.

Congress has dubbed his tour 'Discovery of India', and hopes that the member of parliament from Amethi will come out of his shell, start pressing the flesh and winning hearts and minds. He is, after all, the party's future prime ministerial candidate.

Ever since Mr Gandhi was named general secretary of the party and put in charge of the youth and student wings last September, Congress leaders have been hoping he would shed his reticence and adopt a higher profile.

They want him to move around the country, meet people, make speeches, inject enthusiasm into an ageing party and fire up the country's youth.

India is a young country. A staggering 51 per cent of its population of 1.1 billion is under 25 and two-thirds are under 35. Young voters matter. The moribund Congress, populated with geriatric leaders, needs energetic men and women to join it and take up the work.

It also needs their votes. Who better than the young Mr Gandhi, son of Congress president Sonia Gandhi, to be the new young face of the party?

Yet, Mr Gandhi is a reluctant politician. Shy, quiet, reserved and earnest, the heir apparent has remained resolutely low-key. Although he entered politics four years ago when he was elected MP for Amethi, in Uttar Pradesh, he has made little or no impact.

'There are other young men in the party who have shown much more talent and are much better speakers,' says analyst Inder Malhotra, who has written a biography of Mr Gandhi's grandmother, former prime minister Indira Gandhi.

'But such is the slave mentality of Congressmen towards the dynasty that these youngsters won't be allowed to perform lest they outshine Rahul.'

Analysts are surprised, in fact, that the party has taken so long to send Mr Gandhi off to acquaint himself with ordinary Indians. With midterm polls expected later this year, it's too late for him to do much now to shore up Congress' popularity among voters.

But every decision about Mr Gandhi is taken privately by his mother and elder sister, Priyanka. It's a family, rather than a party, affair. Congress leaders admit only in private that they are disappointed with his lacklustre performance since taking office.

The post of secretary general was meant to catapult him into the limelight and inject new life into the party. Instead, he remained as invisible as ever. 'Where is he?' party leaders used to grumble before he set off on the tour.

Instead of being in the public eye, Mr Gandhi was either in Japan with the Confederation of Indian Industry or away on holiday over Christmas. Either he was paragliding in Pune or accompanying his mother to the UN last October.

Even when Mr Gandhi has focused on politics, he has chosen to confine himself to his constituency. In some Congress party quarters, the fear is that the perception of him as a dilettante with shallow roots in India will become ineradicable.

'He has to prove himself now,' says political analyst Mahesh Rangarajan. 'It's a crucial moment for him. When he has campaigned for the party in the past, in Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat, his efforts have flopped. Now, he has to show that he can lead. He has to show that he's a fighter.'

As he toured Orissa in a kurta pyjama (a loose tunic and trousers) smiling his shy, dimpled smile and looking like an earnest student, the challenge before him seemed huge.

He is struggling to match the achievements of three generations of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. His great-grandfather, Jawaharlal Nehru, was independent India's first prime minister, while his grandmother and father Rajiv were both prime ministers.

All of them were deeply rooted in India. Rahul's image is different: he studied development economics at Trinity College, Cambridge, and worked for a global strategy consulting group in London for three years. His links with India seem somehow more tenuous. Even his girlfriend, Veronique, is South American.

That is one reason why many Congressmen would have preferred to have Priyanka as a future leader. Not only is she more charismatic, but she also comes across as somehow more 'Indian'. But Sonia chose her son, not her daughter, to lead the party.

Having been thrust into the position of Congress' saviour, Mr Gandhi tried to connect with Indians as he kicked off his tour in Kalahandi, one of the poorest regions of Orissa.

In this state, not a single symbol of the new India - shopping malls, coffee bars, multiplexes and Louis Vuitton bags - exists.

'I have never seen such poverty and underdevelopment in my life,' he told the large and enthusiastic crowd that had come to hear him. 'My father visited this area 23 years ago when he heard of starvation deaths, and I can see that not much has changed.'

Areas such as Kalahandi have been left out of India's new prosperity. Mr Gandhi told the crowds that 'two Indias' were developing, 'one having access to education, health and employment and another that was lagging behind'. He saw how little life had changed when he met Alka Mahapatre, a 39-year-old widow who had been forced by poverty to sell her five-year-old daughter to a childless couple for 4,000 rupees (HK$770). 'There is no food in my house. I have three other children to feed. Please help my son get a job or we will all starve,' Ms Mahapatre told Mr Gandhi.

As he spoke to other equally distressed Indians, Mr Gandhi wanted to know whether the government's numerous welfare schemes, intended to help the poorest of the poor, were working. It was a deliberate evocation of his father's legacy. On a visit to Kalahandi in 1985, Rajiv Ghandi had remarked that, of every rupee spent by the government to alleviate poverty, only 17 paise actually reached the poor. (There are 100 paise in a rupee.)

Echoing the same concerns, Mr Gandhi pressed the landless labourers he met at Tanmana village on whether his own government's flagship programme for rural India - a 'work for food' scheme - was helping them.

'He asked me how many days' work I'd got from the scheme,' labourer Hari Das says. 'We are meant to get 100 days but I got only 40. He said it was wrong, it wasn't enough and it wasn't working the way it should.'

On two occasions, Mr Gandhi showed his impulsive side when he threw aside security concerns and gave his battery of minders the slip.

Accompanied only by his personal bodyguards, he drove out late one night in a jeep through dense jungle to a poor family in Koraput village, where he shared their dinner and spent the night.

At Tanmana, where every single family lives below the poverty line, he also escaped from his security contingent and went off to see the work of an NGO that had improved sanitation and banned liquor in the village.

Everywhere he went, he made a point of meeting young Indians. He urged them to join politics to bring about change. He remarked that even in his own party, young members needed to be pushed to the front.

'In every party, including the Congress, I see that there is no space for the younger lot,' he said in Bhubaneshwar. 'I meet many young people who say they want to join politics. I would like to tell you that we want you to come forward and bring change.'

Mr Ghandi definitely has youth on his side. What has yet to emerge is an idea. 'He is a well-mannered young man who tries to say the right thing,' Mr Malhotra says. 'But so far, he hasn't come up with an idea that could get people excited.'

At the end of his four days in Orissa, Mr Gandhi began looking somewhat more relaxed in public and less nervous talking to the press. But no vision emerged from the speeches.

'The reality is that he has to take on other hardened, seasoned politicians and he hasn't shown an instinctive feel for politics,' Mr Rangarajan says. 'Being young is not enough on its own. He has to turn his youth into an advantage and he can only do that if he can tell people what he will do once he is in power.'

For the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Mr Gandhi is a godsend. Its leaders enjoy patronising him, calling him a bachcha (child).

'We have nothing to fear from someone who has not made a meaningful political statement in four years and can't even speak extempore,' BJP leader Arun Jaitley says.