WHAT is the point of Rahul Gandhi? The 42-year-old scion of the Gandhi dynasty, which has long dominated India’s ruling party, is still the most plausible prime ministerial candidate for Congress at the looming 2014 election. In advance of that, possibly within weeks, he may get some new party post (some talk of a “vice presidency”) or possibly a government job (as rural affairs minister, perhaps?). A cabinet reshuffle is awaited, with the washed-out monsoon session of parliament swirling down the drain.
Promoting Mr Gandhi now would in theory make sense for Congress. He has long been presumed the successor-in-waiting to Sonia Gandhi, his mother and the party’s president. He needs time to start showing some skills as a leader before campaigning starts in 2014. And for as long as Mr Gandhi does not rise, it is hard for other relative youngsters to be promoted without appearing to outshine him. That has left Congress looking ever older and more out of touch.
But he has long refused to take on a responsible position, preferring to work on reorganising Congress’s youth wing, and leading regional election efforts, both with generally poor results. The problem is that Mr Gandhi has so far shown no particular aptitude as a politician, nor even sufficient hunger for the job. He is shy, reluctant to speak to journalists, biographers, potential allies or foes, nor even to raise his voice in parliament. Nobody really knows what he is capable of, nor what he wishes to do should he ever attain power and responsibility. The suspicion is growing that Mr Gandhi himself does not know.
The latest effort to “decode” Mr Gandhi comes in the form of a limited yet rather well written biography by a political journalist, Aarthi Ramachandran. Her task is a thankless one. Mr Gandhi is an applicant for a big job: ultimately, to lead India. But whereas any other job applicant will at least offer minimal information about his qualifications, work experience, reasons for wanting a post, Mr Gandhi is so secretive and defensive that he won’t respond to the most basic queries about his studies abroad, his time working for a management consultancy in London, or what he hopes to do as a politician.
Mrs Ramachandran’s book—along with just about every other one about the Gandhi dynasts—is thus hampered by a lack of first-hand material on its subject. Mr Gandhi can only be judged by his actions, his rare and halting public utterances, and the opinions of others who work near him. Given that limitation, she does a decent job: sympathetically but critically analysing his various efforts. She concludes that his push to modernise the youth organisation of Congress as if it were an ailing corporation, applying management techniques learned from Toyota, were earnest and well-meaning but ultimately doomed to fail. “Brand” Rahul, she suggests convincingly, is confused. A man of immense privilege, rising only because of his family name, struggles to look convincing when he talks of meritocracy.
The overall impression of Mr Gandhi from Mrs Ramachandran’s book is that of a figure who has an ill-defined urge to improve the lives of poor Indians, but no real idea of how to do so. He feels obliged to work in politics, but his political strategies are half-baked, and he fails to develop strong ties with any particular constituency. He has tried to disavow the traditional role of a Gandhi (which would pose him as a Western-educated member of the elite with a near-feudal style of concern for the masses) preferring to pitch himself as a man ready to drink the dirty water of village peasants, and to eat food among the most marginalised of society. But his failure to follow up on such gestures (and many others), with policy or prolonged interventions to help a particular group, suggests a man who strikes an attitude but lacks skills in delivering real change—either as election results, or social improvement.
Part of the problem is presumably the coterie of advisers who surround Mr Gandhi. Western-educated, bright and eager to cosset their leader within a very small bubble, they appear unready for the messy realities of Indian politics: the shady alliances that are required to win elections; the need to strike deals with powerful regional figures who increasingly shape national politics; the importance of crafting a media strategy in an era of cable TV news. More basically, they seem not to have developed any consistent views on policy. What does Mr Gandhi stand for: more liberal economic reforms; defensive nationalism; an expansion of welfare? Instead they prefer to focus on tactics. Perhaps because of their poor advice, their man too often looks opportunistic and inconsistent.
Opportunities have presented themselves to Mr Gandhi in the past couple of years. One was the Anna Hazare anti-corruption movement, of last year and this, when young, urban, middle-class voters, in the main, expressed rage at huge scandals overseen by the elderly folk who run Congress and their coalition allies. Mr Hazare’s campaign successfully drew on their anger, yet it was a halting, confused movement. Mr Gandhi might have intervened at some point, and tried himself to tap into public anger over corruption and inequality, and drawn some of the sting of the Hazare camp’s efforts.
Or, when Mrs Gandhi was absent, being treated abroad for a serious illness (rumoured to have been cervical cancer), he might have taken charge and confronted the anti-graft campaigners. He could at least have set out evidence for how the government was tackling graft, claimed credit for the government’s introduction of a right-to-information act, and lauded the fact that suspect politicians had been arrested and (temporarily) put in jail. Instead he flunked the test in hiding, not daring to speak out, other than in one ill-advised intervention in parliament.
Another opportunity of sorts was to energise Congress in state elections. The failure of the campaign led by Mr Gandhi in Uttar Pradesh (UP) early in 2012 is briefly but convincingly assessed in the biography. Congress did worse in the state during the assembly elections than it had in the 2009 general election. Mr Gandhi led the party to a humiliating fourth place, even doing dismally in constituencies where the Gandhis have long been local MPs.
Perhaps he was doomed to fail from the start (voters did not think Congress could win in the assembly elections, so did not see a reason to “waste” their votes). But his methods—poor public speaking, a failure to understand how particular castes and religious groups would act, weak connections to local organisers—did not help. The main mistake, in retrospect, may have been that he invested so much of himself in that particular poll. But similar efforts, in Bihar and Kerala, in recent years, brought similar results.
Since the poll in UP Mr Gandhi has made little impact on Indian politics. That would change quickly if he is indeed promoted to a higher position and takes on a bigger role. But the growing impression of the man—certainly the one promoted by Mrs Ramachandran’s “Decoding Rahul Gandhi”—is of a figure so far ill-prepared to be a leading politician in India.
Just possibly, therefore, this is the moment for Congress to dare to think of something radical: of reorganising itself on the basis of policies, ideas and a vision for how India should develop, and not on a particular dynasty that seems, after various iterations, to be getting less and less useful. Mrs Ramachandran’s book does not touch on this thought, but it is high time for the powerful within Congress to think about it.
The preceding book review was originally titled “The Rahul Problem” and appeared in the Economist on 10SEP12.