A Scion Rises in India: How Rahul Gandhi Can Turn into a Political Success

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Parivartan Sharma / Reuters

Rahul Gandhi speaks with the media in New Delhi on March 6, 2012

Few in New Delhi have ever seen more of Rahul Gandhi then they’ve seen this week. The five-o’ clock shadow of the young political scion adorns billboards throughout India’s capital, heralding his anointment on Sunday as the Congress Party’s new Vice President. That the 42-year-old was being groomed to lead the party alongside his Italian-born mother and party president Sonia Gandhi has been a foregone conclusion for years in India. But as he slid into position for what is bound to be a grueling campaign ahead of national elections in 2014, the speech he gave at a party powwow in Jaipur this weekend was a rare and emotional commitment to the path that was laid out for him when he was born into India’s greatest political family. “The Congress Party is now my life. The people of India are my life,” Gandhi said. “And I will fight for the people of India and for this party. I will fight with everything I have.”

It is going to be a tough one. It has been a tumultuous couple of years for the current Congress-led government, bookended by massive anticorruption protests in early 2011 and the recent wave of demonstrations over women’s rights after a brutal gang rape in New Delhi. In between, the Congress-led coalition has faced concerns at home and abroad over the health of the nation’s economy as GDP growth has dipped below 6%, and long periods of so-called policy paralysis in which a fractious Parliament spent more time bickering than passing the many laws that would bring economic and social reform the country needs. Where should Gandhi begin to convince voters that Congress is still the party to be running the country?

(MORE: In Search of a New India)

Luckily for him — or not — people in the capital have a thought or two about that. And the dominant theme in the chatter about the best move he can make to win voters over is pretty simple: speak up. After hearing the intensely private Gandhi reflect personally on his complicated upbringing and relationship with power, many in India want to hear more about what the man who could be the country’s next Prime Minister thinks — a lot more. Three tips for the new Veep.

1. Get on TV

One of the reasons why Gandhi’s ascension captured so much attention this week — it was not exactly a surprise, after all — is that everybody wanted to hear what, exactly, he would say. Despite his activity and visibility within his party — he recently, for instance, orchestrated a Cabinet reshuffle in which he moved a few young(ish) Congress colleagues into ministerial posts — an oft heard critique of Congress’ new No. 2 is that he does not appear in or speak in public enough. “There is a widespread perception that he is not serious,” says Swapan Dasgupta, a journalist and conservative commentator in New Delhi. “Where is Rahul Gandhi? What does this man stand for, and what are his views on the questions that are preoccupying India?”

Gandhi raised several of those questions in his first speech as Vice President. He highlighted the problem of the over-centralization of power in India. He talked about the brazenness of corruption in the country, women’s rights and alienated youth who are “excluded from the political class,” watching from the sidelines. It’s a tricky task: promising big changes from within a party and system that in large part created him. “He’s saying, ‘I am beginning with a clean slate … I am something different,'” says Dasgupta. To win voters, he will need to spend more time in front of them, digging deeper into some of the big ideas he touched on in his sweeping acceptance speech and talking in real terms about how to solve India’s challenges at a structural level. Part of convincing voters that Congress can lead a more functional coalition next time will mean communicating that the party leadership knows what people are worried about and is ready to do something about it.

(MORE: India: Gandhi’s Congress Party Slammed in State Election)

2. Get on Twitter

Rahul Gandhi may be on Twitter, but if he is, he is not sending out regular tweets in any official capacity, which isn’t exactly what one might expect from a man who has been so vocal about getting youth more involved in politics in India. Demographically, India is one of the youngest countries in the world — 70% of the population is under 35 — and those hundreds of millions of voters are currently governed by a group of much, much older politicians. The miles-wide gap inherent in that situation was on stark display in the protests immediately following what has come to be known as the “Delhi gang rape.” Young demonstrators quickly got organized on social media and showed up by the thousands in the heart of New Delhi to protest the lack of safety for women in the capital. The sudden and intense display of outrage on the streets of the capital took the government off guard, and leaders’ sluggish initial response added fuel to the fire.

It makes perfect sense for a young, photogenic Gandhi to be Congress’ choice to try to close the gap between India’s youth and the government. Raheel Khursheed, director of communications for Change.org in India, says both the anticorruption protests of 2011 and the recent protests were “God-sent opportunities” that “would have been ideal for [Gandhi] to come in and get a dialogue going” with young voters. Gandhi did offer his condolences and call on the nation to reflect after the crime, but he did not seize the moment in any big way or publicly demonstrate solidarity with the youth who were out on the streets. “The younger generation of Congress leaders needs to be more open and answerable to their electorate and their demands,” Khursheed says. An easy and powerful way Gandhi could do this, he says, is to help digitize India’s democracy and open the lines of communication between voters and lawmakers through, for instance, Twitter, or by guaranteeing government review of digital petitions that collect a set number of signatures. By taking a lead in social media himself, Khursheed says, Gandhi could help in “creating a situation where the state is more responsive to [people's] demands … This is really where Rahul Gandhi can take a positive step forward.”

(PHOTOS: Indians Protest the Arrest of Anna Hazare)

3. Jump into the Fray

Rahul Gandhi, in addition to the various roles he has held within his party, has been an MP for more than eight years for the district of Amethi in Uttar Pradesh. His recent participation as a lawmaker, however, has not offered much insight into the direction he would like to see the country go. According to PRS Legislative Research, a Delhi-based organization that tracks the performance of India’s Parliament and its members, Gandhi has only participated in one parliamentary debate in the time since the current government formed in 2009. The average number of times MPs from across India have participated in debates in the same time frame is 30.1. Gandhi has never raised a question during this time, compared with a national average of 235 questions per lawmaker, and he has only attended 41% of the sessions, compared with the average of 77%.

As a result, voters don’t hear as much as they could about where he stands on many of the hotly debated issues being discussed in Parliament. “One of the attributes of a leader is for him to be able not only to articulate and take a position but also to carry people with him,” says C.V. Madhukar, founder and director of PRS. That could very well be happening behind the closed doors of Congress meetings, he acknowledges. “But it could be useful for the world at large to know what his positions are on various issues — and what better to place to articulate them than in Parliament?” Anybody who has watched India’s MPs get into a verbal scrum can’t exactly blame him. But then again, it is his job, and voters will be looking to him now more than ever for cues as to where his leadership might take them.

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15 comments
aamaadmi
aamaadmi

Rahul gandhi talking of progress is like Sunny leone talking of Virginity . utter shame. 42 year old and still considered a boy , search for rahul gandhi caught with drugs with his columbian gf. utter shame to humanity and india specifically . he goes to poor peole and shows he is helping them when they are barefoot working on stones and he standing next to them  is in his nikes and hanky covering his mouth , just to be captured on photo that he is helping them in their work. HYPOCRITE

RajuCharles
RajuCharles

Mr.Rahul Gandhi is the hope of India,like his father Rajiv Gandhi! Rahul's eyes are fixed on a New Republic of India,future of India look bright and beautiful!
The poor people of India must unite and stand behind Rahul Gandhi,this is your opportunity to make your voice heard! Please vote for Rahul! Vote for India,not for caste and religion.India is the most disgusting corrupt country in the World! Mr.Clean Gandhi can stand up with China,Russia and USA! The World will pay more attention to India under his leadership!
I Love India!
Truly,
Raju Charles
Takoma Park!

SanMann
SanMann

This little prince imagines that he can inherit a billion Indians as if they were his family heirloom. He lives sequestered from the public, only hearing the words of the sycophants surrounding him, and imagines that this is the real India. He's going to receive a rude shock when he tries to run for election - provided his corrupt ruling party doesn't try to rig the elections. They have a history of doing nasty things, like the 1975-77 Emergency, where they imposed a martial law dictatorship on the country for 2 years. They've still never apologized for that act - being from the Congress Party means never having to say you're sorry.

AnandGautamPassi
AnandGautamPassi

IN RECENT SURVEY , THIS INFANT GOT 8%  PEOPLE WANTING HIM TO BE INDIAN PRIME MINSTER

pi_kumar
pi_kumar

This article is so bogus, Rahul Gandhi is the biggest hypocrite. Perhaps the American author should get a better understanding of ground realities in India before writing up such articles. Where was Rahul Gandhi when the people of India were protesting over a recent gang rape on cold winter nights ? Where was he when Anna Hazare was protesting for Lokpal Bill. I feel the author is  completely ignorant as far as Indian politics is concerned and what the ground realities are in India. http://shilps882.blogspot.com/2011/05/curious-case-of-rahul-gandhi-nitin.html?spref=fb

silkyman
silkyman

Dear Rahul, to refresh your memory, you were arrested/detained by the

FBI the BOSTON Airport in September 2001.
You were carrying with you $ 1,60,000 in Cash. You couldn't explain why
you were carryin g so much Cash.
(Incidentally He was with his Columbian girlfriend Veronique Cartelli,
ALLEGEDLY, the Daughter of Drug Mafia. 9 HOURS he was kept at the
Airport. Later then freed on the intervention of the then Prime Minister
Mr. Vajpayee.. FBI filed an equivalent of an FIR in US and released him.
When FBI was asked to divulge the information, by Right/Freedom to
Information Activists about the reasons Rahul was arrested ...
FBI asked for a NO OBJECTION CERTIFICATE from Rahul Gandhi.
So Subramaniyam Swami wrote a Letter to Rahul Gandhi, " If you have
NOTHING to HIDE, Give us the Permission"
HE NEVER REPLIED!)
Why did that arrest not make Headlines Rahul? You could have gone to the
Media and told, "I am ashamed to call myself an INDIAN?".



JoJo1
JoJo1

Going by Rahul's track record, all that the people of Indian can expect is more platitudes from him.  The Congress Party, like every other politicial party, is full of arrogant, corrupt, selfish and aging leeches who would be loath to let go of their hold on power. India needs an Agean stable-like cleansing of its political, bureaucratic, judicial and legal enforcement systems. Nothing less will do. A naive Rahul will only be a puppet in the hands of the adroit string-pullers. His good intentions will probably last less than a year. One can only hope the people of India have had their gutful of incompetent dynastic leaders.

captainjohann
captainjohann

I remember the scene when Mr.Nehru started jumping into the crowd at Delhi when communal violence was happenning and restore calm.Sonia has injected physical self preserver into Rahul that he rarely comes into crowd amd show leadership.If at all Dynasty is to be given leadership then Priyanka has shown that type of jumping into the crowd without fear.Ut the most Rahul will be giant fixer as also the cabal which is controlling BJP(as the recent election of BJP president has shown where popular leaders like goas Prikker, Raman singh, and other popular leaders had no say while Delhi Mafia elected the leader which suits the Big business which controls both the national parties as well as the Media. 

bhanu
bhanu

@cd47 LOL! TrollLOL! Do u know the meaning of abhor ? HAHAHAH! Are u saying Congress hates dynastic rule? Are u ? I mean Congress has been the epitome of nepotism and dynastic rule since the so called freedom in 1947 ! 

Sat_Jeev
Sat_Jeev

There is nothing of substance in this article. Rahul is a moron and India knows him as such. He is nothing more than a comic figure here. CONgress party has nothing to offer hence they put up such shows. He does not speak much because he would not know what to say. He is an illiterate and of very low IQ. By the way he is not an Indian as he holds Italian passport and his name is Raul Vinchi. 

cd47
cd47

We don't need to be judgemental yet. Give the guy a chance to make good on the promises he has made. There is however, a drawback to his persona and that is a lack of charisma. There is a school boyish appearance in manner and speech and very likely it represents a similar level of cerebral function as well. Since charisma is what Indians crave (we never really got rid of Royalty and continue to bow to families with monarchic tendencies- the Shiv Sena's heads being a prime example. Of the very thing the Party abhors in public---dynastic rule) Indians would have been thrilled had it been Rahul Gandhi's sister Priyanka who had been taken into the Party. She is lovely and has enormous charisma and seems at once regal and one with the people. Pity she has chosen to stay aloof.

Christopher Dawson.


nayakan88
nayakan88

An excellent article.  You have touched on the main weaknesses in Rahul Gandhi.  It may be also worth pointing out why he has been promoted to this position.

First, to amplify what you have written.  Yes, Mr. Gandhi has been conspicuous by his absence at the most significant events in the last 8 years - the latest example, as you point out, being the Anna Hazare agitation and the Delhi gangrape.  He also seems to lack an important quality of a successful leader - to be able to think on his feet.  Charitable explanations of his vanishing act at highly charged and significant moments are usually that he is "enigmatic," but the truth may be far simpler and mundane --- that he simply doesn't have any good or original ideas to contribute.  He does not have a leader's vision or touch to seize an opportunity; does not have an oratorial eloquence to charm; and does not have the boldness to say something truly of consequence.  

His "acceptance speech" at the recent Congress "Chintan Shivir" is a perfect example of the problems that he possesses.  The speech was something you would expect from a 10th grade schoolboy who talks about what is wrong with this country.  At that level, it would be a brilliant speech.  Unfortunately, this comes from the person who has access to the highest levers of power.  Since 2004, he has been an active member of the ruling party, with direct, unhindered access to the president of the ruling party (his mother, Sonia Gandhi) and unimaginable influence in decision-making, should he choose to make any decisions (Congress party workers have been falling over themselves in order to fulfill his every wish and command).  So, for a person with that kind of power and influence to talk like an outsider and say that various things are wrong with the functioning of the party and the country is disingenuous.  If things were not right, he had the last 8 years to fix them, rather then publicly complain about how bad they are.  Who is he really blaming?  His mother?  Or are he and his mother "naked emperors" who have no control over their own party?  That thesis is hard to believe.

Now as to why he was promoted. In addition to his problems that you have mentioned in your article and I have mentioned above, there is also the problem of performance.  Almost every campaign that Mr. Gandhi has spearheaded for the Congress has ended in disaster.  He tried to revive the Congress party's fortunes in the Bihar elections; they ended up with less than half their previous seat tally.  He tried to rally the Congress in the largest state, Uttar Pradesh, and was touted as the game-changer that would bring the Congress back to power in UP after 23 years - but the Congress failed to make any significant impact in the power equation.  Power did change, but from one regional party to another.  His latest misadventure was in the western state of Gujarat, where the Congress was hoping to defeat or at least greatly reduce the number of seats of the incumbent BJP government under its highly successful and charismatic chief minister, Narendra Modi.  In spite of all the rhetoric, the Congress could not shake Modi, and now he appears poised to make a challenge against the Congress at the national level.

So why the promotion?  Simply because things are so desperate for the Congress right now.  Things certainly look very bleak for the Congress right now; if it were not for the constant infighting within the main opposition party, the BJP, poll pundits would have completely written off the Congress in the 2014 elections.  It is a desperate attempt to inject fresh enthusiasm in the party and the populace for the ruling party that the Congress is bringing in Rahul Gandhi as a last-ditch effort.  But a leopard cannot change its spots and, if Mr. Gandhi continues to act and react in the way he has done in the past 8 years (and we have no reason to believe otherwise) the result could be even more disastrous for the Congress than if they had just relied on Mrs. Sonia Gandhi and their time-tested leaders, even in spite of all the scandals they are facing.  Nothing is more demoralizing for an army or a party than a leader who doesn't know his mind.  This elevation of Mr. Gandhi could end up being a godsend for the opposition because of the numerous chinks in his armour.

I have written a humorous article on the promotion of Mr. Gandhi, comparing it to a corporate annual performance review.  Your readers might find it entertaining: http://bit.ly/WhVFnn

NandaKishoreN
NandaKishoreN

@RajuCharles U seem to have all praises for Mr.Gandhi.  Are these enough, or do U think U cud have included many more.

NandaKishoreN
NandaKishoreN

@cd47 Don't need to be judgemental  YET?  reminds me of a dialogue in some TV serial ... "don't know which word should be stressed in that statement.  He is a LOSER.  He talks about elitism, and that's a big JOKE (in CAPITALS).  The family's pet Party is taking all the BIG decisions about the people of INDIA keeping in mind their prospects of making THE Rahul Gandhi, the Prime Minister in 2014.  They give a damn about the people of India.

Today they remember the urban middle class?  They talk about controlling inflation to benefit the common man?  While they can't even continue with the subsidy on Diesel?  Increase in Diesel prices, how is the inflation going to reduce? 

Their GOVT belong can't think beyond "Rahul Gandhi" and "Stock Market".   

And Mr.@cd47 Dawson! bringing in Ma'am Priyanka Gandhi wouldn't solve the problems of India, wouldn't overnight repair the damaged GOODWILL of UPA and the Congress Party, thanks to its MORONIC and Selfish decisions, uncountable scams a Lethargic, voice-less PM who can't think beyond the Books of Economics.  They've ruined this country in the last 9 years.

Though she's criticized often about her ways at least Mrs.Indira Gandhi was a LEADER.  She had the GUTS to decide on things UPA Chair and her Family-Party keeps issued in cold-storage and thereby makes the lives of people MISERABLE.

And the secularism card has been swiped a LOT in the heat of Independence struggle, too long.  It's time CONGRESS-I recognizes that we HINDUS are also VOTERS and don't deserve to live like SECONDARY citizens in a country with 80% of the Hindu Population.  We too deserve the minimum privileges like the Christians enjoy in USA and other Western countries, if just the Congress-I stops playing VOTE-Bank politics.