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?

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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.

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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.”

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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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