Rahul Gandhi's political journey

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Rahul Gandhi's political journey
New DelhiRahul Gandhi is now the official number 2 of the Congress, designated vice-president and with only his mother, Sonia Gandhi, as his boss. The elevation came after months of anticipation and years of clamour from an adoring Congress, a party hard-wired to expect generations of Nehru-Gandhis to lead it.
 
So ever since he made his political debut nine years ago, there has been a growing chorus in the rank and file of India's oldest party demanding that Mr Gandhi, who represents the fourth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family in politics in Independent India, to take on a greater role in the party and government. In Jaipur, as the party met to devise its strategy for the 2014 general elections, it reached a fevered pitch.

Mr Gandhi's elevation was inevitable; Congress leaders admitted it was just a matter of when he was ready to accept the "bigger role." He is the great grandson of India's first Prime Minister, the grandson of its first woman Prime Minister, the son of its youngest Prime Minister and also of the party's longest-serving chief, Sonia Gandhi. Congressmen expect him to head the party and be India's Prime Minister one day. Among the loudest demands in Jaipur this weekend, was that he be declared the party's candidate for Prime Minister in 2014.
 
Rahul Gandhi was born in Delhi on June 19, 1970 to Rajiv and Sonia Gandhi, their first child. He grew up in the non-political part of the family. Rajiv, his father, a commercial pilot, was not Indira Gandhi's intended political heir; his uncle, Sanjay Gandhi was. But Sanjay Gandhi died in a plane crash in 1980, forcing a reluctant Rajiv Gandhi to enter politics. Just four years later, in 1984, Indira Gandhi's  assassination would propel him to the forefront of the Congress and see him become India's youngest Prime Minister at age 40.

Twenty years later, Rahul Gandhi, then 34, was another reluctant entrant into the political fray. Mr Gandhi first fought the Lok Sabha elections in 2004, contesting from the traditional family constituency of Amethi, which his father had once held. As he campaigned, Amethi embraced him warmly, fondly making comparisons between father and son. The people of Amethi had no doubt then that they were sending India's future Prime Minister to Parliament.   

In an electoral upset, the Congress wrested power that year from the BJP-led NDA and has not let go since. In the nine years of UPA rule, there was much speculation every few months that Rahul Gandhi would join government or accept a fancy designation within the party. But he only became one of the party's general secretaries in September 2007 and accepted charge of the Indian Youth Congress and National Students Union of India (NSUI).

His supporters insist that he must be credited with initiating reforms in the party -- such as elections to the youth Congress, corporate-style interviews for selection to the party, and pushing for democratisation of the Congress party.

KJ Rao, a former Election Commission observer, says, "He stood by his words, when he said that no person with a criminal background would be allowed to contest elections in the Youth Congress and NSUI."

But there have been persistent question marks over Mr Gandhi's ability to translate his personal charisma and ideas for the party into votes when it matters.  He chose winning back Uttar Pradesh (UP) - once a Congress stronghold and where it has been out of power for a long while - as the centre-piece of his electoral agenda. He made several high-profile visits to the homes of Dalits in the state to win their support. He even took then British foreign secretary David Miliband on one of his rural night-stays in UP. But, in both 2007 and 2012, he was unable to help the Congress post significant gains.

In 2012, in fact, the Congress got four seats less than it did in 2007, winning just 28 out of the 404, despite the much-touted 'Rahul factor'. Another young leader, Akhilesh Yadav, rode a tidal wave of support for his Samajwadi Party to become Chief Minister. 

Rahul Gandhi took the blame squarely on the chin. He made a rare appearance before television cameras and said, "I led the campaign from the front, and the responsibility for the loss lies with me." He then turned and walked away, his arm around his younger sister and staunchest supporter, Priyanka Gandhi.

UP was not Mr Gandhi's first electoral misadventure. In the 2010 Bihar Assembly elections, Mr Gandhi famously urged the Congress to fight alone, without alliances. The Congress won just four seats in a 243-seat Assembly. His political rivals smirked, questioning his political acumen and ability to deliver electoral success for the party.

Nitish Kumar, the Bihar chief minister, ridiculed Mr Gandhi: "He wants to become the prime minister of India. First let him at least become the chief minister of a state. Let him learn governance." Senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley said, "Our opponents think that elections can be fought and won only on the basis of the charisma of families."

The Congress defended him stoutly. Minister of External Affairs Salman Khurshid had then said, "Mr Rahul Gandhi came into the campaign with an attitude of courage. He said, 'I am going there to build the Congress,' and not necessarily to fight and win an election. It was too early to fight and win an election."

He has faced much criticism also on being reticent about sharing is views on crucial issues. Most recently, he was panned for his belated and bland statement following the brutal gang-rape of a medical student in Delhi in December 2012. The man whom the Congress calls its young face could not connect with the youth who took to the streets of Delhi by the thousands to protest the incident and the government's incompetent handling of its aftermath. His 66-year-old mother's simple but powerful appeal on the same day made many compare the response of the two leaders.

But Congress veterans and young guns alike say they are sure Mr Gandhi is the man to galvanise the party and lead it to a third straight victory in the Lok Sabha elections slated for next year. They credit him with promoting young faces in the Congress and his close aides say he has detailed political knowledge and is a practised backroom operator. Upon his elevation, Corporate Affairs Minister Sachin Pilot said, "It has energised the party workers throughout the nation. We will go to the next Lok Sabha election with a renewed vigour now. Rahul will be a unifying force for Congress."

Political observers say that there will be no overnight transformation in the Congress thanks to Mr Gandhi's ascent to the no. 2 position. "Mrs Sonia Gandhi is, by temperament, cautious and wants to accommodate senior, established leaders. Rahul, of course, wants to promote more of his contemporaries... for a few years we will see a Congress that has both the old and the new," political scientist Zoya Hasan told NDTV.

Mr Gandhi, a bachelor, was educated in India and in the US and has worked in London. In his political avatar, he favours a white kurta pyjama with sports shoes and often sports a stubble or sometimes even a full beard. Till some years ago, he was spotted sometimes racing a motorcycle in Delhi with his brother- in-law Robert Vadra, much to the chagrin of those charged with his security.

They have often also been stretched as Mr Gandhi, who has the highest-level security, has slipped into crowds of people and mingled with them. He rode pillion on a motorcycle one early morning to reach the site of farmers' protests in Bhatta-Parsaul village in Uttar Pradesh. Or another time, got into a local train in Mumbai to reach the venue of a political meet.  

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