RG's Role As TV Anchor Underscores An Armchair Politician

My tweet about Rahul Gandhi's new-found penchant for on-camera chats with renowned economists, industrialists, etc. has elicited a wide response.

Is Rahul, I wondered, testing a new career option as television anchor? Or reinventing himself after the routing by the Modi-Shah juggernaut in two consecutive Lok Sabha elections? His political status today remains indeterminate as after resigning and being incommunicado for months, he is back at the forefront of the Congress.

Aspiring politicians have been known to write books both to come to terms with themselves as also to create their public persona for political gain. John F. Kennedy, already a US senator, drew attention to his own war-time heroics by penning Profiles in Courage in 1956, which retold stories of eight United States senators as heroes in the Second World War. That began his journey to the White House; he used personal charisma and cited his family's sacrifice during the war in which his eldest brother died in a mid-air plane explosion. JFK too had a narrow escape when his boat sank.

In Dreams from My Father, written in 1995 after finishing Harvard Law, Barack Obama both reconciled with the past and prepared for the journey ahead. The Audacity of Hope, written in 2006, when already a senator, became his pathway to national fame as a charismatic new voice, particularly when Oprah Winfrey endorsed it.

Rahul Gandhi approaches the process in reverse. He also went to Harvard but inexplicably transferred to Rollins College, Florida, comparable to someone transferring from an elite Delhi college to one in rural India. Ivy League US universities teach students to think, articulate, measure their strengths and weaknesses. They learn to identify their purpose in life and acquire skills to achieve that.

The unexpected victory of the UPA in 2004 opened an opportunity for Rahul Gandhi. But like late Prime Minister Chandra Shekhar, he seemed to think that only prime minister-ship befitted him. Ideally, he should have interned as Minister of State in the Prime Minister's Office and learnt under Dr Manmohan Singh how the government functioned. Then, as General Secretary in-charge of a state like Haryana, he should have spent time studying problems of rural India. Periodic forays to Amethi, surrounded by supplicants and insulated by the SPG, cannot be seen as a substitute for hands-on experience in dealing with a state and its Chief Minister. Finally, he should have joined the cabinet, ideally handling developmental portfolios and then gone onto the Planning Commission under Montek Singh. All this should have been done by 2009.

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Congress leader Rahul Gandhi (File photo)

Instead, he expended energy creating a parallel power structure allegedly to bring revolutionary and drastic change in the party and the nation. But post-9/11 in 2001 and the 2008 financial crisis, the world was changing with its fulcrum shifting away from the socialist, liberal order. In the west, as Francis Fukuyama explains in his new book Identity, the social democratic left reached a dead end as the goals of a welfare state met the reality of fiscal constraints and globalisation hollowing out manufacturing jobs in developed nations. In India, after the 2008 global crisis, GDP plummeted to under 4%, rising to 8% in the next two years before plummeting again in 2010-11. From 2009 to 2012, Pranab Mukherjee was Finance Minister, apparently installed by the Congress leadership to constrain Dr Manmohan Singh's liberalising instincts. The Congress's old formula of subsidies and handouts now confronted a slowing economy, corruption in UPA II, regressive policies like retrogressive taxes and a fatigue with terrorism and Pakistan. The path was opening for the rise of a populist-nationalist using religion to sell to insecure masses visions of greatness and "Achhe Din".

This was not unique to India. President Vladimir Putin's rise in Russia and President Recep Erdogan in Turkey overturning the secularism of founder Kamal Ataturk were signs of resurgent forces of nationalism and religion. Multiculturalism in Europe and US, combined with stagnant incomes and widening disparities in each nation, were creating the space for rabble-rousing politicians to claim space. PM Narendra Modi stepped into the developing Indian vacuum. Rahul Gandhi had no answer to that in 2014. In 2019, he played into PM Modi's hands by making the election about him with his slogan "Chowkidar chor hai". PM Modi on the other hand was making it about the defence of the motherland with Balakot as a loud and clear signal. Unwisely, Rahul Gandhi tried soft Hindutva by visiting temples and proclaiming his faith loudly. None of that worked because the nature of the challenge was not understood.

So, what is Rahul's game plan? He needs a narrative to sell to the nation, not borrowed wisdom. Fukuyama opines that "An example were India's founders Gandhi and Nehru, who built on an existing "idea of India" that would incorporate that society's extremely diverse population.". It is this credal idea that needs to be posited against BJP-Modi's use of nationalism and religion. The US presidential election today is a battle last fought between forces espousing two visions of US during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln defended the idea in the Declaration of Independence that "all men are created equal". George Floyd's killing by the police and the riots in US revive that debate. As did the plight of migrants in India.

The question lingers - where was Rahul Gandhi for days on end when common man's suffering played out? Politics is the art of capturing public imagination at those inflection points. Interviews with economists and other personalities are hardly sufficient.

(The writer is a former ambassador to Iran.)

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