No longer reluctant, Rahul?
It’s been in the works for some time, but it looks like the fifth-generation Nehru family representative, Rahul Gandhi, is taking guard for his big moment ahead of the general elections in India next year.
After months, if not years of dithering, the grand old party, the Indian National Congress, announced on Saturday in Jaipur that 42-year-old Rahul would be the vice-president of the party, next in hierarchy to his mother and party chief Sonia Gandhi.
With Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expected to bow out after his second term in office in 2014, the mantle of government leadership, is likely to fall on Rahul, if and only if, the Congress manages to scrape the numbers’ barrel once again.
One still uses the word likely because the two-time member of the Lok Sabha from Amethi in Uttar Pradesh has been a reluctant politician, seen before key elections, but vanishing from the political scene soon after.
He’s “officially” been in politics since 2004, when he contested his father, the late Rajiv Gandhi’s Lok Sabha Amethi seat, and won from there. After nine years in politics, familiarisation tours across the country, India would like to get to know this 40-plus leader’s views on a range of issues, from sexual violence against women to foreign affairs.
We’ve also seen the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi model of governance, where government and political / party affairs have been neatly divided between the two leaders, who have shown quiet determination in making this power sharing arrangement work.
Rahul’s previous attempts at leading Congress party campaigns in Bihar and Uttar Pradesh haven’t been very successful and the party is still to re-establish itself as a force in these two key states which, between them, send 120 members to the 543-member Lok Sabha.
He’s been in the public eye intermittently, but has had few press or public interactions, where the young man, whose favourite pastime is described as “reading (history, sociology, international relations, development, management, biographies), playing chess and flying, could be questioned closely about his views on a range of issues.
For instance, he’s been totally missing from the public discourse following the brutal gang-rape and murder of a young girl in Delhi in mid-December, which has highlighted the general state of women’s insecurity in India, like never before in recent memory.
But, while his mother, Sonia, has spoken up time and again, the input from her son, Rahul, has been minimal. Young (and old) India would really like to know what he thinks needs to be done as the country hopes for a more equal society, where women’s rights would really be fundamental.
It’s a difficult country and people to deal with, with a variety and range of problems anyone would find a daunting challenge. But, if Rahul has to present a credible, acceptable and accessible face to the Indian people, especially the young at a time when 70 per cent of India’s population is below 35.
He can longer afford to make intermittent appearances on the political stage.
Speaking in Jaipur on Sunday afternoon after being appointed Congress Vice-President, Rahul said, “A young and impatient India is demanding a greater voice, and let me tell you they will not watch silently.”
In a rare exposition of his views, the Congress Vice-President said, “Until we start to respect and empower people, we cannot change anything in this country… all are closed systems, designed for mediocrity, mediocrity dominates.”
There’s little doubt that he will now be the cynosure of all political attention as the country moves towards elections, which must be held around May 2014. And, the media, which has come to believe that Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi will be his main rival in 2014, has already started comparing the two.
Modi, who won a hat-trick in the Gujarat state elections, was chief executive when hundreds of Muslims were killed following the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims in 2002. He remains a controversial figure, but has tried to woo Indian big business in a bid to gain acceptability as a leader beyond Gujarat.
The BJP itself has said nothing about who will lead the party into the 2014 elections, but Modi’s many, loud followers in cyberspace believe that it will be him leading the charge ahead of the Lok Sabha elections.
Be that as it may, Rahul Gandhi maybe a member of India’s first political dynasty, but he has a lot to prove before he can take over the reins of the governing establishment.
First and foremost, he must ensure that the Congress is within striking distance of retaining power in 2014.
Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.
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