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How Rahul Gandhi's clout is growing

Last updated on: November 5, 2009 09:00 IST

Image: Rahul Gandhi
Photographs: Rediff Archives

Sheela Bhatt explores and explains the Rahul Gandhi phenomenon and what it means for the Congress party and the nation's politics.

Last week in a single day Jairam Ramesh, Anand Sharma and Narayan Swami -- ministers and senior Congressmen -- visited 12, Tughlak Lane in New Delhi to see Rahul Gandhi, who is increasingly referred to as 'RG' in Congress circles.

More and more people from New Delhi and outside are seeking an audience with the young Congress general secretary. The 'dual centre of power' era of UPA-I is undergoing a transformation in UPA-II.

A new circle of power is emerging consisting of party President Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

In UPA-II, the troika presides over the destiny of a billion plus people without much opposition around them.

RG is involved in all major decisions

Image: Congress chief Sonia Gandhi with son Rahul
Photographs: B Mathur/Reuters
A young Congressman, who is a party functionary, told, "From deciding policies on climate change to the selection of candidates for elections, and even in deciding chief ministers and the new Cabinet, RG is actively involved."

When discussed with a senior Congressman Sam Pitroda's appointment in the Prime Minister's Office with the rank of Cabinet minister, he said, "That's RG's doing!" More and more ministers keep RG in the loop.

Soon after the Maharashtra assembly election, the battle for the chief ministership began among the Congress party's Maratha leaders. Union Industries Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh and outgoing Chief Minister Ashok Chavan were the main contenders. Top businessmen lobbied for their favourites. Deshmukh, a former chief minister, had strong support within the Congress Working Committee. But he lost out eventually. Congress leaders say RG tipped the scales in favour of the younger Chavan.

In UPA-II, barring the Trinmool Congress to some extent there are no political parties that wield power in New Delhi. The Left bloc is marooned in its contradictions and will take time to change.

The Bharatiya Janata Party is on a path of self-destruction. Sharad Pawar's Nationalist Congress Party has survived the Maharashtra poll, but in New Delhi the party, normally, goes along with the Congress. Without real pressure, the Congress is entering a golden period.

The legends around Rahul grow

Image: Rahul jogs to attend an election rally in Amritsar
Photographs: Munish Sharma/Reuters
Rahul Gandhi has enough political space and suitable time to grow and by all accounts of his party leaders he is not making too many mistakes.

Unlike his father Rajiv Gandhi or grandmother Indira Gandhi, there is no known coterie around him exploiting his growing clout. Kanishka Singh, his personal assistant, is the only way to reach him.

Congressmen have a penchant for overselling their leaders if they belong to the Nehru-Gandhi family.

After the 2009 election, one encountered a zeal among party cadres to push Rahul Gandhi onto a high pedestal. Only a solid political deity makes Congressmen comfortable and less fearful of losing power. Already, legends are being woven around RG on the basis of the party's surprisingly easy victory in the Lok Sabha election.

Stories abound about how Rahul goes jogging even at midnight, how he exercises. How he gets angry to see people doing wrong things. How polite he can be when he mingles with crowds.

His plans -- or one should say, lack of it so far -- to marry is the top subject of gossip amongst young Congressmen.

They quote Rahul's message: 'Rural development is Congress's development.' RG, says a young Congressman, copies Indira Gandhi's habit of "politics through messages." When Rahul says 'hi' to someone in a group, the rest of the members get the message that the guy is important to Rahul. Sometimes, he pats members of his team in public to send the message that he appreciates that person's work.

Congressmen keenly await Rahul's clout during the Youth Congress election in Uttar Pradesh early next year. In Tamil Nadu, his campaign brought 1.1 million new Youth Congress members.

Electoral success has done wonders for Rahul's image

Image: Rahul eats at a community kitchen after paying homage at the Golden Temple in Amritsar
Photographs: Munish Sharma/Reuters
In New Delhi, at the end of the day what matters is not money but votes that give you power.

Points out a Congressmen, "The win in 2009 is very important for Rahul. It came at the right time, just when he was building up his leadership and career."

A few months ago, Congress cadres, leaders, the media and critics believed his sister Priyanka had more charisma than RG. But the electoral success of 2009, which is not even credited to Rahul alone, is injecting second thoughts amongst his critics. A lot of debate had taken place about why Sonia Gandhi selected her son over her daughter to join the crisis-ridden party in March 2004.

"People think like Manmohan Singh, Rahul Gandhi is going to be proven a brilliant choice by Sonia Gandhi," says Rasheed Kidwai, Sonia Gandhi's biographer.

In his biography, Kidwai mentions that since June 1984, when the Indian Army stormed the Golden Temple, then prime minister Indira Gandhi was convinced that she was going to die, possibly a violent death.

In his book Sonia, A Biography, Kidwai writes 'She had been speaking to Rahul, who was 14 then, about funeral arrangements and telling him she had lived her life. Rahul was perhaps too young to understand, but in him Indira had found a perfect companion to share her inner thoughts. On one occasion Rahul reported Indira's conversation to father Rajiv. Rajiv had tears in his eyes but smiled faintly when Rahul told him that dadi had told him not to weep if such an occasion arose.'

Kidwai believes, probably in selecting Rahul, Sonia depended on her mother-in-law's judgment.

The success of the 2009 election has done dramatic wonders for Rahul Gandhi's image within party cadres. A young Congressman, who wants to go places via the Youth Congress and "RG's help", told, "Rahul Gandhi is less a political leader and more like a banker on Wall Street. He is a doer, so I trust him. He is not emotional."

Creating a Teflon image

Image: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with Rahul
Photographs: Rediff Archives
Rahul had and will always have political weight with or without success in his party, but post the 2009 election he has gained respectability in the eyes of opportunistic as well as serious party leaders.

Rahul -- once derided by some as 'pappu' or 'prince' -- is now seen as a charismatic leader who does things methodically.

In the Congress's scheme of things the 'good cop, bad cop' policy works fine on issues like the Maoist threat, terrorism and inclusive growth.

Rahul is the good cop.

A Teflon image is being created so that no charge sticks to Rahul.

Congress insiders claim that Rahul and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh have a cordial relationship and that their world view, including their views on America, are quite similar.

Rahul's interest and focus is on primary education, issues related to the Dalits, environment and diplomacy. When he has time he enjoys Formula One races. But, as it is in his mother's case, Rahul's private and public lives are strictly separate.

There are a few grey areas in the making of Rahul Gandhi process. The current power of his party is based on success that came by because in most states, the Opposition's votes were divided. Without Vijayakanth in Tamil Nadu, Chiranjeevi in Andhra Pradesh and Raj Thackeray in Maharashtra, things could have been very different.

Many senior Congressmen are not at all comfortable nor approving of Rahul Gandhi's idea of bringing inner democracy in the Youth Congress. One doesn't see any bon homie between the elder and younger generations of Congressmen in New Delhi. The divide is not visible, but it is there.

The All India Congress Committee and its agenda are on a different planet from Rahul's schemes of things.

'Rahul is growing organically'

Image: Rahul addresses a gathering in Dharwad, Karnataka
Photographs: KPN Photos
Even in the elections to the Youth Congress, despite Rahul's vigil and good intentions, doubts are being raised about the credibility of the membership drive and election of young members.

During the membership drive in Tamil Nadu allegations were made that Karthi Chidambaram, the home minister's only child, and Minister G K Vasan, whose late father was the powerful G K Moopanar, tried to monopolise the process.

The same thing happened in Punjab and Gujarat where old party hacks tried to influence the election with money power.

Rahul has now made it compulsory to have a photograph of new members to stop fake membership. In Tamil Nadu, 1.1 million new members have been registered and computerised data on them will be ready this week.

The Youth Congress election is creating a kind of base for Rahul Gandhi in young India. It is not a bad idea to appropriate youth votes through such a membership drive.

But it is a long, long way to go before Rahul tries to democratise the bigger and older Congress party monopolised by a coterie sitting in the Congress Working Committee.

On seeing the way RG's clout is increasing and the speed with which his area of work is increasing, Dinesh Trivedi, Union minister of state for health and Trinamool Congress leader, believes, "It is a foregone conclusion that Rahul Gandhi will be the next prime minister of India. He has to choose his timing and he will not do it in haste. He has, right now, a better support system in the form of Sonia Gandhi than his father had in politics after 1984. Rahul is growing organically."