IF ANYONE had cared to look, the makings of ‘the Rahul factor’ — the new phenomenon on the political landscape that everyone is now agog about — was always there in the making. At its core stands a dignified young man — quiet, thoughtful, measured. A redeeming pool of reason in the noisy indecencies of Indian politics. A man who has taken his time to explore his relationship with power and slowly, almost imperceptibly, transformed the meaning of dynasty. A man whose public utterances mix refreshing candour with an almost academic nuance. A man — unusual anywhere in history — not visibly hungry for personal power; not willing to catalyse it at any cost. If Indians were searching for their Obama — a figure capable of changing the axis of contemporary political conversation — he is here. Not in the symbolic shape of someone overthrowing the oppression of centuries, but (in the curious inversions often common to India) in the shape of a privileged man who has used his privilege to inject a new seriousness into the debased and infantilised public discourse in India.
In fact, when everyone is fêting his victory, it is much more revealing to remember how Rahul handled his first taste of defeat. In 2007, he was injected into the Uttar Pradesh (UP) assembly election to revive the Congress’ comatose fortune. This was old-style politics. He was to be the magic potion: one shot of him and a forgetful people would put the party back in power. Instead, the Congress got a humiliating 22 out of 402 seats, and Mayawati shot to 206. The knives were out in an instant. He lacks charisma, the media clucked knowingly. This Gandhi’s a dud, the party said darkly. Yuvraj, yuvraj, his opponents taunted gleefully. “This failure really churned him,” says a young Congress politician from UP.
Rahul could have retreated into the ivory tower of his birth. Instead, while the world dissected him rudely, he courageously began to re-examine what it means to be a Gandhi in contemporary India. In March 2008 — as Mayawati, fresh on the wings of victory, journeyed away from the common man towards rarer and rarer worlds of luxury — he, fresh out of failure, hit the dusty road, meeting small groups of people behind closed doors, out of the eye of the media, asking questions. Tribals, farmers, schoolchildren, fisherfolk, dalits. He went to Orissa and Chhattisgarh, to Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, to UP and Karnataka. Once again, the media mocked him, sneering at his ‘Discover India’ trips, booing his desire for research. (TEHELKA, on the other hand, put Rahul on its cover, calling him “The Long Distance Gambler” exactly a year ago.)
When did the object of everyone’s jeers and taunts turn into the seemingly magical ‘Rahul factor’?
And slowly, as he listened, Rahul’s understanding changed. The difference in Rahul 2007 and Rahul 2009 is that his rhetoric is no longer trading emptily on the Gandhi name, it is no longer about what his father and grandmother and great-grandfather did for this country. He is not asking for votes in the name of the past: he is articulating a new future.
Yet, ironically, it is the name that has made all of this possible. Rahul understands the nature of power. Wisely, instead of repudiating his legacy, he has turned it into the most positive instrument he has. He has wielded dynasty to strengthen democracy. He has used the Gandhi name to open doors that no one else in his party could have. In the process, he has leached it of all negative accusation. Everywhere Rahul goes, he tells the young, “I am the product of an unfair, closed world. I want to use my unfair advantage to prise the world open for you.”
And he has. In an innovative move geared to revive the dead old party root upwards, he hired a firm run by JM Lyngdoh and KJ Rao — former election commissioners and men of impeccable reputation — to run intra-party elections for the Youth Congress and the party’s student body, the NSUI. In the recruitment drives preceding these elections, threeand- a-half lakh new members have been signed on in Punjab; more than six lakhs in Gujarat. Sixty-five thousand new student members in Uttarakhand. Tamil Nadu and Pondicherry are next. Oxygen is coursing through the party.
“You get a true measure of Rahul if you ask the bright young people around him why they have given up brilliant futures to work in his core team,” says Lyngdoh. “As for intra-party elections overseen by an independent body, why has no party tried this before in 62 years? Every party should follow this now. It will strengthen the roots of democracy in India.” Says Rao, “We told Rahul people with criminal records should not be allowed to stand for party posts. He agreed immediately. He has also supported independent audits and complete transparency. What this means is that people doing actual grassroot work now have a chance to get elected into positions of power.”
The Congress has had unexpected victories in Rajasthan — 20 out of 25 seats; Gujarat — 11 out of 26 seats; Uttarakhand — all 5 seats; Madhya Pradesh — 12 out of 29 seats; Punjab — 8 out of 13 seats; Andhra Pradesh — 33 out of 42 seats. And finally, UP — 21 out of 80 seats. All of these successes are being laid at Rahul’s door. But that would be an exaggeration. The Congress wave this election is an aggregation of many things, primary among them people’s gratitude for the minimum decencies of Manmohan Singh, Sonia and Rahul, the NREGA, the RTI, the loan waiver for farmers, the stress on inclusive governance, and the clumsy mistakes of Congress’ political opponents.
UP, in particular, is almost an accidental victory. Mooted strongly by veteran leader Digvijaya Singh, Rahul’s decision to go it alone in UP without the Samajwadi Party (SP) will probably prove epochal in the long term. But this election, though the Congress has won many seats it has not won since Emergency and the tidal wave of sympathy post Indira Gandhi’s assassination, most of the victories have been powered by the Opposition. As one Congress leader from UP puts it, “People were fed up of the ‘Bunty-Babli’ politics of Mulayam and Mayawati. Rahul’s clean, inclusive image became a kind of lightening rod.”
Rahul himself is unlikely to be taken in by the euphoria around him. A stickler for detail and empirical data — the crucial social audit that must go with grand assertions — he will study the statistics. They will tell him that the Congress’ victories in UP have largely been driven by the Muslim vote, alienated from the SP by the Kalyan factor and the Azam Khan fight. They will tell him that a tally of 21 definitely speaks of a “new pro-Congress mood” in UP, but big work remains to be done. They will tell him that Congress has not yet opened its account in Bihar because Nitish Kumar is running a credible government there.
ALL OF THIS will tell him something he already understands deeply: the heady ‘Rahul factor’ is not based on some disembodied Gandhi name or whimsical personal charisma. It is rooted in hard, unglamorous work and the promise of a new kind of politics. This is why, unlike Lalu and Mayawati, Rahul does not seem in danger of falling into the trap of identity cults. Unlike them, he understands the only key to real and lasting power is the work you do for people. It is the dusty road that creates the lightning rods.
When everyone is fêting his victory, it is much more revealing to remember how Rahul handled his first defeat
On May 16, as the results rolled in, Rahul was not in faraway Delhi. He was in his constituency, thanking people for his victory. As the media crowded around him, expecting the cynical turnabout, asking if he would now take centrestage as PM, or at the very least, as cabinet minister, Rahul reiterated the positions that have made him luminous. “I am committed to building back the party organisation,” he said. More significantly, as brokers and industrialists across the country began to salivate at the imagined benefits of a Manmohan Singh driven economy minus the Left, Rahul put in a timely wedge: “Progress belongs to everyone,” he said. “We cannot leave huge swathes of India behind. It is the poor who have given us everything, the poor who work in very difficult circumstances.”
Key electoral milestones ahead will tell the real story about the depth of Rahul’s electoral impact. But no one can dispute his psychological impact this election. It is probably giving men like Narendra Modi and Lalu Prasad Yadav some introspective moments. And it might just drive Behenji to a ‘Discover India’ spree herself.