A brief history of how he has been trained for power
Sunanda K Datta-Ray | 13 Dec, 2018
THEY MOCKED HIM as ‘Rahul Baba’. They called him ‘Pappu’. Narendra Modi didn’t quite say ‘Rahul Mian’, but his sneering ‘Shehzada’ betrayed the communal bias that seems to poison the Prime Minister’s thinking. Later, Modi switched to a derisive ‘Naamdaar’ (or dynast), proudly projecting himself as the ‘Kaamdaar’ who does things while the blandly handsome young man with the dimpled smile and firm handshake—his burden of destiny betrayed only by the occasional slight facial tic—only talks.
Given his unmatched gift for demagoguery that rouses and titillates mobs, Modi thundered with dramatically flailing arms that the ‘Naamdaar’ had issued a fatwa forbidding him to chant ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. “You should be ashamed for this,” he bellowed at the absent Gandhi to the delight of hundreds of Rajasthani peasants who cannot have known where half-truths ended and lies began. “Freedom fighters embraced death by saying ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. Our soldiers carry out surgical strikes and say ‘Bharat Mata ki jai’. You are insulting Bharat Mata!” If anything, Rahul had tried to honour Bharat Mata by protecting the slogan from flippant overuse. He had complained that Modi didn’t talk about the problems of farmers, women and unemployed youth who comprise Bharat Mata. He only raised slogans. “In every address, he says ‘Bharat Mata ki jai ’and works for Anil Ambani. He should begin his address by saying ‘Anil Ambani ki jai’, ‘Mehul Choksi ki jai’, ‘Nirav Modi ki jai’ and ‘Lalit Modi ki jai’!” Sarcasm is too subtle for the mob.
Pitted against the likes of Amit Shah, Rajnath Singh and Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi must forever be haunted by the jibe that his great-grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru was ‘English by education, Muslim by culture and Hindu by accident’. With a Parsee grandfather (whom he never saw) and an Italian mother, Rahul has every reason to be even more cosmopolitan. The wonder is that this worldly young man of mixed descent, educated in Britain and the US, who told the media that his Spanish girlfriend lived in Venezuela, seems to have worsted Modi at his own game of reducing India’s vast and eternal diversity into an akhara for Hindus. He has proved triumphantly in Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh that Hindus are not the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s captive constituency. Hindus are a national asset.
It says something about the poverty of Indian politics that instead of talking about economic challenges, security threats and political stability, the Congress should have had to descend to this level. But this is not new. Chittaranjan Das, revered as Deshabandhu, grasped early the importance of religion in public life. His distinguished family was committed to the Brahmo Samaj, whose rejection of idolatry, pujas and caste, and championship of women’s emancipation distanced it from the orthodox majority. Some claim Das performed the prayaschitya ritual of penance to be taken back into the Hindu fold. Others say he just drifted away from Brahmoism.
Indira Gandhi, too, exploited religion for political purposes. Her partiality for seers and sadhus probably reflected a private urge, but when she filed a suit for a share of the estate of her younger son Sanjay, killed in a flying accident, it was politics. Winning the suit, she promptly gave her one-third share of Sanjay’s estate to his infant son Varun. But she could not afford to forgo her right to that share. Under traditional Hindu law, if a man dies while his parents are living, the parents rank equally with his wife and children as inheritors. Mrs Gandhi had to inherit to prove she was a Hindu. Her advocate cited in court that she and Feroze Gandhi had married according to Arya Samaj rites and that Feroze had been cremated when he died, not placed in a Parsee Tower of Silence.
It is one of the most moving expressions of spontaneous grief I have ever seen: Rahul hugging his father and burying his face in Rajiv’s body at his grandmother’s cremation
The clarifications were necessary to rebut the Puri Shankaracharya, who refused her admission to the Jagannath Temple on the grounds that she became an ‘outcaste’ on marrying a Zoroastrian. It’s ironical that her grandson should be under a similar compulsion more than 30 years later. As Bal Thackeray gloated, “In India, people don’t cast their vote, they vote their caste.” The Central Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad sounded like an obscurantist when, rushing to Modi’s rescue, he declared Rahul Gandhi “isn’t a Hindu by commitment, he is a Hindu by political consideration”. Nothing could be more politically inspired than the BJP’s mania for temples.
As a man of the world, Rahul had to convince dehati voters that he is also Hindu by flaunting caste and gotra, displaying sandal paste and vermilion marks, doing puja with an angavastram round his neck, and spouting passages from the Bhagavad Gita. Narendra Modi’s Hindu credentials are accepted without question because, despite fancy waistcoats, he conforms to what poor and uneducated voters regard as the desi image. It was a non sequitur for Rahul to try and generate an intellectual discussion by asking at an interactive session in Udaipur, “What is the essence of Hinduism? What does the Gita say? That knowledge is with everybody… Knowledge is all around you. Every living being has knowledge. Our Prime Minister says he is a Hindu, but he doesn’t understand the foundation of Hinduism. What kind of a Hindu is he?” The answer is that Modi is exactly like millions of other Indians who are Hindu because they happened to be born in the land of the Indus river. The question of ‘commitment’— Ravi Shankar Prasad’s term— doesn’t arise. One converts to Christianity or Islam through conviction and commitment. Hinduism isn’t in that category.
When Lee Kuan Yew met Rahul for the first time, the veteran Singaporean told India’s political fledgling, “I knew your father, your grandmother and your great-grandfather!” Lee was 83; Rahul, 36. History was repeating itself—almost—after 43 years. ‘Seventy-three-year-old leader got on very well indeed with thirty-eight-year-old Kuan Yew, and Lee was shocked, pleasantly so, to discover how well Nehru had been briefed about Malaya and Singapore,’ wrote Alex Josey, his British press officer who accompanied Lee on his first official trip to India in 1962.
Indira Gandhi may not have thought Singapore relevant for India, but Sonia Gandhi obviously did so. The woman who once ‘fought like a tigress’ to keep her husband out of politics thought exposure to Singapore would further her son’s political career. Though unsure how relevant the experience would be to Amethi, Lee invited him to be his guest for a week. They were looking for a different dividend in New Delhi. “This trip is very crucial. Rahul himself, his mother and others expect a lot from this visit,” a family aide was quoted saying. “Besides being a learning process, they feel it would make him more confident and capable of taking on tougher assignments.” What assignments? There was no beating about the bush. “Well, it’s not a secret that he is being prepared to be the future Prime Minister. I do not think the family wants to be secretive about it. He is being prepared for the top job.”
Lee Kuan Yew advised Rahul not to take the lead position until he was fully equipped to understand all parts of the complex and intricate whole of India
My first glimpse of Rahul was when he was quite a small boy standing on the steps of his grandmother’s Willingdon Crescent bungalow yelling his head off for Mohammed Yunus, diplomat and family friend. “Yunus chaacha!” he called shrilly. “Where all has he gone to?” A photograph taken a few years later captured one of the most moving expressions of spontaneous grief I have ever seen: Rahul hugging his father and burying his face in Rajiv’s body at his grandmother’s cremation.
He has grown into an intensely private man. Nothing is in the public domain about his personal life, relations with his mother’s Maino family, with his sister and her controversial husband, or with his aunt in the BJP, Maneka, and his first cousin, Feroze Varun, who is also in politics and has just published a book, A Rural Manifesto: Realizing India’s Future through Her Villages. His closest known associate, Kanishka Singh, a Wharton graduate and former Wall Street banker, whose father was foreign secretary and who himself is believed to have given up a lucrative American career to work as Rahul’s aide, is as close as a clam. Natwar Singh, the diplomat and politician, claimed Rahul is “a voracious reader” but that was after Rahul spotted a complimentary reference to Natwar in Lee’s memoirs. “I told Rahul, ‘You and I are the only two people in Delhi to have read the book!’” Natwar recalls.
It was a busy week in Singapore. Rahul and the faithful Kanishka Singh stayed at the Shangri-La Hotel, visited offices and institutions, and even attended a beauty therapy course. Rahul was especially interested in technical and vocational education and training that might be relevant to India’s skilled manpower needs. Exchanging his habitual kurta and pyjamas for the Singapore uniform of long-sleeved shirt, tie and dark trousers, he surprised everyone at a small interactive meeting at the Raffles Hotel by revealing that unlike his father, he was not an accidental politician. “I had consciously decided I would go into politics the day my father was assassinated to carry on with the work he was doing.” He was then a month short of 21.
Lee seems to have dazzled Rahul more than any of Singapore’s marvels. “If somebody makes sense, I listen. I am not judgemental,” he explained afterwards. Lee did. What struck Rahul most was how flexible—a favourite word—an experienced octogenarian could be. Discussing technology at dinner, Lee made a comment that one of the younger guests—a member of the computer generation, says Rahul—contradicted. Lee thought for a bit, then completely agreed with the young man. Rahul thought him a better learner at 80 than many 25-year-olds because his opinions were based on what works, not dogma. He did not find Lee abrasive; on the contrary, Lee’s devotion to precision recalled his father. Nor was the Singapore experience altogether irrelevant to India. “You can’t have the same kind of control,” he admits, but sees resemblances in Singapore’s sensitivities over language. “There’s a lot we can learn if we are flexible.”
Lee took a practical view of the Naamdaar. The “name recognition of his ancestry” gives Rahul “an enormous advantage” but drawing votes is not enough. Neither is “just looking good”. Rahul would have to prove himself. The first thing he and his young eagles should remember was “not to promise something they couldn’t deliver”. Credibility is crucial to leadership. It’s more difficult to implement policy than mobilise support for it. “To get the policy implemented, you must have a strong administrative machine, an apparatus.” He advised Rahul not to take the lead position until he was fully equipped to understand all parts of the complex and intricate whole of India. Because his drawing power is very big and can vanish in one term at the helm, he should not take over until he has had enough experience to understand how it all works, and surrounds himself by very able people to run it until then. Although Rahul became a Congress general secretary in September 2007, he did not join the Government even when Manmohan Singh offered him a berth in 2009.
It can be said of him at 48, as an aristocratic Englishwoman said of America, that youth is Rahul’s oldest tradition. Peter Burleigh, the US charge d’affaires, was not right therefore to call him a ‘young man in a Hurry’ in a confidential cable to Washington in May 2009. Rahul was not necessarily boasting when he said he “could have been PM at 25 if [he] wanted to”. The point is, he didn’t. But he is no ‘reluctant debutante’ (a phrase I used for Rajiv). He is a man of steely determination, even if he does tend to talk in management jargon. Learning statecraft from Lee, a battle-scarred old warhorse if ever there was one, was part of his strategy of preparation. That stage of his evolution may now be drawing to a close.