Congress Party president Sonia Gandhi, left, and vice president and her son Rahul Gandhi (Picture: www.aicc.org.in)
The most I can summon on the rise of Rahul Gandhi as vice president of the Congress Party, India’s oldest political movement, is meh. Unless he chooses to streak across New Delhi’s Raj Path his ascension to high political power has long been a fait accompli.
Since his father and former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s gruesome assassination on May 21, 1991, it has mainly been a question of when and almost never if Rahul would emerge as his eventual successor. Equally, it was entirely his choice whether or not to join public life.
Coming from a family for whose members public life is an inheritance and which seems to discourage pursuit of any other skill set, it makes no news that Rahul is now the official number 2 in the Congress Party. His mother, Sonia Gandhi, of course, remains its main force until such time as she chooses not to.
While reporting the immediate aftermath of the Rajiv Gandhi assassination, when Rahul was just about 21, I came across several ordinary members of his party who had already anointed him as their future leader in their mind. For Congress, this is like a reflex action. Although many senior leaders were keen that Sonia Gandhi take over the reins of the party without losing a moment after her husband’s death, there were as many who had invested in the eventual rise of the son.
Rahul has had the luxury of taking his own time and choosing his own path to get there but no one had any doubt that whatever position he wants in the party would be his for the taking. It was/is equally the case for his sister Priyanka who has so far stayed away from a formal position.
Although in theory the Congress Party has never been a Gandhi-Nehru fiefdom, in practice it has almost always been so. Think of the party as a giant jetliner where everybody else has to scramble to get a seat of any consequence or any seat at all. For the Gandhis, however, there is a perpetual first right of refusal. They are not just first among equals but first among firsts. It is not surprising that the Gandhis never seem to be in a hurry in any situation in life. They know there are flunkies nationwide who would usher them in with utter servility. Everything in life is a choice for them and not a necessity. In his defense though, at least Rahul tries his best not to be imperious about his uninterrupted passage through life.
Privilege and power have been so deeply woven into the fabric of the Nehru-Gandhi family that they warp political gravity around them irrespective of whether they have any individual competence. Deference and derision come in equal measure if you happen to be a member of that family. Derision, of course, is a small price to pay come as it does being ridden rough shod by deference.
It is clear now that it will be for Rahul to accept or reject India’s prime ministership if his party manages to produce winning numbers in the 2014 general elections. At 42 he is relatively young by the standards of Indian politics where power has to be pried from the hands of politicians. If Rahul does indeed become India’s next prime minister, then he would have taken office three years older than when his father became one at 40. He was the country’s youngest prime minister.
Now that the Congress Party has possibly chosen its prime ministerial candidate, although one cannot be certain, the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will have to think along those lines. The BJP too remains restricted by its limited national reach and will be forced to choose a name that will have resonance beyond just its own rank and file. While Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is an inevitable choice for a certain segment of India’s urban middle class population, it is not done until it is really done.
If Modi is indeed chosen as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, then India would witness a clash of strikingly contrasting styles—one a tentative articulator of broad themes propelled by family privilege, namely Rahul, and the other a man of political bombast fueled entirely by self-belief, namely Modi.
Come 2014, and I will be there to report no matter what.