City City Bang Bang, Columns

What Rahul Gandhi does not say

It is difficult to speak of brand Rahul Gandhi in glib terms anymore. MJ Akbar, has with his trademark perceptiveness called to our attention his turn leftwards in an article in this newspaper last week. Over the last two years, no political leader in India has transformed as much as the young Gandhi heir. From being a somewhat bland hitchhiker on the family legacy gravy train, he is today seen as a powerful political force by his party men and his opponents alike. His swift endorsement of the decision to reject Vedanta’s mining application in Orissa has been seen as a watershed moment by many, in that it marks out his intent and direction very sharply, but perhaps with the benefit of hindsight, this move should not have come as a surprise.

Far more revealing than what Rahul Gandhi has said and acted upon is what he has chosen to ignore and keep his silence on. We have rarely heard him offer a meaningful opinion in the issues that the that are of deep interest to the middle class Indian. He has shown no inclination to get even remotely involved in issues like Kashmir, the relationship with Pakistan, or the N-liability bill. There is little interest evinced in public at least in the subjects dear to the middle class- issues of controlling corruption, reducing criminality in our public life, getting more educated people to enter politics and such like. We never see him at business gatherings schmoozing with Indian business leaders, he is not a regular on the Davos circuit and makes no pronouncements about India’s ability to become an economic superpower. And much to the disappointment of his supporters from the middle class, he has steered clear of having anything to do with the mess we call Commonwealth Games.

For someone in whom a significant section of middle class India sees hope for the future (there is of course a significant section that is allergic in the extreme to anyone with his dynastic signature), Rahul Gandhi has astonishingly little interest in either this class or in the issues it holds dear. In the mirror to India, Rahul Gandhi holds aloft, the middle class cannot see itself, try as it might. And yet, in his youthfulness and his freshness, lies the dogged persistence of hope for this very class, sickened as it is by the venality of the current political discourse. He is, both to the media which covers him like royalty and to part of the middle class, a symbol of all that is youthful , promising and photogenic about politics. But Rahul Gandhi is increasingly much more than an engaging symbol, a blank personable slate on which we can write what we wish for. Brand Rahul Gandhi, is moving deeper into more nuanced and complex territory and is unlikely to provide an easy fix for the middle class yearning for a cleansed future free from the baggage of yesterday. He is wading into areas that are of marginal interest to this class and more significantly challenge the easy truths we have come to accept as part of conventional wisdom.

In the last few years, we have seen the emergence of a consensus of the vocal in mainstream media. Underneath the seemingly fractious nature of debate, there is a broad convergence of views. A lot of attention gets focused on symbolic issues that create emotional resonance with the consuming class and more fundamental questions are rarely asked. Politicians are reviled, business leaders are valorised, terrorism is decried, corruption is lamented, the moral police is lambasted, and any perceived slight to Indian pride is hunted down. Political parties stick to their scripts as does the media and life goes on. Radical challenges are rare, with the Left armed with an arthritic imagination and the Right mired in issues of insubstantial symbolism. When these challenges do emerge as in the case of the Naxal violence, the media closes ranks and a single homogenous picture begins to appear.

In this context, the Rahul Gandhi move is the most direct challenge to the institutionalised assumptions of the Indian mainstream. By challenging the founding assumptions of the modern Indian project (development is good, growth is better and double digit growth is the Holy Grail), a new strand of opinion is entering the political discourse. And this comes from, of all the places, the most powerful political family in India. It is clear that Sonia Gandhi’s inclinations too have tended to lie in this area, as evidenced by the kind of people she surrounds herself with in the NAC. Hitherto the territory of jholawalas who spouted radicalese secure in their insignificance, we now see the question of what the Indian model of development should be, coming into mainstream focus from a very unlikely source indeed.

Of course, the UPA government seems trapped motionless between its many constituent parts and it does not help that its dynastic leaders seem to be pursuing an agenda that it can only dimly comprehend. The Congress seems to believe that it has figured out how to win elections and understood that it has little to do with running governments. The only decisive initiatives that we have seen from this two-time regime have to do with subjects of interest to the Gandhi family. For the rest, stasis prevails.

It is possible that the current strategy of speaking in different voices is a deliberate one, as some commentators have pointed out, mounted with a view to build multiple bases. Let one part of the government pursue the reform agenda, even if it is done half-heartedly and let the party focus on re-building bridges with the marginalised sections of society. But even if that is the case, the strategy employed by Rahul Gandhi is a curious one for someone who is seen as the prime-minister-in-waiting . This much is clear- if and when Rahul Gandhi comes to power, it would be difficult to predict what script he will play off. In all likelihood, the middle class will be surprised, perhaps disappointed. And depending on where you stand that is either bad or very good news.