Thursday, February 7, 2008

CAN RAHUL DO A GANDHI?

Sometimes a visual conveys reality more tellingly than the thousands of words written to obfuscate it.

A few months back, both Rahul Gandhi and Shahrukh Khan were watching a cricket match. Rahul Gandhi was with his brother-in-law Robert Vadra. In the row behind and a frame or two above and to the left of him sat Shahrukh Khan with his wife Gauri and his co-star Deepika Padukone.

During the course of the match, TV cameras repeatedly showed Rahul and Shahrukh, both acutely aware that the camera was on them. The shots were also shown on the giant screen in the stadium. Rahul, whenever the camera zoomed in on him, appeared stone stiff. As the camera moved slightly to show Shahrukh in the frame, the superstar naturally looked comfortable.

Rahul Gandhi would not have missed the very loud and disturbing message that the images conveyed. There was no, absolutely no response from the spectators whenever his face was shown. But the moment Shahrukh appeared in frame, the crowd responded with warmth and affection that the actor enjoyed, acknowledging it with a wave of his hand.

This was no rural audience that did not know what Rahul Gandhi looked like. This was a lot of young, educated urban Indians who would have seen his face many times before they saw it again on the giant screen that day.

The youth of India was clearly not enthused by this young leader who was laying claim to be the future leader of the country.

Contrast this with the many columns written by leading media luminaries (some given national awards later by the government for their efforts) about the ‘crown prince’, the dynamic and modern youth leader who had fired the imagination of young Indians and had the opposition worried etc etc! Then there were also those who thought they could generate a ‘wave’ in his favour by telling the nation on TV about the dramatic effect that the election campaign being carried out by him in UP, even Gujarat, was going to have on the electoral fortunes of the Congress party. One need not mention the heaps of the absurdly sycophantic praises ceaselessly being sung by otherwise educated and intelligent ‘leaders’ of the Congress party in a manner that would be humiliating to far lesser men.

There is, not surprisingly, a fatal disconnect between projection and reality. And this gap is going to only harm Rahul Gandhi as well as the Congress party. Unless he does something remarkable to alter course.

This disconnect stems from the fact that the English speaking media and the inner circle of the Congress belong to and identify with an India that is far removed from the India that Rahul Gandhi hopes to rule one day. The almost complete westernization and urbanization of this lot does not permit it to relate to and therefore understand and respond to the real Indian who votes.

That is why from time to time, Rahul Gandhi does things which he thinks will politically ‘endear’ him to the vast majority of Indians who do not relate to him at all. People see through everything, particularly that which does not have the energy of sincerity and compassion with it. Take for example his recent spending of a night in the house of a dalit whose food too he ate. Will it bring any political dividend at all? Only the disconnected will think it will.

When Mahatma Gandhi stayed with dalits, he stayed as one of them, not as a condescending ‘Raj Kumar’ doing the downtrodden a favour for a fleeting night, before rushing for ablutions next morning to the Guest House! Mahatma Gandhi never pretended to treat dalits with dignity with the ulterior motive of getting their votes; Rahul Gandhi has been forced by the emergence of Mayawati to put on an act as part of a strategy to eat into her vote bank. That historical condescension is the precise reason for the phenomenal rise of Mayawati. So, the dalits will view this gesture of ‘upper caste’ Rahul as one more political gimmick designed to thwart their real rise. The Congress, instead of getting more dalit votes will wind up actually losing them!

Had Rahul Gandhi made similar gestures years ago, during the many years he chose to spend abroad to understand his country from the remote comfort of the West, the sincerity would have come through. The damage done by his long absence from the scene in India has not perhaps been understood in its entirety. How can it, when the world of those around him who matter is as far removed from the India they write, talk and advise about?

One more example to highlight the seemingly unbridgeable gap: Take this grandiose National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which is being promoted as a major initiative taken by Rahul Gandhi. Is it going to fetch votes for the Congress? Is it going to help Rahul Gandhi connect with the poor and downtrodden better? More importantly, is this annual splurge of Rs 40-50,000 crores of national funds going to actually improve the lives of the poorest for whom it is intended? In a country where up to 90 percent of funds allotted for such schemes have historically been pocketed by hopelessly corrupt government servants, politicians and bureaucrats, is it going to be any different this time? The answers to all the above questions are resoundingly in the negative. Except, of course, to those in that weird, closed club who won’t even let the country’s air in for poor Rahul baba to breathe!

Quite sometime back, there was a popular show on a leading English channel where the topic of discussion was about Indians being still obsessed with royalty. The question itself revealed the small world of the few hundred celebrities and Page 3 socialites that make up the ‘India’ to whom erstwhile royals mean anything! They are blissfully unaware that to Indians at large, most of the erstwhile rulers mean nothing anymore. Real Indians are quite aware that most of the erstwhile princes did precious little for their kingdoms and subjects, and that their energies were devoted to enriching and enjoying themselves. Worse, they were the ones who fought foolishly with each other to give away the country to the British.

With such a set of advisors and ‘opinion gaugers and makers’, Rahul Gandhi is going to find it virtually impossible to touch the chord of India. Youth by itself will not propel him to power as these guys are deluding themselves into believing. Nor will the arrogance of his family’s achievements and the ignoring of its many failures help. Like the royal families of pre-independence India, the hold, the name of the Nehru-Gandhi family now means little to real Indians, particularly the youth.

Rahul Gandhi will have to almost completely reinvent himself if he has to have a realistic hope being a real leader of India sometime in the future. Will he able to ‘detoxify’ himself of the influence of long years spent abroad and the remaining spent cocooned in Delhi surrounded by a bunch of individuals disconnected from real India?

There was another Gandhi, the Mahatma, who did precisely that not too long ago and changed the destiny of this ancient land.

Does Rahul baba have similar courage, honesty and vision. Can he do a Gandhi?