Is it time for India's JFK Jr to drop politics and start a magazine?


After a prominent Congress member accused him of making only a "cameo" appearance in party affairs, Rahul Gandhi is looking less and less like the heir apparent of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty. So is it too early to write him off?



Dragged into the news by (inadvertent) backstabbing, Rahul Gandhi is getting attention for all the wrong reasons. Accused of playing, at best, only a "cameo" role in Congress Party affairs, Gandhi is getting the usual JFK Jr. treatment -- with many speculating that he's already out of the running to be Mummy Sonia's candidate for prime minister in 2014.

So is it time for Rahul to throw in the towel and start a magazine?  His charisma may not be all it's cracked up to be -- at least it wasn't enough to undo decades of caste politics in the past Uttar Pradesh elections.  But by my count, he hasn't even flunked the bar exam once.

As GlobalPost reported awhile back, as the heir apparent to the political dynasty of Jawaharlal Nehru (his great grandfather), Indira Gandhi (his grandmother) and Rajiv Gandhi (his father), Gandhi has long held the same fascination for the media that John F. Kennedy Jr. did in the US. In other words, folks liked to tear him down as much as they liked to build him up.

The build-up was in overdrive last year in the approach to the Uttar Pradesh elections, where the Congress made the foolish (in hindsight) move to eschew alliances with regional parties. Now we're in the tear down phase. 

Earlier this week, the Indian Express reported:

Union Law Minister Salman Khurshid has remarked the root of the problems plaguing the Congress was the lack of “ideological direction” from its next generation leader Rahul Gandhi. “Until now,” he said, “we have only seen cameos of his thought and ideas like democratising elections to the Youth Congress. But he has not weaved all of this into a grand announcement. This is a period of waiting.”

The statement was interpreted as a criticism, naturally, though Khurshid quickly said that it should be taken in a positive light. ("Breathless anticipation! Not dread and boredom!" he might have clarified).

As FirstPost's Sanjay Pugalia puts it, however, Khurshid may have done the Congress a big favor: Letting the cat out of the bag that Rahul won't be running for PM in 2014 early enough in the news cycle for folks to get used to it.

It is important that we understand the significance of what Khurshid left unsaid. My interpretation of the entire brouhaha is that Sonia Gandhi has finally come to the realisation that the Congress party was running on the strength of four key props – and all of them have failed, Pugalia writes.

The first prop was the Prime Minister, who had gone into silent mode. He failed to run the government effectively and allowed a free run to all concerned. The second prop was erstwhile Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee who was managing Parliament, allies and other parties, but whose services in this respect are no longer available to the party. The third prop is Sonia Gandhi herself, who was supposed to manage the overall politics of the coalition and her own party. And the last prop was the Rahul Gandhi bloc, consisting of his supporters and allies.

The Congress party finds itself in this unenviable situation because none of these four mainstays worked in tandem, each one preferring to follow its own agenda in isolation. While all the props were aware of the problems facing the government, not a single one could muster up the courage to say that it was not working. If Manmohan Singh waited for Sonia to give him the go ahead, Sonia herself remained mum for reasons unknown. All the four props played the waiting game, hoping that someone else would speak up and spare them the repercussions.

That may indeed be true. But Indian politics is not as much about charisma as people like to make out. Rahul did manage to increase the Congress Party's share of the general vote in Uttar Pradesh in 2009 and again in 2012, as Aakar Patel pointed out immediately following the polls -- when Rahul-bashing was in full flow.  

The problem was that the Congress, at least in some ways, continues to refuse to acknowledge that regional powers are here to stay.  Far better to remember the key to Sonia Gandhi's surprise victory over the Bharatiya Janata Party in 2004 -- when everything appeared to be going swimmingly for the incumbents.

It wasn't her charisma, which is at least as overrated as Rahul's. It was her savvy in picking partners in Tamil Nadu, where the DMK pretty much delivered victory for the alliance.