(This column, written as an open letter to Rahul Gandhi, who is being projected as India’s Prime Minister-in-waiting, was published in DNA edition dated May 19. 2009.)
Dear Rahul Gandhi
You don’t know me: I’m just one of those anonymous Indians who don’t count for very much in public life. But I think of myself as a stakeholder in Indian society who has more than a passing interest in its well-being and its politics – as an observer, not as a participant; and it’s in this capacity that I make bold to write to you in what must be the proudest moment of your brief political career.
By now, all the gushing around you – branding you the “modern-day Chanakya” of Indian politics and the “future Prime Minister” – must have reached a deafening roar. Mass adulation of this sort must, I suppose, make for a heady experience, even though you’re probably used to it by now, as someone who hails from India’s most enduring political dynasties. Youthful blue-blooded scions of high-networth royal families are, in their irrational exuberance, breathlessly asking for you to be made Prime Minister rightaway. To be fair, both you and your mum have indicated that that won’t happen anytime soon, but the sycophantic chorus won’t easily be silenced.
In your first post-election comments, you said, in response to questions about whether you’d join the government, that you were looking instead to energise the Congress party and get more youth involved in politics. I wish you well in that enterprise: the thickened arteries of our political system could do with some young blood coursing through them. Old fogies with Jurassic-Age mindsets don’t honestly represent a nation whose population has a median age of a youthful 25.3 years. And even though the exuberance of youth needs occasionally to be tempered with the wisdom of experience, there’s a strong case for unleashing the creative instincts of Young India and channelling it into our political system.
What I’m about to say next will probably date me and put me in the same age-category as the “old fogies” I deride, but I’ll say it nevertheless. The last time I allowed myself to overcome my instinctive (journalistic) cynicism of politics and politicians – and nurse hopes of a youthful resurgence in Indian politics – was about 25 years ago, when a 40-year-old man became our country’s youngest Prime Minister. That man, of course, was your father, Rajiv Gandhi, and although the circumstances in which he took office – following the assassination of his mother, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi – were tragic, he was soon elected to power with the largest majority in Parliament.
For a while, your dad was the media darling, and the mass adulation he received was not unlike what you’re experiencing now. He promised a clean, open – and youthful – government and polity, and charmed world leaders with his grace and wit. In December 1985, at the Centenary Session of the Congress party, he gave a searing speech that identified the many problems in the party and laid out a blueprint for a visionary, forward-looking Build India movement. (Even if you’ve read it, I urge you to read it again now: it will identify the challenges you face, and give you a roadmap to overcome them.)
But barely two years into his term, your dad lost the plot – and his nerve – and was overwhelmed by the system. And by the time he resigned in 1989, after losing the general election, he’d squandered all the goodwill he had. And he turned increasingly not to the youthful team he’d brought with him but to geriatric wheeler-dealers in the Congress to muddle through. The lesson: star power is no substitute for political acumen.
Now, it’s entirely possible – although we haven’t seen much evidence of it – that you’ll be a better politician than your dad was. Your sister Priyanka seems to have immense faith in your political instincts. But I rather suspect that despite your manifest success as Congress’ star campaigner in the recent elections, it’s far more likely that the power-brokers in the political system will overwhelm you, in the same way they did your dad. Which is why I hope you’ll never become Prime Minister.
Curiously enough, there’s another person in your family who is probably a better role model for you: your mum, Sonia Gandhi. Steadfastly sticking to her resolve not to take office, despite her party winning two elections under her leadership and despite ritual genuflections from her party sycophants, she has put together a reasonably good governance team that’s done better than any we’ve had in decades. Today, her political contribution – to her party and to this country – is far richer than your dad’s.
I wish you good luck in your efforts to energise the party by infusing young blood. But for your own sake (and for India’s), I hope you will never confuse star power with political acumen – or yield to the temptation of prime ministerial power.