Salman Khurshid is easily among the brightest politicians in the country: a former Oxford don, he became a union minister at 38. When he speaks, it is with a certain elegance and intellect that is all too rare in public life today. Which is why when Khurshid suggests “Rahul Gandhi has only been seen in cameos of his thoughts and ideas, but he has not woven it into a grand announcement. This is a period of waiting,” his remarks must be taken seriously. Khurshid has since been forced to clarify his statement, claiming he was only urging the Congress’ younger leadership to play a more central role, but his reflections lie truly at the heart of the UPA’s present dilemma.
A fortnight ago, in these very columns, I had written on the NDA’s leadership crisis: who will be their leader in the next general elections in 2014? What is true of the NDA is equally applicable to the UPA. If the battle between Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar threatens to open a chasm within the opposition, Rahul Gandhi’s seeming reluctance to take greater responsibility within the Congress, has left the ruling alliance in a state of growing uncertainty.
What are the options if Rahul were to decline to take up the challenge of being the UPA’s prime ministerial nominee? Manmohan Singh will be 82 in 2014, and while being an octogenarian is no disqualification in the ageing world of Indian politics, there is a general belief that after two full terms as prime minister, Singh may finally be ready for voluntary retirement.
Of the other Congress leaders, AK Antony is an option in a period where the search is on for an ‘incorruptible’ politician, but doubts persist over his ability to take charge of a Union government. P Chidambaram has the skill to lead, but the 2G case has shadowed him, and whether he can be a consensual politician in the age of coalition politics is still an open question. Of the rest, the most logical choice, Pranab Mukherjee, is set to be safely ensconced in Rashtrapati Bhavan while none of the so-called ‘dark horses’ — Sheila Dikshit, Meira Kumar, Sushil Shinde — really have the stature to be readily accepted by their peers.
Which brings us back to Rahul, who remains a mystery wrapped in an enigma. At 42 years, Rahul is no longer a ‘youth’ leader. In a young India, 40 signals the age of arrival. Across the world, leaders are getting younger. David Cameron became prime minister of Britain at 44, while Barack Obama could soon become a two-time US president. Why, Rajiv Gandhi became prime minister soon after his 40th birthday, arguably in even more challenging circumstances.
In 1984, the Congress was still the pre-eminent force in Indian politics, blessed with an array of powerful regional satraps and Union ministers who had spent decades in public life. There was, as a result, a competitive edge to the leadership issue, and Rajiv’s acceptability to the older guard nurtured in the Indira era took a while. By contrast, today, the Congress is a party that has been reduced to a marginal player in several parts of the country, with very few mass leaders who can claim to have an independent power base. Its tallest leader by some distance remains Sonia Gandhi and she has made it amply clear that her ‘inner voice’ will not let her become prime minister.
That leaves, frankly, Rahul Gandhi as the only mascot available to a party in crisis. Unfortunately, rather than see opportunity in adversity, Rahul has chosen to play it safe. He has barely spoken within or outside Parliament on matters of urgent public importance, has stayed away from sustained media interaction, and preferred to focus on the Youth Congress elections when the crying need is for the entire party to be given an organisational overhaul.
The closest Rahul has come to taking a leadership role was in this year’s Uttar Pradesh election. Perhaps guided by his core team of advisors, he initially pitched the elections as a barometer of the Congress’s revival in the crucial Hindi heartland. But after a robust campaign, when it came to the crunch of defining his future role in UP, he pulled back. By then, the rising expectations that had been set off by his initial enthusiasm appeared to stand in sharp contrast to the reality on the ground. In defeat, he was gracious, even taking responsibility for the Congress debacle, and promising to stay the course. But then, instead of re-igniting the challenge to the new ruling arrangement in UP, he once again did a bit of a disappearing act.
This is where Khurshid’s reference to a ‘cameo’ role being played by Rahul becomes relevant. A cameo in itself is not always undesirable. But when your party is pitching you as the superstar-in-waiting, you can’t afford to make a special appearance. To take the Bollywood analogy further, Rahul cannot afford to be an Amitabh Bachchan in a film like Anand when his audience wants to see him as a Rajesh Khanna-like lead artiste in the same film.
Rahul, of course, may well believe that he has time on his side, and he can wait for a more propitious time before making his move. But as the UP elections confirmed, the new political forces that have changed the national map will wait for no one and there is no sense of entitlement left in Indian politics. The time for waiting for Rahul to make up his mind is slowly ending. Either he must make the effort to fill the leadership vacuum in his party, or risk being seen as a reluctant politician. As a start, how about becoming the party leader in the Lok Sabha, a post lying vacant with Pranabda’s exit?
The views expressed by the author are personal