Is Rahul Gandhi even cut out for Indian politics?

The journey.
The journey.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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This post has been updated.

It would be surprising if the results of India’s national elections, declared today (May 23), surprised Rahul Gandhi.

After all, this is not the first major defeat that the scion of the Indian National Congress’s first family has suffered since his entry into the Indian political scene. The only difference is that his party had hit the rock bottom in the last parliamentary elections in 2014, from where it could only go in one direction: up.

Yet, the Congress’s performance has been underwhelming in Indian election 2019. As of 6pm today (May 23) the United Progressive Alliance (UPA), which it leads, was leading in 90 seats, up from its previous count of 69 seats, but far from the winning 272. The Congress itself has improved it tally from 45 seats in 2014 to 52, but remains mostly irrelevant for now.

However, what could be the most bitter pill of them all is that Gandhi has conceded defeat in his family bastion of Amethi, Uttar Pradesh. (There couldn’t be a better—or worse, depending on where you sit—time for Gandhi to introspect.)

At the same time, it is also time for others to take a look at who Rahul Gandhi really is.

Growing up traumatised

Born on June 19, 1970, Gandhi’s growing up years have been traumatic to say the least. The eldest child of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and Sonia Gandhi witnessed two political murders in his family within a short span of time.

Living in Lutyens’ Delhi, he grew up in the company of the then prime minister of India, his grandmother Indira Gandhi. In 1984, she was assassinated by her own bodyguards—men with whom the young Gandhi is said to have often played badminton while at home. The duo had sought to avenge the assault by the Indian Army on the Sikh community’s holiest site, the Golden Temple in Amritsar, Punjab.

Earlier, he had begun schooling at St Columba’s School, Delhi, and moved to Doon School in Dehradun, Uttarakhand in 1981. Following the assassination, Gandhi moved back with his family and was home schooled owing to security concerns. He also attended classes at the Convent of Jesus and Mary, Delhi, where his younger sister Priyanka Gandhi was a student.

Hardly had the family recovered from Indira Gandhi’s killing when, seven years later, Rajiv Gandhi was assassinated by a Sri Lankan Tamil suicide bomber in Sriperumbudur in southern India’s Tamil Nadu state on May 21, 1991.

At an event in Singapore last year, he told the audience how he and his sister were left scarred by these two national tragedies, and yet were able to look beyond their personal grief: “For many years, we were quite upset and hurt, but somehow… (we have) completely (forgiven them).” These tragedies, he said, had only humanised him further.

Nevertheless, Gandhi did carry that burden of loss and suffering for years. Cordoned off behind heavy layers of security, his youth involved limited social interactions and little exposure to the outside world.

Political observers attribute Gandhi’s apparent lack of public speaking skills and his social awkwardness to such solitary upbringing. This is also possibly why he kept away from the public eye and politics for a long time.

A youth spent in anonymity

Having been home-tutored in his final year in school, Gandhi spent a year at Delhi’s St Stephen’s College (1989-1990). The move attracted heavy criticism as detractors argued that the institution’s stringent admission norms were bent to accommodate him.

A year later, he left for the US and thereon to England.

He attended Rollins College, Florida, under a pseudonym for obvious reasons. He graduated in 1994 and went on to pursue M Phil in developmental economics from Trinity College, Cambridge University. Thereon, he worked with the Monitor Group, a London-based management consulting firm, for three years.

He then turned entrepreneur in 2002 and established the Mumbai-based technology outsourcing firm, Backops Services. Not much is known about this firm, though.

Like him, his mother Sonia Gandhi, too, had kept away from politics for several years after Rajiv Gandhi’s death. However, in 1998, she took the plunge, making way for the eventual rise of her children on the national stage.

A mediocre political journey

Gandhi debuted in electoral politics in 2004, contesting the general elections that year from the Gandhi family pocket borough of Amethi in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The seat was earlier held by his father, and though the party has almost vanished from the state, Amethi, along with Rae Bareli, has remained unbreached as his family’s parliamentary bastions.

Voters embraced the Gandhi-scion as he won the seat with a huge margin of 390,179 votes. He went on to win it again in 2009 and 2014. This year, though, could turn out to be different.

Amidst calls for him to take a more active part in running the Congress party, he was appointed general secretary of the All India Congress Committee in 2007. Additionally, he also took over the responsibilities of the National Students’ Union of India and the Indian Youth Congress.

In January 2013, he became Congress vice-president. Sonia Gandhi finally handed the party’s baton to him on Dec. 16, 2017, nearly 20 years after she took charge as president in 1998.

Gandhi’s years as a politician have come under sharp attack, particularly from the rival Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), for his rise purely because of his surname. After all, unlike his chief rival Narendra Modi and other stalwarts in his own party, Gandhi has had no administrative experience and hardly any major electoral triumphs outside Amethi.

His frequent gaffes and a perceptible lack of oratory only added to his agony, even earning him nicknames that implied a lack of intelligence.

For long, Gandhi failed to carry weight even globally, as revealed by a leaked US diplomatic cable in 2007 which said he was an “empty suit” and “lightweight,” with little known about his political beliefs, if any.

By 2009, though, he appeared to have made some inroads into the international stage. The US by then felt he sounded like a “practiced politician who knew how to get his message across and…was comfortable with the nuts and bolts of party organisation and vote counting.”

Despite being in the thick of things in the Congress party for some time now, Gandhi has struggled to restore its might and, as a corollary, prove his leadership. He took moral responsibility for the party’s worst ever electoral defeat in 2014 when it scored a paltry 44 seats—in 2009, it had 206.

Gandhi has also drawn flak for his frequent absence from the political arena, particularly when things hot up.

In February 2015, just weeks after the Congress’s decimation in the Delhi legislative elections, he took a few days off to “reflect upon recent events and the future course of the party.” He was missing in action again at the beginning of the budget session of parliament in 2015, evoking criticism as expected. There have been several more such instances.

Political pundits read these as examples of his political immaturity.

The resurgence

Yet, Gandhi seemed to have withstood electoral debacles and personal attacks.

Amidst a long list of losses, he managed a few wins of late. Towards the end of 2018, his party won the assembly elections in the Hindi heartland states of Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

As a public speaker, too, he now looks more spontaneous and at ease than ever before, whether he is addressing a rally or talking to the media. In recent months, he has displayed a rare aggression and a candor in taking on the Indian prime minister, cornering Modi on four key issues: the agrarian crisis, a flailing economy, unemployment, and the Rafale fighter jet deal.

Turning Modi’s claims of being the country’s chowkidar (watchman) against the corrupt on its head, Gandhi popularised the slogan chowkidar chor hai,” which translates to “the watchman is the thief,” taunting the Hindutva strongman’s alleged close ties to businessman Anil Ambani.

However, none of it was enough to endear him to large sections of Indian voters. The 2019 polls even saw him struggling to retain Amethi. He will still make it to the next Lok Sabha as the second seat that he is contesting in, Kerala’s Wayanad, seems to have overwhelmingly voted for him this time.

Nevertheless, Gandhi is in for some kind of overhaul—or at least his next holiday.

Read Quartz’s coverage of the 2019 Indian general election here.

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