Can Rahul Gandhi shed the `reluctant politician` tag?

“Asking me whether you want to be prime minister is a wrong question,” is what Rahul Gandhi said recently, adding that his ideal was Mahatma Gandhi and also that he believed in ‘Nishkam Karma’, which means work without expectations of reward, a principle from the Bhagavad Gita.

So, if asking him the all important question is wrong then what should one ask the newly anointed Congress vice president. Should one ask him as to who will be his Manmohan Singh if the Congress-led UPA government comes back to power? Or should one ask him what his take is on the DMK pullout from the Centre and on coalition politics? But given the past record, it seems unlikely that Rahul will oblige and give an honest answer to any of these questions.

The countdown to the 2014 General Elections has begun. With DMK pulling the plug on the UPA government and with Samajwadi Party leader Mulayam Singh Yadav giving signals of an early elections, the time has come for the grand old party to answer the question as to who will be its prime ministerial candidate in the all important polls. Also, if they at all plan to name a PM candidate before the elections, and if not then will the decision be taken after the votes have been counted? These are the questions that Rahul will have to take head on, now that he is the apparent number two in the party.

In recent times, Rahul has been making all the right noises – like when he said that he believed in long-term politics and that his priority was to build the organisation while broad-basing the power structure and decision-making. He even denounced the high command culture, something that the Congress is synonymous with, saying that he would strive to empower more and more people so that only a handful do not call the shots. Rahul also made an emotional speech at the Congress’ Jaipur Chintan Baithak in which among other things he called the Congress party his family and equated power with poison.

But it is one thing to make the right noise and another to be seen as an effective and hands-on leader who can deliver. Rahul may avoid the all-important question of the PM’s post for now but he cannot deny that the transition has begun from power being transferred from his mother to him and in the coming 2014 polls, he will be calling the shots for all practical purposes. In such a scenario, it remains to be seen how long he can duck uncomfortable questions and not come out of his comfort zone.

Rahul’s strengths are that he is young and has Gandhi as his surname. Another strength is his earnestness to revive the Congress party and consolidate it at the grassroots level inspite of the setbacks that he received in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab Assembly polls. His grandmother and former PM Indira Gandhi virtually eliminated strong Congress leaders at the state level and appointed her stooges regularly as chief ministers. But if Rahul realizes that state elections cannot be won in future without a face who can be seen to be delivering and the people will no longer vote for the Congress candidate on the name of a Gandhi, then he has done his homework well. It is a harsh fact that in many states the Congress is no longer an important player.

However, another truth is that he has to do much more to shed the tag of a reluctant politician who seems to be in politics not because of his choice but because of his destiny. The fact that he took so long to say yes to a bigger role in the party inspite of the Congress rank and file including Sonia Gandhi and Manmohan Singh wanting him to take the plunge is a case in point. It seemed that he was happy running the Youth Congress for eternity.

Another weakness which Rahul has is that though the Congress cadre considers him their oxygen, he is yet to prove himself as a winning option. He is also not a great orator though he seems to be improving in recent times. Also, now that he is the number two in the party, Rahul needs to be more vocal in Parliament and speak on issues concerning the country or those which are close to his heart. After the ‘game-changer’ speech on the Lokpal Bill we haven’t heard much from him even though much water has flown under the bridge since then.

Yes, it is said that he has backed Aadhaar and NREGA to the hilt but what about the economic situation of the country, the beheading of two soldiers at the LoC, the Gujarat Assembly Elections, the brutal Delhi gang-rape case, the new anti-rape bill, the Italian marines crisis, the Afzal Guru hanging, the DMK pullout, the resolution against Sri Lanka, and so on and so forth. If Rahul is the beacon of hope for the Congress party then he needs to be more forthcoming and tell the people of the country as to where he stands on these matters.

Rahul has to realize that he will get bouquets for the good decisions he takes and will have to bear the brickbats if he goes wrong and does not perform. He can no longer be insulated, if he does not deliver, by senior Congress leaders who were ready to take his share of blame in the past. The fact that the Congress will go to 2014 polls with a decade of anti-incumbency and with corruption, price rise and inflation staring it in the face, does not help matters for Rahul Gandhi. While all know that the focus of the Congress party will remain the poor, it has to go all out to woo the youth and the middle class if it wants to come back to power.

Does Rahul have it in him to connect with this segment is the question often asked, something that Narendra Modi seems to be doing with certain amount of ease lately. If one were to go by the online buzz then for the youth of the country, Rahul is a product of dynastic politics who did not have to do anything to come up the rank and file and make a place for himself in the party. Many also feel that he may have some good ideas and intentions but their effectiveness is yet to be tested. Moreover, with regional parties growing from strength to strength, will Rahul be an acceptable face to the regional leaders in the era of coalition politics, is also an important question. It is an uphill task for the Congress VP and at the moment his plate seems to be full.

Post Script: Rahul, the fifth generation of the Nehru-Gandhi family in politics, in an attempt to silence those who have been curious as far as his marital status goes said that he had no immediate marriage plans. “If I get married and have children, I will be status quoist and will like my children to take my place.” For me it was difficult to understand as to what he exactly meant by this. Would someone care to explain?