Sing a new song, RaGa…

Young, resilient Indians will constitute 51 per cent of India’s workforce by the end of this decade. Little drops of water, perhaps, but were they to form an ocean, what a resurgence that could be! Perhaps, from this new platform, RaGa could put his shoulder to the wheel and assist in rehauling India

Ratna Raman Delhi 

Anil Kapoor’s inspired Indian version of 24 features an eponymous hero who is potential prime ministerial material. Young, preparing speeches with a written text, supervised by a powerful mother and a devoted sister at hand with a dissolute husband, the hero and his family immediately recall the current Nehru-Gandhi dynasty.  Rahul Gandhi has come of age. He is the Congress party’s mascot, quoted in newspapers and television channels, featured in cartoons, with pet names ranging from Pappu to RaGa, and has now been cloned on celluloid in a fast-paced serial.

 Rewind the years back to 1982 when New Delhi had colour television and was all of a bustle, preparing to host the Asiad. At Siri Fort, Rajiv Gandhi was often sighted beside Buta Singh, absorbing, scrutinizing and overseeing the build-up to the Asian Games. Rajiv and his wife, Sonia, as the grapevine would have it, were responsible for the elegant, pastel, printed silk sarees with Jantar Mantar motifs on the border that was the designated uniform for all female volunteers.  Curious gazes greeted this reluctant scion who had been roped into the political process by the unforeseen but fortuitous death of a younger brother in 1979.

Two years later, October 1984 smashed into the nation’s consciousness as India joined the list of nations whose premiers had been claimed by brutal assassinations.  Ironically, Indira Gandhi’s assassin was none other than her own security guard, trained to protect her at all costs. Premier-less, with  a police force turning a blind eye to violent mobs on the rampage, killing Sikhs, vandalizing and burning their property and possessions —  New Delhi descended into darkness for over three noons.

 Rahul Gandhi was 14 in 1984. We encountered him as a young boy in endearing photographs taken by his amateur photographer father.  Rajiv’s life choices as a privileged private citizen were written, first by his brother’s death and subsequently cast in stone by his mother’s untimely demise. Everyone who sneers at the idea of dynastic democracy would do well to remember that this pattern is not endemic to India alone. Guild traditions wherein craft and training were bequeathed from one generation to the next has been the model adopted the world over by political families. The  Nehru-Gandhi family  has been at the  helm of national affairs long before we became an independent nation,  showcasing  lives of privilege  moulded inexorably and irrevocably by the
political process.

The year 1991 was the next time that Rahul appeared on colour television, at his father’s funeral pyre. Rajiv’s bumbling good will and energy were blown to smithereens at Sriperumbudur by a human suicide bomber with Sri Lankan LTTE leanings, not very long after he successfully dodged a soldier’s rifle butt while inspecting a parade in Sri Lanka. This was a numbing moment for the entire nation and watching the bereaved members of his family, dressed in sepulchral white, older women across the country broke down and wept inconsolably.

Rahul’s initiation into public life with a prehistory of nightmarish recollections of the brutal deaths of primary family members has been a rough passage. His previous reticence and average intelligence must be understood in the context of his formative years when he was overshadowed by his taller and ostensibly brighter younger sister. Were we to subtract the pomp and privilege of belonging to the first family, what would we have? An introverted young person, shaken by generational visitations of brutal deaths, absorbing the grief of family and the everyday insecurity of threats to his own person. Losing a grandparent or a parent in normal circumstances can be extremely traumatic. Losing them to a senseless and brutal blimp in the political process can knock meaning and sense out of one’s life for a long, long time.

It is not surprising that Rahul’s unwillingness to enter the political arena exceeded by far the reluctance displayed by his own father. Rahul’s media appearances, his forays into national politics and his attendance in Parliament have been erratic.  His reluctance to take up the mantle possibly stems from a justifiable instinct for survival that cannot be grudged. His public addresses lack punch and vigour. He is an unexciting speaker. The blame for the sad but very real decline of the Congress, however, cannot be laid at Rahul’s door. His predecessors in politics have said and done a whole lot of terrible, unforgiveable things.

In all fairness to Rahul, at his worst, he can only be accused of rambling, unconnected statements. It is unfortunate that he cannot look beyond his grandmother’s legacy. His sister had at first seemed to be destined to carry the mantle. In the chauvinistic history of the world, daughters with older brothers do not usually inherit the crown. (Indira Gandhi and Elizabeth I were sole offsprings!) Priyanka Gandhi’s ostensibly strange utterances   about her brother’s political qualifications need to be seen as part of the process of the compulsory initiation of the male scion. The odds that grandma’s short-lived discussions on statecraft and politics with young teen grandson would pave the way for a philosopher ruler remain rather low.

At their worst, Rahul and Priyanka display evidence of blinkered thinking in their public statements. Unlike their belligerent vegan cousin, they simply do not reveal any symptom at all of being bloodthirsty. Priyanka’s private prison visit to forgive her father’s alleged killer remains a deeply sensitive, humane and poignant gesture. Rahul’s sensitive camping out and breaking bread with villagers and his bolting away from security cordons is naïve perhaps, but  not indicative of any sinister plot. 

Yet, following in their mother’s footsteps, they remain inextricably attached to their Indian roots. This is an important qualification in their favour because many young men and women of the ‘upwardly mobile’ generation of liberalization have opted out, choosing the comfort of private lives in more hospitable, sanitized and affluent parts of India and the globe

What alternatives do we have to Rahul Gandhi? There is Narendra Modi, industrious and efficient, ominously moving centrestage, although deeply dyed in bloody communal red. There are wives, mistresses, middle-aged maidens and newcomers leading political groups in different parts of the country, who are yet to engage in a Modiesque manner outside of their own satraps. There is Arvind Kejriwal, addressing the dumnikaltey hue hazaaroon khwaishen of the aam aadmi (the thousand dying aspirations of everyman) while the Left continues to remains bereft of ideas, imagination and action.

Yet, we have grown up in a democracy with the descendants of the Nehru family. They have dominated our political history in a way that no other family has. Of course, we love to hate them. It is true that the good done by Nehru was reversed by the Machiavellian politics of his daughter. The sobering and tragic reminder is that she paid for it with her own blood. Rajiv, who reluctantly took on the mantle, responded to the 1984 riots with an insensitive and asinine metaphor about great trees wreaking havoc by their fall. With him rests the blame for unleashing Ayodhya-gate and Shah Bano upon us. While Ayodhya-gate exacerbated  communal conflagrations, the Shah Bano case resulted in the effective suppression of  women’s rights in favour of reactionary control.

Another political party in power, along with its allies, demolished a medieval mosque and subaltern churches and pulled the pin out of grenades to trigger a vicious communal wars. We live today in India, in troubled times.  All our hallowed institutions are under stress.  The state has begun to nod vigorously in the direction of foreign investment and remains inept at furthering indigenous talent. Education, law, human rights, civic rights, amelioration of the conditions of the poor, and universal medical health, among others, seem to be in dire straits. Governance is almost non-existent and everything continues to be propelled by a mass momentum. Everything that is in motion is of great magnitude and seemingly comes with corporate or multinational interference.

Muzaffarnagar reels from recent riots, murders, mass displacement of innocent citizens. Darjeeling plunges every other day into bandhs, Kashmir is incendiary and Andhra Pradesh is in flames.  Calamities caused by human malice notwithstanding, floods and cyclones have also arraigned themselves against us.

The burgeoning of wealth and comfort among the privileged classes in our country since the days of liberalization has been  followed by the flight of the rich and the privileged  and the aspirational middle class to greener parts of the globe. Such choices continue to exist today for both Rahul and Priyanka, particularly in view of their partial Italian ancestry. Yet, following in their mother’s footsteps, they remain inextricably attached to their Indian roots, and have chosen to stay on in Damoclean India. This is an important qualification in their favour because many, many young men and women of the ‘upwardly mobile’ generation of liberalization, entirely Indian in origin, have opted out, choosing the luxury and comfort of anonymous private lives in more hospitable, sanitized and affluent parts of both India and the globe.

Where do we go from here? In recent weeks, Rahul has made two very exciting interventions. The first was his repudiation of  the Bill/ordinance that was to be passed by the self-serving and cynical upholders of the State. By responding to the President’s objections to the Bill and flouting protocol and procedure, Rahul ensured that the horrendous Bill was rejected. This definitely provided fodder for the mills and led to many speculations and stories. 

Rahul was a part of the UPA committee and must have been aware of the implication, but, unlike his studied silence in scam season, he has taken a stand in this case. Irrespective of all the scepticism we can bring to bear on this, something good has been set in motion and, hopefully, will make for greater accountability and probity in public life. 

Priyanka’s private prison visit to forgive her father’s alleged killer remains a deeply sensitive, humane and poignant gesture. Rahul’s sensitive camping out and breaking bread with villagers and his bolting away from security cordons is naïve, perhaps, but  not indicative of any sinister plot

Which brings us to Rahul’s subsequent statement, namely, that 2016 will have young leaders at the helm of affairs. Having watched young, dynastic politicians in recent times in Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra and elsewhere, this pronouncement seems the very prognosis for a scary scenario. Were we to look a little away from (and not askance at) the bleak political present, what possibility could the future hold?

Today, there is little evidence of the existence of the spirit of the Indian National Congress. Rahul  is out of sync with the present political establishment but, since he continues to provide inputs in public forums, we need to accept them as his personal/political views that go beyond party lines. Political leadership today needs to address the demands of a continually widening ambit.

The good news is that a significant number of young people and middle-aged people has begun to quietly and steadily aver that India matters and that being Indian matters. Education and exposure, including with experiences abroad, has brought back many more thinking Indians with new skills and newer impetus, eager to add more meaning and value to India. There is recognition that poverty, illiteracy and the inequitable distribution of resources and mismanagement have slowed us down as a nation. A section of our countrymen and women is slowly and steadily working in NGOs, with schools, with the State, in the private sector and in their  personal capacities, to alleviate the situation.

Demographically, young, resilient Indians will constitute 51 per cent of India’s workforce by the end of this decade. Little drops of water, perhaps, but were they to form an ocean, what a resurgence that could be! Perhaps, from this altogether new platform, RaGa could put his shoulder to the wheel and assist in rehauling India!

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: NOVEMBER 2013