Rahul Gandhi’s elevation to the vice-presidentship of the Congress, and the possibility that he might become prime minister were his party to form a government after the next general elections, prompts a careful look at his record in politics. Consider these facts:
1. Mr Gandhi has been a member of the Lok Sabha for almost nine years now. In that time, of every ten days Parliament has been in session he has attended only four. In almost two full terms as MP, he has asked four or five questions, and made four or five brief speeches. None of his questions or speeches has had any impact on governmental policy in any meaningful way. Nor have they endured in the public imagination.
2. In the nine years Mr Gandhi has been an MP, his party has been continuously in power. It was understandable that he would not want to assume ministerial responsibility straightaway. Yet it is striking that when, in 2008, some young Congressmen were given junior ministerships, Mr Gandhi refused to accept a post in government. It is even more striking that when the Congress-led coalition won a second mandate in 2009, he once more chose not to join the cabinet. He had shown interest in questions of rural development, but when requested specifically to take charge of the ministry of rural development, he declined.
3. In these nine years in politics, Mr Gandhi has campaigned for his party in several elections. He spent one day in Gujarat, but the Congress did poorly. He spent more time in Bihar and much more time in Uttar Pradesh, but the Congress did poorly in those states too. He did campaign quite widely in the 2009 general elections, but the conclusion of most analysts was that the Congress’s improved showing was chiefly the impact of Sonia Gandhi (for sponsoring the right to information and the rural employment guarantee legislations) and of Manmohan Singh (for his commitment to economic growth and his then intact reputation for rectitude and honesty).
These facts demonstrate that Rahul Gandhi has been an unwilling and undistinguished parliamentarian, diffident or nervous about assuming ministerial responsibility, and not very effective at winning votes or seats for his party. To be sure, Parliament, cabinet, and elections do not exhaust the scope of politics or public life. So let me turn to some, so to say, extra-parliamentary initiatives taken by Mr Gandhi. I list five, in chronological order:
1. In March 2008, Rahul Gandhi visited the Niyamgiri hills in Odisha, where the Dongria Konds were protesting against a bauxite mine that would destroy a mountain holy to them, and undermine their livelihoods as well. Taking the side of the tribals, Mr Gandhi told them: “Main Dilli mein aapka sipahi hoon” (I am your soldier — meaning active representative — in Delhi).
2. In January 2009, Mr Gandhi took the then British foreign secretary, David Milliband, to a village in Uttar Pradesh, where they spent the night in a Dalit home, sleeping on adjacent charpoys.
3. In February 2010, Mr Gandhi rode a suburban train in Mumbai.
4. In May 2011, Mr Gandhi visited the village of Bhatta-Parsaul, not far from Delhi, where farmers were protesting against the acquisition of their land for an infrastructure project, the take-over done without their consent and by paying compensation at less-than-market rates.
5. In October 2012, Mr Gandhi visited Srinagar in the company of some leading industrialists, Mr Ratan Tata among them. He spoke at the Kashmir University, promising the students that he would bring top-class companies to the Valley to promote investment and provide high-skilled jobs.
It must be said at once that these five initiatives highlighted substantial issues, that tend to be underplayed by other political parties and in wider public debate. The state of adivasis is even worse than that of Dalits and Muslims. They have gained least and lost most from 65 years of democracy and development in independent India. They are massively under-represented in senior political positions, in professions such as law and medicine, in the bureaucracy and the judiciary. Adivasi villagers have lost their lands and forests to more powerful economic interests, getting little or nothing in return. Their continuing dispossession is a key reason for the rise of the Maoist movement in central India. That Mr Gandhi chose to go to Odisha and show his solidarity with exploited adivasis showed sensible and sensitive political instincts.
Mr Gandhi’s other initiatives were also motivated by good intentions. Among a citizenry disgusted by the lal-batti culture, by the privileges and perquisites granted to itself by MPs and ministers, it was a good idea to mingle with the aam admi, to see where she sleeps and how he travels. Again, the forcible seizure of farms and homesteads for industrial or infrastructure projects has caused much suffering in recent decades. Finally, a most practical way of linking the Valley to the rest of India is indeed to generate enterprises and jobs for the young students there.
The initiatives were good, even noble, yet there was absolutely no follow-up on any. Mr Gandhi was a sipahi for the adivasi for a single day only. He took only one suburban train, spent only one night in a Dalit hamlet. I do not know when, or if, he next plans to revisit Kashmir with industrialists in tow.
Why didn’t Mr Gandhi take up one issue and see it through to the end? Schedule V of the Constitution allows for special provisions whereby tribals can be made stakeholders in industrial or mining projects. Why could Mr Gandhi not have persuaded a major company to allot 25 per cent of its shares to the tribals whose lands it took over, using the proceeds to generate skilled education and sustainable employment, thus also providing a workable model for other companies to follow? Likewise, why is it that in the intense, ongoing debates to frame a forward-looking bill to replace the archaic Land Acquisition Act of 1894, one voice that is conspicuous by its absence (in Parliament and outside) is that of Mr Gandhi? Finally, since insurgency in Kashmir is as serious a security threat as Maoism, why did Mr Gandhi not take Mr Ratan Tata back to the Valley, and make sure that at least one Tata facility is opened there?
The nicest thing one can say about Mr Rahul Gandhi is that he is a well-intentioned dilettante. He has shown no signs of administrative ability, no desire to take on large, important responsibilities, no energy or commitment to solving — as distinct from merely identifying — serious social problems.
Mr Gandhi’s dilettantism would not matter so much if he was still in college or in a private-sector job or running a small business of his own. But as the vice president and prospective leader of India’s largest, oldest, and still most influential political party, and as their candidate for prime ministership, it does matter. From what we know of him as thinker and actor, as politician and social reformer, it seems quite clear that if the Congress were in a position to form the government after the next general elections, and if the party then nominates Mr Gandhi as prime minister, the nation shall not be in safe hands.