By Bernd Debusmann Jr and Shayan Shakeel
After over a decade of failures, the scion of India's most storied dynasty might finally have learned the art of politics
Chaos ensues when Indian opposition party politician Rahul Gandhi enters a room.
Dressed in a traditional Nehru jacket and white kurta, Gandhi is flanked by bodyguards and followed by a retinue of enthusiastic staff members. But even before taking to the stage, and immediately after stepping off it, he is mobbed by people – including many reporters – who jostle, scuffle and elbow each other for a chance to take selfies with him.
It’s a scene more befitting to a rock star than the next generation of India’s most prominent political family. But Gandhi is unsmiling and pushes his way past the crowd. This is a man on a mission. And he’s got a message.
Power in itself has never attracted me, nor has position been my goal – Sonia Gandhi
It was in December’s assembly elections that the Gandhi sensation first gripped India. His party, the Indian National Congress, scored three stunning – and previously unimaginable – victories in Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh, wresting the ‘Hindi Belt’ states from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
The results came after Gandhi led from the front, addressing more than 80 rallies in which he hit Modi where it hurt, relentlessly highlighting charges of government corruption, mounting unemployment, agrarian mismanagement, and discontent among tribes and India’s ‘untouchable’ Dalits, members of the lowest social group in the Hindu caste system.
Many Indian political observers noted that Gandhi’s effort combined India’s traditional boots-on-the-ground campaigning with modern political tech. In the build-up to the vote, Gandhi’s tweets – many of them featuring pointed attacks on the Prime Minister – were a constant fixture.
A spirited use of social media, along with gauging public opinion through the party’s Shakti (power) app, helped Congress gain traction among large swathes of the population that previously voted for the BJP.
A month after the elections, personal attacks between Gandhi and Modi have remained a fixture of Indian political discourse.
“I am not Narendra Modi,” he tells a group of predominantly Indian reporters in Dubai. “I am not a liar.”
Gandhi’s attack is one in a long line of insults both parties have hurled at each other. Modi and the BJP have spent years casting their political foe as a ‘pappu’ – a North Indian term traditionally reserved for innocent puffy-cheeked boys – and as an undeserving heir to a privileged political dynasty.
Priority number one would be job creation, where the current government is failing. We have a massive unemployment problem
It’s a moniker that’s been hard for Gandhi to shake off. His nascent takeover of India’s political consciousness contrasts starkly to just six months ago when he was called a political novice at best, and India’s Mr Bean at worst.
His blunders were the butt of every news hour joke, not least because of his ‘part-time’ embrace of politics that saw him ritually take two weeks off from party responsibilities and celebrate his birthday as well as the winter holidays in December. He also had a habit of embracing the wrong people at public outreach events, bungling gender pronouns during speeches, forgetting acronyms for state agencies, using English to address audiences in rural constituencies, and smiling at funerals.
In one of his most infamous gaffes in June, Gandhi mispronounced the Prime Minister’s many trips abroad (bahir in Hindi) as ‘bar’. It might have been brushed off as a misstep anywhere else, but what should have been a ‘scathing’ address quickly lost the plot and left a parliament – prone to bullying Gandhi for his naiveté – in fits of prolonged laughter.
Born in Delhi in 1970, Gandhi is scion to the first family of Indian politics. His great grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, who named his dynasty in honour of Mahatma Gandhi, was India’s first prime minister. His grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was India’s first female prime minister, and father Rajiv Gandhi was also prime minister.
In fact, his mother, Sonia Gandhi, who took over the reins of the Indian National Congress (INC) after her husband was assassinated by a suicide bomber in 1991, would have also been prime minister, had it not been for opposition to the fact that she was born in Italy and therefore only a naturalised Indian citizen.
The bond between India and the UAE has stood the test of time
Before joining politics in 2004 at the age of 34, Gandhi spent 14 years away from India, at Rollins College in the US – where he was called ‘Raul Vinci’ – and then at University of Cambridge in the UK to study Master of Philosophy. When he returned to the motherland, many expected a fresh breath of youthful intellect to grace the otherwise fusty world of Indian politics. Instead, as news website Quartz India put it last year, “The sighting of Rahul Gandhi 2.0, like the full moon on Eid, has become an annual ritual.”
“Many distinguished people such as Jawaharlal Nehru… have held the post before him and helped the party reach heights,” Union Law Minister Ravi Shankar Prasad, a Modi ally, said in November. “But I can assure you, if he [Rahul] was not born into the Gandhi family, he would not even have been a zila [village] head.”
However, Gandhi now seems to have discovered how to be quick on his feet, an ability that, uncharacteristically, has the BJP on the backfoot. Its attacks against him seem to have lost their edge. According to statistics from Google Trends, Gandhi has become the most searched for Indian politician, scoring 45 out of 100 compared to Modi’s 34. By comparison, in 2014, Gandhi scored 4 to Modi’s 37.
Another set of data from the University of Michigan, found that Gandhi’s tweets were significantly more likely to be re-tweeted than Modi’s between January and April, despite Modi’s 45 million followers dwarfing Gandhi’s 8.2 million.
Adamant against the opposition’s furore, Modi has referred to himself as India’s chowkidar (gatekeeper) and said the reason Gandhi’s party is up in arms is because, “I am doing my job.” When asked to comment on the quote, Gandhi can barely contain himself with the pun: “Does he mean chori (to steal)?”
Gandhi is boiling his message down into a digestible list of BJP failures that he says have diminished India’s status in the world, including as a country in which to do business.
I am committed to helping build an even stronger relationship between our countries
He is still chastising Modi’s 2016 move to demonetise 500 and 1,000 rupee notes. While the BJP has tried to spin the move as a success that saw deposits at banks increase, the move led to widespread cash shortages, and consequently protests and strikes against the government across India.
“An unbelievably rash and irresponsible action,” an angry Gandhi roars. “He [Narendra Modi] was directly responsible for the decimation of the informal sector,” he says.
His litany of grievances also include how India changed the way its GDP is calculated despite other countries in the world having also taken the step. Gandhi insists the Modi administration’s intent was to hide its shortcomings.
However, where Gandhi’s message is resonating the most is the backlash that the Modi government is beginning to face for its pursuit of ‘saffron nationalism’. While the movement has led to the introduction of the ancient art of Yoga to a whole generation, and helped initiate the ‘Make in India’ campaign, it is most closely being associated with the suppression of minority rights in the country.
In 2014, Modi’s past as the chief minister who oversaw communal riots between Hindus and Muslims in Gujarat had all but been forgotten. But reports and videos of violence against people who eat beef in India have become a common occurrence.
“India right now has been spoilt with an atmosphere of violence,” Gandhi tells Arabian Business. “India was known for non-violence and being peace-loving in nature. When people look at India now and see violence, they get worried.” The image has a cost, says Gandhi. “It’s driving away business.”
Gandhi’s defining moment, and the BJP’s unravelling, could come from the Rafale Jet controversy that has engulfed Indian politics.
The controversial 2015 purchase of 36 Rafale jets worth $8.9bn from France’s Dassault Aviation has yet to result in a single jet delivered. Even more worrying for Modi is details that have emerged pointing towards corruption and ‘crony capitalism’ by the administration after businessman Anil Ambani’s company, Reliance Defence, was chosen as domestic partner to the deal, despite the firm having no previous experience with the technology.
I am humbled by the love of the Indian community here in the UAE and their infectious enthusiasm and energy
“The CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) wanted to investigate the Rafale scam. The prime minister fired him (CBI director Alok Verma). The Supreme Court intervened and said they can’t fire him… Then in another three months the prime minister fired him again,” Gandhi says, irritation growing in his voice. “It’s pretty clear he [Modi] is strangling institutions and attacking the strength of India… [His] actions, whether against institutions or actions on the economy, have basically destroyed confidence that Indian people and the international community had in Narendra Modi. And he’s done it himself.”
Gandhi’s refusal to let the controversy fade has resulted in the most vexing period the BJP has faced during it’s time in power this century. His party is flying kites with ‘Rafale’ imprinted over them in Rajasthan, has commissioned a professional theatre troupe to perform it’s telling of the controversy in Mumbai’s streets, is disrupting parliament sessions by forcing BJP ministers to account for details of the deal, and he has openly, and repeatedly, challenged Prime Minister Modi to debate with him about the deal in public – something Modi has refused to do so far.
There are many obstacles to the path that could see Gandhi and his party win the elections in the world’s largest democracy in April-May 2019.
Chief among them is the fact the incumbent PM is a true and tested politician of the highest order. The biggest brand in the country, Modi is still seen as a man of the people, an image Shehzada (Prince) Gandhi – as news outlets in the country often call him – simply cannot conjure, despite all the nights he has spent in rural villages waking up unshaven and bedraggled to prove otherwise.
And while Gandhi might not be generally be viewed as dishonest, he continues to retain his penchant for either misstating, or misunderstanding facts. “India is facing a 14-year low with respect to investment flows into the country,” he tells us when asked about the state of the country’s economy. Except that foreign direct investment into India is at record highs, even if the pace of growth has trickled to 1.24 percent. The investments poured into infrastructure investments by the domestic public and private sector are, however, at 14-year lows.
We’re the party that will provide the fastest economic growth India has ever had in the first decade of this century
Gandhi hasn’t yet been able to detail much of a plan, except that it would have two main economic priorities should he one day find himself in India’s highest office. The first, he says, is tackling India’s unemployment, which rose to 7.38 percent in December, the highest in 27 months. “Priority number one would be job creation, where the current government is failing,” he said. “We have a massive unemployment problem.”
The second, he says, is rebuilding trust in Indian government institutions, including the Reserve Bank of India (RBI).
“It’s the first time in Indian history that the chief of the RBI has resigned,” he explains, referring to the December resignation of RBI governor Urjit Patel. “We will build confidence in institutions like the RBI, like the Supreme Court, like the election commission, which are under systematic attack.”
Looking ahead to the General Elections in April and May, Gandhi faces an uphill battle. At the moment, the BJP holds 268 seats in India’s Lok Sabha (House of the People), compared to the INC’s 45 – with 272 needed for a majority. While the INC is unlikely to overcome those odds on its own, party officials have said they plan to form strategic anti-BJP coalitions throughout India in a bid to prevent another rout – as in 2014 – and roll back Modi’s influence.
India has been fortunate enough to witness a number of legacies in its history. Lala Amarnath, India’s first cricket captain and his son Mohinder Amarnath who grew into one of the country’s finest exponents of batting against pace; the Kapoor dynasty that for generations has been the most influential family in Bollywood; and the Gandhi dynasty that has helped define the country over the past 72 years. Each has had to face its own adversary during the time – a Pakistani pace attack, entertainment during war, and liberalising an economy in the face of protectionist sentiment.
India’s strongest dynasty needs Gandhi to turn into a winner if he is to turn the tide against an adversary that had united India – until recently – unlike any other would-be ruler since the British Empire.
Gandhi, for his part, seems confident despite the obstacles – even if he remains short on details.
“Our party has a record. We’re the party of liberalisation. We’re the party that will provide the fastest economic growth India has ever had in the first decade of this century,” he snaps at reporters, seemingly exasperated with questions about his plans to challenge Modi. “We know how to do that. We’re going to do it.”