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Inheritor Rahul is no agent of change

Inheritor Rahul is no agent of change

Author: Swapan Dasgupta
Publication: Free Press Journal
Date: February 10, 2009

The 'cool' Gandhi and his equally cool band of young Congress MPs who flaunt busy- looking mobile phones and network on Facebook are subtly painted as the upholders of the Obama tradition in India. The young inheritors, ranging from Rahul baba to Omar Abdullah, are made out to be India's literal answer to Obama's "smart power". T hese are disconcerting times for the minusculity of selfprofessed Right wing "reac tionaries"-those who idolise Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, think that George W Bush will be vindicated by history and don't believe that Narendra Modi's rightful place is in the Gulag. The hype surrounding President Barack Obama's election and inauguration has cast a global shadow over sobriety and realism. A world, devastated by what Vladimir Putin referred to in Davos last week as "the perfect storm", seems to have found solace in an energetic euphoria, last witnessed during the youthful turbulence of 1968 or, more appropriately, the Beatles-mania of the mid1960s.

A few examples will illustrate the magnitude of the epidemic. Commenting in The Spectator on the BBC coverage of Obama's coronation, columnist Lidle Britain wrote, with only a sprinkle of exaggeration: "It's a sort of cross between Princess Diana's funeral and a Live Aid concert, except happier and the Black people aren't covered in flies." At a TV programme for India's Republic Day, the panellists (which included me, the token Right winger) were incessantly harangued by the youthful audience drawn from management institutes around Delhi with the question: Why can't we have an Obama? Ironically, I was asked the same question by some volunteers at L K Advani's sleek campaign office in Delhi-a question that left me convinced that this was the end of civilisation as I know it.

Nor has this adoration of the new messiah left the literati unmoved. At the Jaipur Literary Festival last month, there were hard-nosed publishers who confessed to shedding tears over Obama's inaugural speech. Since, by Obama's exacting standards, the speech wasn't all that memorable, it may be safely assumed that it was the inspirational idea of Obama, rather than what he actually said, that was the clincher. Even the venerable historian Simon Schama, who I expected to be economic with his emotions, seemed to imply that the election of the 44th US President was an act of collective penance by the Western world. Following Mao Zedong's judgement on the French Revolution, it may be far too early to assess the impact of Obama on the collective mentality of the West-inspired world. It is possible that Obama will indeed be the symbol of an American renewal which will show up the late Samuel Huntington as a false prophet. On the other hand, it is equally possible that the Obamasceptics in India's strategic community will have the last laugh, and cynical realpolitik will re-assert itself. It all depends on when the real Obama finally stands up and discards his campaign baggage.

The global discovery of the real Obama is unlikely to happen before millions of voters queue up in the summer to elect India's next government. As such, whether we like it or not, America's experiment with political change is certain to influence the strategic thinking of the political parties. The Opposition is likely to invoke "change" as a mantra and the Congress (the party has proclaimed that there will be no national United Progressive Alliance for the election) is likely to counter it by latching on to the youthful credentials of its undeclared heir-apparent. To arrest any possible anti-incumbency groundswell, a generational shift will be projected as a sort of changewithout-change.

The groundwork for a C-grade remake of the American presidential campaign is already underway. The attack on a pub in Mangalore by ideologically driven hooligans has been painted as an assault on the visible symbols of bling modernity: the glitzy malls, the free mingling of the sexes, cheap booze and call centres. The inalienable right of young people, particularly women, to drink freely has been contrasted to the puritanical assumptions of those who profess Bharatiya sanskriti and parampara.

Carefully chosen photographs of Rahul Gandhi, dressed in smart casuals, holding up the bar (but sans the mandatory glass) have been used to send out a politicolifestyle statement. The "cool" Gandhi and his equally cool band of young Congress MPs who flaunt busy-looking mobile phones and are networked on Facebook are subtly painted as the upholders of the Obama tradition in India. The young inheritors, ranging from Rahul baba to Omar Abdullah are made out to be India's literal answer to Obama's "smart power". They are also complemented by a new (but as yet invisible) breed of Congress activists, handpicked by either Rahul or his associates, young, educated and committed to good works. If the Indian election is going to be determined on the strength of lifestyles and correspond to the perceived yearnings of that amorphous mass that goes by the name of Young India, the non-Congress parties may as well be reconciled to sitting in Opposition for the next five years. If the same spiel and imagery used by advertising agencies to sell mobile phones, clothes and pizzas to the under-40s can shape the political preferences of the target group, the younger Gandhi should be shoo-in for the top job. Obamamania, the baba-log strategists calculate, will reproduce itself in India as an endorsement of Rahul.

Since it is hazardous to predict the preferences of a volatile electorate, it is inadvisable to sneer at the Congress' Track-2 strategy. There is a visible exasperation with the political class that may yet translate into success for a party that has promised to dole out 30 per cent of tickets to the young. It is also possible that a respect for Advani's lifetime achievement will not be accompanied by box office success. Yet, a caveat may not be out of place.

The success of Obama didn't owe exclusively to his relative youth and his outsider status. His appeal wasn't vacuously charismatic; it was held up by an ethos that was completely at variance with what the Bush order represented. Obama also articulated the compassionate, the multi-culturalist and the angry impulses of a section that was alienated from the power structure. It would be worth considering the possibility of Obama being such a monumental hit if he had been burdened by eight years of an incumbent Democratic president. This is not to deny the innovative campaign of a highly intelligent and focussed individual but to remind simple deductionists that Obama had both a message and a context.

It may be needlessly harsh but I am yet to come across a Rahul intervention that goes beyond the anecdotal and the pedestrian. At a time when the UPA Government is flooding the TV channels with images of happy, smiling villagers relishing the brave new world of Bharat Nirman, how is Rahul connecting with those who are confronted by the ugly realities of high interest rates, job losses, shrinking opportunities and the steady erosion of a dream, centred on a double-digit GDP growth? Dining with a poor Dalit woman and taking David Miliband on a poverty tour of Amethi shows the family's noblesse oblige; it has nothing to do with competence. How has Rahul demonstrated that his youthful impulses equip him to confront the monumental challenges to India's national security? On the two issues that challenge India the most-the economy and security-the designated heir's thinking is virginal.

Obama's final election in November was preceded by a year of intensive campaigning and public scrutiny. The covert Rahulfor-PM campaign seems to have been transfixed by the outward image of Obama. To American voters, Obama was all about an idyllic change; to the wannabe Obamas in Delhi, it is all about his facility with the Blackberry.

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