Rahul Gandhi, the scion of India’s first family has always been characterised as a reluctant politician. His sudden decision to step into the electoral fray in 2004 took everyone by surprise, as he had not long ago voiced his desire to remain outside of it.
Fifteen years later, after his latest political debacle in the 2019 general assembly elections (where Congress has been virtually effaced from the political landscape of India), he appears firm in his insistence to step down as the Congress Working President.
The Congress old guard have utilised numerous means to persuade him otherwise, but to their deep dismay, he has remained unswayed. Apparently in a sulk after having taken all the blame, he has also refused to participate in the election for the new party president.
This behaviour of his is not an isolated incident. Even after the equally disastrous Congress general election campaign of 2014, he took a break from politics. It is rumoured that he spent those two months touring Bangkok, Thailand, Myanmar and Vietnam.
Right after that, he was back into the spotlight, although subdued. Both of these instances show that Gandhi has probably forcibly pushed into political limelight and is unwilling to shoulder the responsibilities that come with it.
At this juncture, it would prove worthwhile to go down the memory lane and revisit the probable reasons behind his unexpected entry into Indian politics.
Life before Politics
Rahul Gandhi was born on 19th June 1970, the eldest son of late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi and his wife and future Indian National Congress (INC) President, Sonia Gandhi. Being part of the Nehru-Gandhi clan, he is related to illustrious figures of the Indian freedom struggle like Jawaharlal Nehru and Feroze Gandhi.
However, contrary to popular perception, he is in no way a descendent of Mahatma Gandhi. His paternal father, Feroze Gandhi was born Feroze Gandhi and altered the spelling of his surname in honour of Mahatma Gandhi’s contribution to the freedom movement.
Rahul Gandhi spent his initial years of schooling at St. Columba’s School, Delhi and then The Doon School in Dehradun, his father’s alma mater. After his grandmother, the then-Prime Minister of India, Indira Gandhi’s assassination, he was brought back home for security reasons. He was home-schooled in Delhi, though he did attend Priyanka’s school on a few occasions.
After completing high school, he joined St. Stephens’ College, Delhi as a History honours student. A year later, he went to Harvard University and then to Rollins College, Florida (where he lived under the pseudonym ‘Raul Vinci’).
In 1995, he completed his M.Phil from Trinity College, Cambridge. After working at a management consultancy firm, Morton Group, Gandhi came back to India in 2002 and founded a BPO Backops Services Private Limited in Mumbai.
Rahul Gandhi has been described by various accounts as a shy, quiet and bookish child, all of which he reportedly still is. An avid reader; he prefers books on politics and history. Constantly under political threats, Gandhi had to live in isolation and thus probably never had the chance to experience a normal childhood.
He suffered a cruel blow in 1984 when his grandmother’s assassination at the hands of her trusted bodyguards and then in 1991 when his father was killed by Tamil Tiger assassins. Columnists have, therefore, ascribed his social awkwardness during the initial period of his political career to his stiflingly protected life.
People have always been in awe of him and it has always been expected of him to wield his familial privilege. Additionally, Gandhi is known to have been a sports enthusiast. Reportedly, he got through Delhi University’s stringent admission process on a sports quota for shooting. He had a keen love for fast automobiles in his youth and it is rumoured that he used to race his friends on the outskirts of Delhi.
Although Rahul was not an official member of the Congress before 2004, he did help out his parents on political matters. For instance, in his adolescent years, he accompanied his father while he was canvassing for votes across the country. Similarly, he assisted in the management of his mother’s campaign during her 1999 election bid. Furthermore, he was also involved in the setting up of the Indira Gandhi Museum and the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation.
Rahul Gandhi’s Entry into Politics
Rahul’s announcement of his formal entry into politics and his intention to contest from Amethi took everyone by surprise. First of all, Rahul had very recently declared in an interview, that though he was ‘not averse’ to politics, he had no intention of taking the plunge.
He wanted to bide his time, gain some more experience before standing for the election. Secondly, his sister, Priyanka was more actively involved in the running of the party. She frequently accompanied her mother in Amethi and she knew and was in turn known by all there. She was charming and charismatic too and everyone recognised in her a potential to be a great leader. Her resemblance to Indira Gandhi compounded their beliefs.
However, it appears that patriarchy and primogeniture took precedence over promise, with the then-Congress President, Sonia, deciding to field her elder son over her daughter. A recent news article even went on to call Priyanka the most pertinent victim of patriarchy in Indian politics. Regardless, though people expected her to be in the fray, they were no less happy at the prospect of the elder Gandhi sibling stepping into it.
The political environment of 2004 also needs to be noted in this context. The INC were flailing and under tremendous pressure to succeed. The current Prime Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee of Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), had over-confidently suggested that elections be held early, following BJP phenomenal success in the assembly elections of a few states. Psephologists and political analysts had predicted a BJP sweep.
Their slogan had been ‘India Shining’, indicating the steady economic growth that India had achieved under its care. In this situation, Congress desperately needed someone who could uphold their image, connect with voters and salvage their prestige, and who better to do so than the scion of India’s first family, the spitting image of India’s exalted former premier, who people still regarded as having had sacrificed his life for the goodness of the nation?
Therefore, Rahul Gandhi was brought in an astute political move to reinvigorate the party. The Gandhi surname would make voters instantly recall the numerous Gandhi’s of the eras past. Additionally, Sonia Gandhi’s Italian origins were becoming liabilities for the Congress and a major prong of BJP’s smear campaign.
Rahul was Indian-born and the great-grandson of one of the major architects of India’s autonomy from the British, Jawaharlal Nehru. He could potentially become the Prime Minister like his great-grandfather, grandmother and father before him as well as his mother too who was being touted as the next Prime Minister. The cunning use of dynasty politics made him, but however, it ultimately became their hubris.
Moreover, Congress’ top brass consisted of solely of old-timers and veterans. Rahul’s entry was expected to infuse some youthful energy. People were also tired and frustrated with the old-timers and wanted change; Rahul, being a new face, would be better able to persuade voters by the hope of him bringing in new changes.
Furthermore, it was thought that Rahul would be able to reach out to the section of the population which the older guard could not; his youth was supposed to appeal to and attract new and emerging young voters.
He was technologically adroit as well in contrast to the older generation, who were still grappling with the idea of the Internet becoming a new medium of communication. Congress leaders also probably realised that Rahul’s popularity as the nation’s most eligible bachelor was good press and would not hurt their chances.
Rahul Gandhi himself said that his primary aim at the moment was to curb the divisive politics of communalism, casteism and classicism that threatened to render the nation asunder. He also mentioned that he would like to end the lacuna in the education sector by setting up computer training centres for the youth.
So, on 21st March 2004, Congress spokesperson, Ambika Soni, announced that Rahul Gandhi, India’s own blue-eyed baby boy, would embark on his father’s footsteps and contest from the family bastion of Amethi. This was quite a safe choice for him as he was able to lap up all the adulation and warmth that had earlier been showered on his father.
The people of Amethi had had their tryst with history in the form of Rahul’s father, Rajiv, and swamped with nostalgia, they collectively decided to support him.
The BJP, however, regarded Rahul’s candidature with scorn and derision. They felt that the Congress was merely perpetuating the dynasty politics that had sustained it so far. Most BJP leaders had struggled long and hard to be recognised as leaders in their respective constituencies; to them, Rahul was simply being handed the opportunity of a lifetime on a silver platter.
It is said that some other Congress leaders also grumbled over what they felt was a disservice to the party, although behind closed doors as no one wanted to cross Sonia.
Rahul Gandhi ultimately won the Amethi Lok Sabha seat in 2004 and replicated this feat two more times in 2009 and 2014. However, his luck ran out in 2019 and he suffered an embarrassing defeat to BJP candidate, Smriti Irani.
Thus, Rahul lost his ancestral seat, and experienced a severe trouncing at the hands of the BJP, all due to complacency and an inability to read the people’s mood. Though Rahul has quite a few years ahead, it is uncertain how he will be able to wrench the country from BJP domination.