Wednesday, February 06, 2013

Rahul Gandhi: The insider as the outsider

The outsider has a long tradition in American politics. Anyone who can sell himself as being one is assured of making it to the White House, other things being equal.
The most recent in the category is the present incumbent Barack Obama, a one-term Senator who used his soaring "outsider" rhetoric to storm Washington's bastions.
But there have been notables of the past - George W Bush, Bill Clinton and before him, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter.
India, however, has Rahul Gandhi, a scion of the country's ruling dynasty whose roots go back to Motilal Nehru, who was president of the Congress party in 1919. His great-grandfather was India's first and longest serving prime minister, his grandmother was elected prime minister a record four times, and his father won the election with the biggest majority in the party's history, and his mother, uniquely, publicly declined the opportunity to take up the office.

Rahul Gandhi (pictured with his mother Sonia Gandhi) has an impeccable political lineage, but is presently playing the outsider
Rahul Gandhi (pictured with his mother Sonia Gandhi) has an impeccable political lineage, but is presently playing the outsider


But politics has its own compulsions. So shoddy has been the record of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance with regard to delivery of governance and services, that the only approach the insider has left is to play the outsider.
He is the one who must decry the "closed systems" through which the country is governed or allude to the anger and alienation of those "excluded from political class."
This compulsion does not drive the Congress alone. The contemporary distrust of politicians, their inability to meet the aspirations of the people, or address the challenges that they confront in their everyday life, is also propelling the BJP to project an outsider - Narendra Modi - as its prime ministerial candidate.
It is in part because of his tragic history, which he alluded to in his vice-presidential address in Jaipur, that Rahul Gandhi's entry into mainstream politics has been relatively smooth. The BJP and Shiv Sena criticism can be treated as being for form's sake.
After all, they have their own way of selecting their leader, and the Congress has its. So, there had to be a willing suspension of disbelief when we heard Rahul Gandhi inveigh against the lack of rules or conventions in the Congress party and wonder how it worked.
Actually, it's not clear just how Mr Gandhi was appointed Vice-President of the party. The Congress party constitution has an elaborate process for the election of the president which involves voting. Presumably there ought to be a similar provision for the VP, but, the party will say, the post was created anew at Jaipur, so the constitution has some catching up to do.
An intriguing aspect of Mr Gandhi's remarks in Jaipur was his critique of power which he saw as "a poison." In his moral universe, the only use of power was to "empower the voiceless."
But power is a far more insidious phenomenon. It is intrinsic to the way human beings function in groups. There are leaders and there are followers, or those exercising power and those upon whom it is exercised. There has never been a society or system which is free of power relations.
What is desirable is that this power is exercised by the consent of the people, through systems which are democratic and responsive, and where there are sanctions against the illegal exercise of power.
In some ways, Mr Gandhi approached this issue, but he did not quite clinch it, because he conveniently transformed it into a moral issue.


Rahul Gandhi has made much about the need to democratise the Congress party organisation, never mind the status of his own family. But we can take him at his word for this because he may be seeing this as a longer term step in which the democratised party organisation will evolve and the family will step aside.
There is no lack of models on democratic party functioning. Take the US, for example, where a party member must contest an election (primary) and win the vote of the party members to become a candidate of his or her party.
But there is another aspect of the American system that needs to be pointed out. First, the American system is biased in favour of the two principal parties. But the most disturbing aspect of US elections is the amount of money that must be deployed to be a meaningful contestant.
In the recent presidential poll, Barack Obama and Mitt Romney spent a collective $2 billion. Another $4 billion or so was spent in the Senate, Congressional and state election races. In India, too, a vast sum of money is required to contest elections. While the Election Commission limits expenditure for a Lok Sabha constituency in a large state like UP to Rs 40 lakh, anecdotal evidence would suggest that the actual figure could be ten times that sum.


It is the terrible thirst for money to fight and win elections that distorts our system of politics, governance and administration. But this is something that is rarely discoursed on in the media. True, various numbers are often tossed around, but there are virtually no authentic reports on election spending.
What is known is that the central party organisation provides some of the funding for an individual candidate, but he or she has to raise the rest of the amount required through their own resources. It is in raising this money that power relationships are developed, because as everyone knows, in life there is no free lunch.
Yet this is one issue on which there has been complete silence from Rahul Gandhi, and this is his true mark as an insider.
Mail Today January 31, 2013

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