Rahul Gandhi has finally made the choice of leading the Congress party in the next general election even though Sonia Gandhi will, as party President and UPA chairperson, continue to have a major role in all aspects of the campaign. Whatever the Congress may say, Mr. Gandhi, by accepting the post of party vice-president, has also more or less indicated that should the UPA win the election he will not be averse to becoming Prime Minister.
Mr. Gandhi, like his forebears, has assumed the mantle of leadership in his forties. Jawaharlal Nehru became President of the Congress in 1929 when he was 40; Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister at 48 and Rajiv Gandhi at 40. All three faced formidable challenges as they took over the reins of power. Nehru was required to give direction to the party in the wake of the Simon Commission and discussions on the devolution of greater authority into Indian hands. Indira Gandhi faced a restive country and the spectre of famine. Rajiv Gandhi had to provide calm to a people as they sought to overcome the trauma of his mother’s assassination.
Time of flux
Mr. Gandhi is acquiring the substance of power at a time of great popular anger at the disclosures in recent years of great and systematic corruption by the rich and powerful. These reports have come in an era of rapid and enormous social change, economic stress and political complexity, when the people are impatient for an improvement in the quality of their living conditions. Mr. Gandhi faces a challenge, at his initiation, which is greater than that which confronted his father, grandmother or great-grandfather when they were at similar stages in their political careers; unlike them he has to ensure the restoration of people’s belief in the political class and especially in his own party.
Mr. Gandhi’s address at the Congress Chintan Shivir at Jaipur last month was thought-provoking. He spoke with sincerity and clarity of the tasks before his party. It was not unnatural for him to recount the achievements of the Congress but it was noteworthy that he co-related all these attainments to popular demands and needs at particular points in our national development. This was skilfully done for it enabled him to move seamlessly from the freedom movement to Nehruvian and Indira Gandhi socialism to Rajiv Gandhi’s emphasis on infusion of cutting-edge technology to the Manmohan Singh era of capitalism and ‘inclusive growth’.
His speech also suggested that he is conscious of the need to restore popular faith in his party; hence, the repeated and continuous refrain on the ‘voice of the people’. It is of the utmost importance for a leader to keep his ears open at all times to the ‘voice of the people’ and to ensure that it reaches him without the filter of those who surround him. However, it is equally important for him to sense what they hold in their hearts and do not articulate out of fear of authority. Such fear is not confined to dictatorships and despotic regimes. It exists in democratic systems too. Nowhere is this fear more evident than in the hesitation to openly speak on matters concerning the actual or perceived wrongdoing by members of a leader’s family. In Mr. Gandhi’s case, this would be so regarding issues concerning his brother-in-law, Robert Vadra. How he deals with them would be the first real test of his leadership, for it would set its moral tone and test how much he values probity in public life.
Drawing the line
Mr. Gandhi was right in stating that Dr. Manmohan Singh’s policies unleashed the entrepreneurial spirit of our people. This was, of course, needed and has resulted in substantial economic growth. However, in the absence of competent and honest regulatory mechanisms, economic growth has been accompanied by extraordinary corruption in the area of the country’s natural resources, especially land.
Political parties wish to use corruption as an issue to target their opponents. At the same time they want to draw a line to exclude the kith and kin of political leaders who are not engaged in politics but are in business. A transgression of this line invariably invokes cries of a breach of political dharma. This position is also supported by India’s big business houses, for they have become an integral part of the extractive system. The mainstream media follow a selective approach, often taking their cue from their big business owners or their own political predilections. All in all, a selective conspiracy of silence is observed at most times in these matters.
It would be terribly misleading to think that the people overlook these issues and do not care. They watch the wrongdoings with a sense of hurt and despair at the injustice of it all. When they see growing disparities, their feelings turn to anger which occasionally manifests itself on the streets or in elections.
There is sufficient evidence of seeming irregularities and improprieties, if not illegalities, in land deals in Haryana over the past few years to warrant an impartial judicial probe. It is revealing that no political party has focused meaningfully on the Haryana land issue. The links between the companies and political parties are not confined to a few but cover all.
There have been allegations regarding Mr. Vadra’s land deals about which revelations have been in the public domain for many months now. No stratagem will erase them from public memory, even if the media do not consistently cover them. Hence, Mr. Gandhi needs to order a manifestly independent enquiry into Mr. Vadra’s business activities, not only because it would be the right thing to do but also for his own credibility.
Mr. Gandhi spoke with anguish about the poison of power. The true poison which lies at the core of power is the compulsion to take action, when necessary, against those who are dearest to you.
It was this dilemma that had confronted Arjuna when the great battle began in Kurukshetra. Mr. Gandhi has experienced great loss and pain at a young age but he has chosen to tread the thorny path of leadership. That has required courage. If he decides to ponder over Mr. Vadra’s issue in the still hours of the morning, he will need greater courage. But he can be certain that he will have the people standing behind him and by his side.
(Vivek Katju is a former Indian Ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.)