The decision of the Congress president, Rahul Gandhi, to walk across to the prime minister’s seat in the Lok Sabha and embrace Narendra Modi last Friday apparently took even his mother, Sonia Gandhi, by surprise. His supporters were quick to hail the “spur-of-the-moment” act as a political masterstroke. His detractors dismissed it as a cheap gimmick that, once again, underlined Rahul’s political “immaturity” and confirmed that he was no match for Brand Modi.
But for anyone who has followed Rahul Gandhi’s trajectory, the concluding words of his speech expressing gratitude to Narendra Modi as well as his unscripted gesture of embracing the prime minister were neither tactical nor theatrical. Rather, it marked an organic progression of a deeply personal battle that has now fused into a much bigger political objective.
Long before Narendra Modi came on the national scene, Rahul Gandhi struggled to overcome feelings of anger and hate. Like his father before him, Rahul was a reluctant politician. But Rajiv Gandhi had a very short political apprenticeship before being propelled into the post of prime minister after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. He did not have time to brood about the nature of politics and, in any case, was much too pragmatic and cheerful by nature, at least in the persona he portrayed to the public.
Sonia, too, initially refused to step into her husband’s shoes after his assassination in 1991 even though she was the Congress Working Committee’s first choice to lead the party. It was only in 1998, when the Congress appeared to be in terminal decline that she decided to take the plunge. Her success in keeping the party together, then winning a series of assembly elections and finally wresting power at the Centre after stitching together a coalition, sealed her position as the undisputed leader in her own right. For the Congress rank and file, the Nehru-Gandhi family was the glue that kept it together – never mind the incessant attacks on “dynasty”.
In light of this experience, everyone knew that it was only a matter of time before Rahul Gandhi would also be impelled to join, and then lead, the Grand Old Party. But unlike his charismatic sister or charming father, Rahul took a long time getting used to politics. Despite having politics in his blood as it were, Rahul came across as gauche and awkward, not at all at ease with the glib and smooth-talking ways that come so naturally to men and women engaged in the cold-blooded pursuit of power. He was no “people’s person” either, the kind who just love the adrenaline rush that comes from addressing mass rallies, from offering patronage and receiving adulation in return.
Rahul’s formal entry into politics with an election victory from the family borough, Amethi, in 2004 also coincided with the return of the Congress – as head of the United Progressive Alliance coalition – to power. But he refused to join the government, and his sporadic comments against the “system” made him an object of ridicule. He focused on revamping the Youth Congress, and later the Congress – efforts that earned him more opprobrium. It seemed hypocritical for someone born to privilege, to the most powerful political dynasty in the country, to talk of democratizing the Congress and making it an instrument for social change – when the Congress was synonymous with the Establishment and had long ceased to be the open platform it had been in the pre-Independence era.
As the UPA’s decade-long innings came to a close, the attacks on it – and on Rahul – from a resurgent Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party became fiercer. Rahul was cast as the know-nothing “Pappu”, a man without talent or vision, thrust into a position of leadership by the virtue of his birth. A presidential battle between Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi, a prominent public intellectual declared, was a “no-contest”. Modi would win hands down. He did.
But despite all the ridicule, Rahul made it repeatedly clear – both before and after 2014 – that he was not in politics for the power and pelf of office; power for its own sake held no charm for him, he had seen it up close and personal, and had been tormented and traumatized by it. At the Jaipur session of the Congress in January 2013 when he was elected the vice-president of the party, he famously said, “Last night everyone congratulated me. But last night my mother came to my room and she sat with me and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many seek is actually a poison… The only antidote to this poison is for all of us to see it for what it really is and not become attached to it.”
On other occasions, he has spoken of the anger and pain he suffered after his grandmother and his father were assassinated. For Modi and millions of his supporters, the Congress president may be the dynast greedy for power. But Rahul thinks of himself – and his sincerity is obvious even to cynics – as someone burdened by a cruel destiny who must overcome his personal demons and then take on the bigger challenges that fate has bestowed on him.
At the same Jaipur speech, Rahul spoke of these demons. “When I was a little boy,” he said, “I loved to play badminton. I loved it because it gave me balance in a complicated world. I was taught how to play, in my grandmother’s house, by two of the policemen who protected my grandmother. They were my friends. Then one day they killed my grandmother and took away the balance in my life. I felt pain like I had never felt before.”
Addressing a rally in Churu in October 2013, he once again referred to the experience and how it took 10-15 years to get rid of the anger he felt towards his grandmother’s assassins. He went on to say, “After Indira’s assassination, there was only anger all around. Today, that anger has disappeared from the minds of our Sikh brothers. It takes minutes to start anger but years to get rid of it.”
More recently, at an interaction with Indian Institute of Management alumni in Singapore in March 2018, he, once again, drew from personal memory to make a larger political point. Rahul said both his sister and he were very upset and hurt and angry after their father was killed but had now “completely” forgiven the killers.
Elaborating, he said, “I remember when I saw Mr Prabhakaran [the chief of the LTTE, the organization which assassinated Rajiv Gandhi] on TV lying dead, I got two feelings – one was why are they humiliating this man in this way. And second was that I felt really bad for him and for his kids and I did that because I understood deeply what it meant to be on the other side of that thing.”
“So to me,” Rahul said, “when I see violence, regardless of who it is, I know that there is a human being behind that, there is a family behind that, a kid crying behind that.”
But even after transforming his own feelings of anger and hate into forgiveness and empathy, Rahul was still floundering for a role in public life that went beyond pedestrian power play. The last four years that have witnessed an exponential rise in hate crimes and hate speech, in the spread of venom and vitriol, in the daily assaults on the ideals of liberty and fraternity, of pluralism and diversity have provided Rahul with a purpose, a mission. It is no longer about his personal traumas, dwelling on which seemed to others an act of self-pity and self-indulgence. Suddenly, his canvas has become much bigger, his “love conquers all” message more urgent. And if he has found the heart to forgive the assassins of those he loved the most, surely he can reach out to political adversaries who merely abuse him?
That explains why Rahul thanked Modi so profusely for “teaching me my religion, teaching me the meaning of Shivji” – an allusion, perhaps, to Lord Shiva drinking poison for a greater good. That explains Rahul’s heartfelt hug for Modi.
The Congress president may often seem awkward and bumbling even if sincere and well-meaning; he lacks the 56-inch muscularity, the killer instinct to be Modi’s sole political alternative. But with his ringing message of love and compassion, Rahul Gandhi has gone beyond politics as we know it. He has risen to become the singular moral antithesis to Narendra Modi…