‘Rahul Gandhi is a symbol of the old Indian establishment’: Sugata Srinivasaraju

The author of Strange Burdens: The Politics and Predicaments of Rahul Gandhi talks about his subject and beyond.

Published : Sep 12, 2023 08:04 IST - 4 MINS READ

Sugata Srinivasaraju

Sugata Srinivasaraju | Photo Credit: MURALI KUMAR K

Shorn of his political legacy, do you think someone like Rahul Gandhi, who you write “has a Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa archetype that plays out in his image”, would have survived in Indian politics?

If Rahul Gandhi had not inherited the political legacy he has come to inherit, to become a fifth-generation dynast, then he would have perhaps been a very different person. Assuming everything else about him were to be a constant, that is his social, economic, and educational background, it is possible that he would have chosen a different field and led a pretty quiet life. Even if he were to be in politics, he would have perhaps represented very different concerns. It would have been an altogether different dynamic.

Whether he would have survived or quit the pugnacious political scene would have depended on what mental capabilities and fortitude he possessed as an individual. His personal journeys would have mattered there. However, if one assumes he did not come from the same social and economic background as he does now, then in the Indian context it would be helpful to know what class, caste, and religious background he came from to somewhat evaluate his resilience. Sometimes how one handles everything or how combative one is is also dependent on where one comes from, and the legacies of one’s social context.

Also Read | The unbearable burden of legacy: Review of ‘Strange Burdens’ by Sugata Srinivasaraju

Rahul Gandhi has been a brutal victim of the BJP and the Hindu right-wing’s troll armies. If he does not seem to be a consummate politician as you argue, why do his critics expend so much energy on discrediting him?

His vicious opponents are not just targeting Rahul Gandhi. He is a symbol of the old Indian establishment. He is perceived as the ultimate elite of the Indian system. Through him, they are discrediting his family and his ancestors. They are targeting the over-100-year-old party that he represents. They are targeting the values that his party and the most illustrious member of his family,  Jawaharlal Nehru, have come to represent in Indian politics. Rahul Gandhi has become a convenient symbol of everything that his opponents disagree or even hate both in cultural and civilisational terms.

However, it has to be said that Rahul Gandhi, his family and his party (the family is the party anyway) have done certain things very poorly both in terms of democratic principle and strategy, which I discuss in the book. That opens them up for attack. Politically speaking, it may be incorrect to see them as just innocent victims of a diabolical right-wing design. I say this even as I acknowledge that the attack meticulously constructed against them has been the most brutal and uncivilised.

Rahul Gandhi per se is unimportant for his opponents, but his surname which has a great brand recall even in the remotest corners of India is what perhaps scares them. They want the resonance of that surname to go away in the political space. After the Congress’ electoral defeat in 2014, the BJP’s political mission has been to ensure that the Congress party, and thereby the family, does not revive itself.

“His vicious opponents are not just targeting Rahul Gandhi. He is a symbol of the old Indian establishment. He is perceived as the ultimate elite of the Indian system. Through him, they are discrediting his family and his ancestors.”

Rahul Gandhi had just entered his teens when his grandmother, Indira Gandhi, was assassinated, and was all of 21 when his father, Rajiv Gandhi, was killed. How do you think this has affected his political persona?

The assassinations have undoubtedly caused deep scars. This I do not say after some psychological evaluation. I am not competent to do so. That any human being would be affected is a natural conclusion. But, in the book, I read some of his important speeches made at crucial bends in his political life very closely and ask why he punctuates each one of them with the memories of the brutal killings of his dear ones. Even the speech he made at the end of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, in Srinagar, was clouded by his personal loss. It perhaps weighs him down and pushes him away from the conventional and pragmatic default of politics.

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Ever since Rahul Gandhi entered active politics in 2004, and assumed a frontal role in the Indian National Congress, the party has plumbed to its lowest depths. But without him, the party does not have a locus either. What is, then, the way out of this conundrum for Gandhi and the Congress?

There are perhaps many ways to solve the conundrum. The one I suggest in the book is that Rahul Gandhi should openly declare that he will never accept executive power, that he will never be Prime Minister, but work the rest of his life to preserve the values of the Congress party, and be the custodian of its ideals. He will do very well in this moral role than in an electoral role. This, I guess, will change the dynamics inside the party entirely. It will open up space for new talent. It is wrong to assume that the party has no locus without him. Nothing new has been tried.

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