In recent years, Sugata Srinivasaraju has emerged as one of the country’s most astute commentators on Indian politics. His regular columns in two national broadsheets parse contemporary political developments, which he often contextualises with his meticulous reading of post-independent Indian history. The Bengaluru-based Srinivasaraju provides a thoughtful and sometimes provocative perspective in his columns which are refreshing to read as he writes from a different vantage, unlike most other senior political columnists who write from Delhi.
Strange Burdens: The Politics and Predicaments of Rahul Gandhi
Pages: xxii + 302
Srinivasaraju’s previous book, a biography of former prime minister H. D. Devegowda, was hailed for its rigorous research and for resuscitating the legacy of the Janata Dal (Secular) supremo who was not given his due by the Delhi-centric brand of national politics. His most recent book, Strange Burdens, unpacks the politics and persona of the Gandhi scion who is the second most popular politician in the country after Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Srinivasaraju makes it clear right at the outset that this is not a biography of Gandhi but a political commentary that uses journalistic tools of analysis to explain his political life over the past two decades. Thus, this book is not for those who are looking for a chronological narration of Gandhi’s life with its triumphs (of which there are few) and tribulations (of which there have been many); it is for those who are interested in understanding the variegated dimensions of Gandhi’s politics which are enmeshed with his personality.
Srinivasaraju states that the idea for the book germinated in a potential “New Yorker profile” but grew into a book “partly thanks to the personality of Rahul Gandhi, the existential crisis that the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and the Congress party faces, as well as the turbulence of our extraordinary times.” Strange Burdens also automatically engages with the personality of Modi and the juggernaut that the BJP has become post 2014, because, without this, Gandhi’s role cannot be truly evaluated.
“This book is not a biography of Gandhi but a political commentary that uses journalistic tools of analysis to explain his political life over the past two decades.”
In the introduction, Srinivasaraju lists four themes that he explores in detail across nine chapters: Gandhi’s “Privilege”, his “Ideological Rigidity”, the “Archetypes” that Gandhi represents and, strangely, the author’s caution that the revival of Congress under Gandhi could become a “Conservative Project” as the striving for liberal values should not be about restoring a past (the past before BJP as the Congress aspires to do) but a project that has to be consistently worked upon.
Gandhi’s privilege and his ambivalence to power
As a fifth-generation politician whose great-grandfather, grandmother and father were all Prime Ministers, Gandhi “practically lived being watched by strangers in proximity all his life.” Srinivasaraju adds that Gandhi has a “Jesus Christ and a Mother Teresa archetype that plays out in his image”, but can this idealism and utopian vision be associated with power politics? He does not think so because Gandhi himself appears to be a reluctant politician. The paradox is that “if he does walk away [from politics], he will surely be damned, if he stays, he will still be damned.”
The first chapter examines Gandhi’s “loss, grief and reconciliation” in the wake of the assassinations of Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. Srinivasaraju feels that he is “still struggling to negotiate his grief and his labyrinthine emotional world”. Gandhi’s sojourn to Karnataka in 2008 on the eve of elections in the State is discussed in detail in the second chapter where Srinivasaraju states that “Rahul’s critics [in the BJP and in biased media] started looking like his karmic dependents”.
Gandhi’s ambivalence towards power is discussed in the third chapter. The family’s tryst with destiny and its historical role meant that Gandhi was thrust into a natural frontal role but how does he aim to communicate with the larger Indian population beyond the educated liberals? Modi, on the other hand, rooted in the Hindu cultural cosmos, is a seemingly adroit communicator.
In the fourth chapter, Srinivasaraju shows how Gandhi’s attempts to present himself as an upper-caste Hindu have failed miserably as election results have shown in the past. Rather than mimic the BJP’s approach to Hindu gods and fall prey to the trap of who is a better Hindu (a battle that the BJP always wins), the better response would be to “seek refuge in the undistinguished, plebian shrines of these [subaltern] million gods”. Through his examination of Gandhi’s forays into religion, Srinivasaraju demonstrates that he remains “confused”. The way in which Gandhi explicates on the “idea of India”, he writes in the fifth chapter, remains ambiguous in contrast to Modi who has mesmerised his audience since his “narrative mythologises the past, constructs an antiquity and civilisational glory for a modern nation”.
“Sugata Srinivasaraju writes that Rahul Gandhi has a “Jesus Christ and a Mother Teresa archetype that plays out in his image”, but can this idealism and utopian vision be associated with power politics?”
The cultural wars between the Congress and the BJP, and the former’s shaky response to this, are discussed in detail in the next chapter where Srinivasaraju argues: “Every political party sought power, but the BJP always created a cultural reasoning to seek it.” The problem is that the Congress does not have a permanent cultural cell akin to the RSS which can be its cultural compass. And what about the ideology of the Congress under Rahul Gandhi? Again, Srinivasaraju finds shortcomings here because of its non-specific nature. Even when it comes to a cogent economic policy, he finds Gandhi inarticulate.
In the subsequent chapter, Srinivasaraju discusses Gandhi’s unique location in our time and the challenges that it represents, especially how he has had to face hostile mainstream media and an inquisition on social media. Even the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which was the Congress’ manoeuvre to elevate Gandhi’s image, lacked a clear political signal. In his epilogue, Srinivasaraju states that there is “little doubt that Rahul has strived to find his own independent path” but the question remains as to what this means for the Congress as Gandhi has failed to evolve into a consummate politician.
Srinivasaraju’s analytical method is interesting as he does not rely on or claim access to private sources; instead, he thoroughly dissects and scrutinises everything that is in the public domain. Gandhi’s speeches and statements—both inside and outside Parliament—provide the material for this examination but the author’s sources are omnivorous and incorporate pronouncements made on social media as well. In that sense, the greatest triumph of the book, apart from its intense foray into Gandhi’s persona, is in its novel methodology. It is an expanded political commentary, a genre that is common in newspaper columns but rare in book-length projects.
This is not an academic work as the author himself acknowledges because journalists “do not have the luxury of academics to wait until history turns a bend”, but a sharp and insightful appraisal of a politician who is the unifying symbol of the second largest political party in India. Through this scrutiny, Srinivasaraju has identified the problems that both Gandhi and the Congress face. Indeed, the top tier of the party’s leadership could benefit from a close reading of this book.