Canadian television journalist Joe Schlesinger, who was known for his reportage on the wars in Vietnam, Latin America and the fall of eastern Europe, had an interesting theory on political ambition. According to his "ambition theory", different types of ambition defined the different career paths of politicians.
Schlesinger articulated how one hardly makes any headway in politics without ambition. He even categorised the types of ambition that decide the outcome for politicians — discrete, static and progressive. Discrete meant a certain specific term in office, static meant a longer term, and progressive, a career that would systematically go up.
Now that Rahul Gandhi has been chosen by the Congress Working Committee (CWC) to head the party, it's Schlesinger's ambition theory that he should pay attention to. What defined his career so far has been "discrete" and "static" ambitions, in which he made cameo and tentative appearances. That era is over. If he wants to play longer, he needs to be progressively ambitious.
Given the Congress's pitiful condition, he needs to be not just ambitious, but should be possessed by it. Here are three reasons why.
People may call you names, but it's your ambition that will define your character and longevity. Learn from Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi.
Among post-independence politicians, the two leaders who stand out for their sheer intensity of ambition are Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi. They were also the only two long innings players (barring Jawaharlal Nehru, who didn't have to fight for it).
Although Indira had the privilege of dynastic political capital, both she and Modi are similar in their single-minded pursuit of power. Indira Gandhi had been dubbed incompetent by almost all senior leaders while she was cutting her teeth under Nehru.
Nehru's secretary M.O. Mathai recalled in his infamous Reminiscences of the Nehru Age that C. Rajagopalachari said this about her: "I have known that girl as a child in her mother's arms. She has not grown since the age of two. She has nothing of the father in her." Ram Manohar Lohia had called her a "mute doll". But the same Indira Gandhi went on to rule India from 1966 till she died in 1984, except for a post-emergency gap of three years in between. Even after the post-emergency rout, she was relentless in her ambition and put the dynasty and the party back in power when pundits prescribed a permanent exile.
Narendra Modi's case is no different either. Hailing from very a deprived background, he rose progressively from an RSS pracharak and political-errand to state and central leadership roles. In a calibrated timeframe, he became the state chief minister and finally the prime minister. The stigma of the Gujarat riots and the ostracisation of the West should have finished him off, but he never gave up. The leaders that he served as a pracharak don't even get to play the second fiddle today. The man who once posed for a photo outside the Whitehouse as a political wannabe entered its precincts to hobnob with the American President and the country that refused him a visa became his second home for political propaganda.
The secret was ambition, not discrete or static, but progressive. All the others — from Morarji Desai and VP Singh to Advani and Vajpayee — too had been ambitious, but they didn't know how to sustain it progressively for longer terms.
It's Indira and Modi that Rahul needs to emulate.
Progressive ambition also means real hard work. It's a skill, a way of life.
Despite being a Member of Parliament for 12 years and the President of the Youth Congress for about a decade, Rahul has been reluctant to convert the endowment of the country's only ruling dynasty into a long-term asset. He certainly knew how to jump headlong into a burning issue, but looked eager to get out fast. Whether it was marching with villagers against Mayavati's land acquisition in Uttar Pradesh or undertaking village visits with David Miliband to highlight rural poverty, his attention span has been limited. He always disappeared before the climax, whereas in politics, the real action happens after the climax.
Even when he appeared to play longer term, it didn't last more than a few days
With Sonia Gandhi showing signs of slowing down, his 2015 speech in the parliament, wherein he took on Narendra Modi directly, was sensational and could have been the final push for himself and the party, but the euphoria lasted only for a few days. He shone brightly and the media loved him, but he went back to sleep. Recently, he made a dramatic interlude again — this time at at the One Rank One Pension agitation site in Delhi and got arrested, but the possibilities just ended there. It didn't turn out to be an Indira Gandhi-style revival as Shashi Tharoor hoped.
Despite all the setbacks, including many manufactured by the BJP, even a drama-prone Arvind Kejriwal is trying his best not to get disheartened or distracted and stick to his ambitions. It's a marathon and should be run like a marathon. Short and exciting elective sprints don't work here. It's a skill one needs to internalise and embody.
It can't get worse than this.
What the CWC is handing over to Rahul is just a rump of an institution and writers such as Ramachandra Guha think that the party has no future because the next 15-20 years will mark BJP's hegemony. According to Guha, the BJP will be what the Congress was in the 1960s and 1970s. People like Guha also see no future for Rahul and want him to retire.
Such observations are not without reasons — the party looks emaciated in most parts of India and there is no bright spot to start with while the BJP is getting bigger. This adversity is Rahul's real, or rather only, opportunity. It can't get worse than this. Listen to what Julian Assange of Wikileaks said (in his interview with John Pilger) about Hillary Clinton's ambition to become the American President — get eaten alive by ambition. That's your only option.
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