"That is how India runs." Speaking at the University of California, Berkeley, Rahul Gandhi had this to say when asked about dynastic politics in India.
He pointed out that Akhilesh Yadav is a dynast. Stalin is a dynast. Kanchan Chandra who edited the book Democratic Dynasties writes that in the 2014 Lok Sabha, 22 percent of the MPs had a dynastic background. Among the larger parties, Congress led the pack with 48 percent. Chandra writes, the BJP only had 15 percent but in terms of sheer numbers, it, not the Congress, had the largest number of dynastic MPs.
It's not just politics. In Bollywood, Abhishek Bachchan is a dynast. And for that matter so are Anil and Mukesh Ambani when it comes to business empires. "There are also people who did happen to have a father, or a grandmother, or a great-grandfather in politics. They do exist. Not much I can do about it," quipped Rahul showing he too has a wry sense of humour that's often well-hidden.
But he's also being rather disingenuous about the peculiar burden of dynasty within the Congress party.
So Gandhi is right. But he's also being rather disingenuous about the peculiar burden of dynasty within the Congress party.
The Samajwadi Party was founded by Mulayam Singh Yadav. It was built around him. And that's why it was taken for granted that someone in the family might well eventually "inherit" it from the patriarch. The family feud that erupted, made it crystal clear that for the Yadav clan, this was family property. If Mamata Banerjee grooms her nephew to take over the reins of the Trinamool Congress, she can certainly be accused of trying to build a dynasty. But she also built the party from scratch.
The Congress is different. The grand old party is older than the Nehru-Gandhis, but it seems to have long forgotten that. It has surrendered its very being to that one family and become their personal property.
Rahul Gandhi sounds like an affable man when he is in his comfort zone. His talk at Berkeley comes with touches of candour and self-deprecation. He is not one for boasts about a 56-inch chest. He got in his jabs in at Narendra Modi and the troll armies on social media as well. But on the touchy subject of dynasty, Rahul ducked the question.
His talk at Berkeley comes with touches of candour and self-deprecation. He is not one for boasts about a 56-inch chest.
The problem is not dynasty. It's not just India that runs that way. Many countries have dynasties whether in politics, business or showbiz. If India has its Gandhis, Ambanis and Kapoors, the US has its Bushes and Clintons and Barrymores and Fondas. It's not surprising if someone from such a family has an interest in the family business. If Chelsea Clinton decided to run for public office, people might roll their eyes but no one would be surprised.
But the point is Chelsea Clinton cannot take for granted that the Democratic Party will automatically anoint her. When Caroline Kennedy considered running for the US Senate she discovered quickly that just being the daughter of an iconic American president did not mean her senatorial nomination was a no-brainer. Dynasty might prove handy as a door opener but in the end a Chelsea Clinton or a Jeb Bush have to prove their aptitude. As did Indira Gandhi. She might have set the dynasty in motion by coaxing her airline pilot son into politics but she herself had to fight the old guard at one time. She had to prove herself.
Indira Gandhi had to prove herself. The Congress party seems to have no such test for Rahul Gandhi.
The Congress party seems to have no such test for Rahul Gandhi. He has never shown huge inclination for the job. He has not appeared to want to run for anything. If he had been a dynamic and charismatic go-getter no one would care about dynasty. But he has always appeared reluctant, diffident and hesitant, a politician in fits and starts.
That's the problem the Congress faces. Historian Ramachandra Guha has openly said: "Rahul Gandhi should retire from politics, get married and start a family. That will be good for him. That will be good for India also." But no one in the party is brave enough to say the emperor has no clothes.
That's not true of other dynasties that Rahul Gandhi talked about. Amitabh Bachchan's superstardom might have ensured that Abhishek got many more "second chances" than others might have. But in the end, Amitabh will never be able to pass the crown of superstar to his son. The Ambanis might groom the next generation to take over the family businesses but they too will have to deliver. The Congress under Rahul Gandhi's watch has failed to deliver and continue to do so. But they never have to be held accountable publicly.
After the 2014 election drubbing, Sonia Gandhi said she took 'zimmidari' or responsibility for the defeat. But it was empty drama as always. The mother and son would renounce the crown. The party would place it back on their heads. This was always about accepting responsibility but without taking any responsibility.
Steeped in their noblesse oblige, the Gandhis would play this drama of renunciation and acceptance taking on the leadership of the party as if it was a crown of thorns. And the party would be expected to react with gratitude.
The greatest tragedy is that any ambitious politician knows that for now, the top job in the Congress is always shut out to him or her. At best he or she can be a prime minister like Manmohan Singh where a Rahul Gandhi can storm into the press club and tear up an ordnance he does not like. Or she can go found her own party like Mamata Banerjee.
Rahul admitted "a certain amount of arrogance" had set in with UPA2. But what Rahul does not admit is that as far as his generation of the Nehru Gandhis is concerned the problem is not so much arrogance as it is entitlement. Rahul Gandhi could go MIA for weeks in 2015 and feel no reason to inform his party where he was or when he would return. And the party twisted itself into knots defending his absence. This is not job security. It is job entitlement.
Now when Rahul says he's ready to take on an executive role but the party has an "organizational election process that decides that" he is not fooling anyone.
"Such magnanimity should make the Congress one of the best places to work in India," quipped The Telegraph at that time.
Now when Rahul says he's ready to take on an executive role but the party has an "organizational election process that decides that" he is not fooling anyone. This party is his to take if he is ever done with a "study tour". He might be "absolutely ready" but we have been hearing that for awhile.
The problem is not the dynasty per se. The Congress' problem is its particular reluctant dynast. That he seems more at ease in California than on the campaign trail in UP does not make it any easier.