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Wanted: a magic wand


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AMBITION is a perfectly legitimate gene within the political DNA. Without ambition it would be almost impossible for anyone except a saint to suffer the dross, ennui and heartless envy of foes and friends that consume so much of a politician’s time.

The glamour of attention and the pleasures of power are a mere 10 per cent of this business. But ambition has its conditions. There is a good reason why the world frowns on naked ambition. It looks ugly. Ambition always needs a tailor who is master of masks.

One of the more interesting developments of the last three months has been a flurry of media reports promoting Finance Minister P. Chidambaram as a future prime minister; and they meant the near future, not a distant one.

Even as sage an international newspaper as The Economist felt the urge to push this candidature. This reflected clear disappointment in Dr Manmohan Singh’s second term; many of Chidambaram’s cheerleaders were flag-wavers of more liberalisation in economic reform and thought that Dr Singh had lost the will to push this agenda significantly forward.

But there was also a growing feeling that Rahul Gandhi, the nominated heir, had not risen to the occasion offered by history. His inability to articulate policy or lead debate seemed to be the only explanation for his absence from the discourse.

Confidence in Chidambaram was also an implicit vote of no-confidence in Rahul. Rahul Gandhi did not help his cause by disappearing from public view, apparently on a long holiday, while the iconic youth movement against rape and lawlessness filled Delhi’s streets.

There is no capital in the world that excels Delhi in the art of gossipy analysis. Self-appointed pundits began to whisper about an emerging formula: Rahul Gandhi would make Chidambaram his Manmohan Singh. He would emulate his mother, stay at the side of a prime minister as the political power and last word, but leave the ardour and responsibility of day-to-day executive management to Chidambaram. As options go this certainly seemed to have its merits.

The “chintan shivir”, or think tank conference, in Jaipur should kill such entertaining chatter. The first and lasting message of this event is that while the Congress may have much to think about as it heads towards another election hour, there is one subject now closed for discussion.

Rahul Gandhi will lead the party in the next campaign, and thereby claim the prime ministership if the electorate makes this a possibility. Rahul Gandhi dominated the poster space at the gathering, and all the rustle directed at the media indicated that there was nothing to discuss.

The message came from the very top. Mrs Sonia Gandhi’s political adviser, Ahmed Patel, does not give interviews; and in any case does nothing without clearance from Mrs Gandhi. In a rare interview Patel made it clear that the future of Congress belonged to Rahul Gandhi. It is possible that such clarity broke a heart or two in the upper echelons of Congress, but it will reassure the majority of the party.

Congress did not become a family organisation only because the family wanted this. The party has also forgotten, willingly, internal democracy. Nor are there any smoke-filled rooms where a caucus can ponder choices. Congress leaders dismiss non-family suggestions with contempt. Their argument is that family is the only factor which keeps Congress united. They shudder at the disarray below during Narasimha Rao’s time at the top.

The timing of the Jaipur convention invites other questions. Is Congress preparing for 2013 general elections, possibly along with elections to those states where they are due this autumn-winter?

There is no point wasting momentum in the long calm before a storm; you might lose the sheen by the time the real test begins. Rahul Gandhi has so far been packaged for short bursts interspersed by fallow spells during which he lowers his public presence, or even disappears. Perhaps that is a demand of his personality. The demands of power do not permit such luxury, but that is something that Rahul Gandhi will have to deal with after the general elections.

Mrs Gandhi has confirmed that her son will be the pivot of the next campaign by asking Congress to concentrate on the young and middle class. These are the electoral constituencies which are most likely to be amenable to Rahul Gandhi at this juncture of his career.

If Rahul Gandhi cannot get their vote, then the story is over before it has begun. But this is also the vote that has drifted away, thanks to stalled economic growth, rising prices, corrosive corruption and the havoc perpetrated by criminals and rapists in Delhi.

Congress hopes that Rahul Gandhi will somehow manage to deflate the overwhelming anger. That will however require a magic wand. Are any such wands left in the Congress kit?

We will know in about six months. Till then, enjoy your chatter about politics.

The writer is editor of The Sunday Guardian, published from Delhi, India on Sunday, published from London. and editorial director, India Today and Headlines Today.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (6) Closed

Raj Jan 20, 2013 04:48am
As usual. M.J.Akbar is right on target and his insight is incredibly accurate.
Rajeev Nidumolu Jan 20, 2013 03:33pm
Indian democracy has shown its weakness in continuation of dynastic politics. There are several competent Congress leaders who can lead who are sidelined because of dynasty. Congress is now trying to put a young poster boy in front as it knows that the Indian electorate is young and have no memories of Nehru or Indira Gandhi .
(Dr.) B.N. Anand Jan 20, 2013 12:00pm
Sir, I am equally stunned at his analysing the present turmoil in congress party with respect to Rahul Gandhi to an incredibly very accurate assessment. Going by the competence and the lack of confidence which Rahul Gandhi often exhibits, he may use Chidambram the way his mom has dealt with Dr. manmohan Singh. That will soon be possible when his mom vacates the Congress President chair to him at a proper time, now when Rahul Gandhi has been made the vice- President of the party. The script is looking in a way as if Mr. Akbar had been a ghost author of this script. BNA
NASAH (USA) Jan 20, 2013 05:27pm
In Indian politics the dynastic history repeats itself -- the mother and the son duo repeats itself into another mother and the son duo. India is caught in this birth and rebirth cycle.
Riaz Jan 20, 2013 07:08pm
Indeed, ambition is what propels one to achieve the goals. Unrestrained ambition leads to chaos. Pakistan is a prime example. Ambitions with out law to restrain it is a recipe for disaster.
MP Singh Jan 20, 2013 11:38am
I doubt if Rahul Gandhi is competent to handle the 2014 General Elections for the Congress Party. On all crucial issues hitherto - Indo-US Nuclear Deal, FTI, CWG and 2 G scandals - he expressed not even his views, let alone his recommendation. The young middle class of India, I think, is already disillusioned with the Youth Congress, which contributed nothing to the cause spearheaded by Anna Hazare for the eradication of corruption. How can then we expect him to come out and speak with clarity on issues of national importance during the elections? Indian youth is not a blind follower of Youth Congress any more.