Waiting for Rahul Gandhi to do something, I sometimes wondered whether Oscar Wilde’s comment about youth being America’s oldest tradition didn’t also apply to Congress politics. With everything going for him, Rahul can live up to his moving speech in Jaipur by helping to reconcile the economic pragmatism that is Manmohan Singh’s forte with the vote-catching tactics that Sonia Gandhi has made her speciality.
Rahul is 42. Reverse the figures and you get 24, the age at which William Pitt became England’s prime minister. Master William was a precocious lad, already chancellor of the exchequer, equivalent of the job P Chidambaram holds. His precocity was evident when his father was created Earl of Chatham. The seven-year-old boy was thankful not to be the eldest son and heir, so that he could “serve his country in the House of Commons like his papa”. He had probably already decided to head the government one day. Though there’s no corroboration for the story of his nurse taking him to Cambridge in a carriage and staying to look after him, he started undergraduate life there at the ripe old age of 14 years and six months!
Although a slowcoach in comparison, Rahul did tell his Singaporean hosts in 2006 he “had consciously decided” to “go into politics the day (his) father was assassinated to carry on with the work he was doing”. He was not quite 21 when he took that decision. He was 37 when he became the party general-secretary. That was the year after he spent a week in Singapore learning statecraft from the man Sonia called “a visionary statesman, a towering Asian leader … who had become a legend in his own lifetime”. She meant Lee Kuan Yew.
Dowagers may resent debutantes, but veteran politicians love novices from abroad. That was evident when Rajiv Gandhi visited Ronald Reagan in 1985. “Although a few years separate us, just a few,” twinkled the 74-year-old president of his 42-year-old guest after their Oval Office tête-à-tête, “we hit it off”. Lee is more austere of speech and Rahul is normally a reserved person. But he found the octogenarian Singaporean – whose devotion to precision resembled his father’s, he claims – flexible and receptive. “I am not the kind of person who minds criticism,” he says of the encounter. “If somebody makes sense, I listen.” Lee obviously did.
Apart from listening to Lee and his son, Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, he inspected the port and airport, visited colleges and corporations, discussed Singaporean vocational training for India and even dropped in at an eye centre and beauty therapy course. There was a brainstorming session with local luminaries, and time with two ministers. One, George Yeo, the sensitive and articulate foreign minister who sadly lost his seat in the last election, is probably in India this weekend in connection with the Nalanda project that is dear to his heart. Some say if Singapore could have an Indian prime minister, it would be the other, London School of Economics and Political Science, Harvard and Cambridge alumnus Tharman Shanmugaratnam, deputy prime minister in charge of finance.
Rahul’s real mentor, Lee, advised him to go slow. That could be one reason he shied away from office while younger comrades – Sachin Pilot and Jyotiraditya Scindia – became ministers. As Lee told me when I was researching Looking East to Look West: Lee Kuan Yew’s Mission India, the “name recognition of his ancestry” gives Rahul “an enormous advantage” in the television and internet age but drawing votes is not enough. Neither is “just looking good”. Rahul would have to prove himself.
“If he is wise,” Lee elaborated, “he should not take the lead position until he is fully equipped to understand all parts of the complex and very intricate whole of India. Because his drawing power is very big and can vanish in one term at the helm, he should not take over until he has had enough experience to understand how it all works, and surrounds himself by very able people to run it until then.”
The time has come to test that advice. The Congress vice-president is not quite prime minister, but if his mother is ill and serious about retiring, Rahul will be in a position to project his views and expect concrete translation. Though I cannot but wish the whole procedure had been more transparent, with the roles of prime minister, party president and vice-president constitutionally defined, everybody will wish Rahul success for the country’s, if not his, sake on this Republic Day.