Lessons from Canada for Clown Prince Rahul


Lessons from Canada for Clown Prince Rahul

Illustration: Sushant Ahire/ Arré

Well, what do you know? It is the 47th birthday of #Forever21 Rahul Baba, the adolescent heir to India’s Grand Old Party. If there is one thing that Baba’s tenacity in Indian politics has taught us, it’s that dynasties, in spite of their considerable flaws, are not things to be scoffed at. There are signs writ large in the history of politics across the world.

This unshakable faith in a dynasty, in spite of all evidence to the contrary, is not an ailment India alone suffers from. From the Bushes to the Bhuttos, the inexplicable love for dynasties riddles the framework of governments across the globe. It’s a phenomenon that dates back to antiquity. Even in Ancient Egypt, people propped up one dynasty after another. But then again, they got the Great Pyramid out of that deal, which is not to be scoffed at.

Otherwise, this preference for dynastic rules mystifies me. It’s a breeding ground for stuff straight out of a fantasy novel – bloody coups and executions (ask the Romanovs), fratricide, patricide, and civil war (Mughal family dinners were tense affairs), and even, ugh, incest (sorry George RR Martin, Cleopatra and the Ptolemy were a few millennia ahead of you).

The dynastic narrative also contains within itself a particular character trope. This trope is that of the crown prince. A scion of powerful parents, groomed from an early age for leadership, who inherits the family legacy as he comes of age. Of late, this crown prince trope has come dangerously close to being re-christened clown prince, but it may be a little early to give up on them completely.

Take Justin Trudeau, for instance. The son of former Canadian Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau. Papa Pierre not only dominated Canadian politics in the ’60s and ’70s, he also did a mean pirouette. Richard Nixon was so impressed by the young Justin that he toasted him as the future Canadian prime minister – when he was four months old.

But when Justin began his journey, “Just Not Ready” was the slogan his Conservative opponents devised, to portray Justin as an inexperienced, privileged man-child unfit for office – a slogan that eerily reflects the political career of Rahul Gandhi so far.

In modern politics, Rahul and Justin are flip sides of the same coin. Even before Rahul acquires his position of political power, we already know who will come up heads and who will trip, riding the coat-tails of a family name to fame.

Rahul is our very own home-grown crown prince. He is evidence that India wasn’t done cranking out dynasties after the Mauryans and the Mughals. However, Rahul may also be the evidence on how dynasties come to a screeching halt. Don’t get me wrong – we love RaGa. He won our hearts in May 2014 when he became the punchline for every second SMS forward. Personally, he thoroughly impressed me with his time-travelling abilities (“This morning, I got up at night.” #NeverForget). It didn’t help that during the elections he was about as unequal an opponent to NaMo as a puppy in a cage match against Hulk Hogan. I guess the Indian public just didn’t see the value of having a prime minister who is also a time lord.

One could argue of course that even Justin didn’t have the polish of his illustrious lineage. Justin’s other achievements include teaching a news anchor how to fall down stairs (with an accompanying physical demo), admitting to smoking weed while holding office, and doing bhangra at a cultural function looking like he was under the aforementioned influence.

In Canada, voters could see Justin go from being the pampered son to the pragmatic politician. In India, voters had the privilege to witness Rahul’s campaign shift gears from “he’s shy and retiring” to “he’s trying for early retirement”.

So predictably, the backlash to both has run on the same groove. When Justin was first elected to parliament, the public saw him as a lucky buffoon with the right surname.

Then how did Justin wrangle the prime ministerial position while Rahul was left watching from the sidelines in the Opposition, whenever he had time off from his holidays?

It could be said that Justin won because of the goodwill his father’s legacy generated, while Rahul lost because Modi was seen as the man who could break the Gandhi line of succession. But I think we’ll find that the answer is more nuanced.

Sure, the Congress and the Gandhi name have been sullied by scandal upon scandal. During their years in power, the UPA government sowed a bumper crop of controversy, and now the BJP-led alliance has reaped it. But to say that was the sole cause of their defeat would be an injustice to Rahul. He worked really hard to lose.

He hasn’t had the rosiest of times since then either. The Congress’s near shout-out defeat in the Delhi polls in early 2015 sent Rahul into a self-imposed exile. When he did resurface, it was with an easily scratched veneer of new-found bluster. That same November, he asked students whether they felt the Modi government’s Swachh Bharat and Make in India campaigns were working, and appeared to drown under a wave of fervent applause and affirmation from the students. Don’t think he has still recovered from that.

Despite having his road to the head of the party paved with a red carpet, Rahul hasn’t been able to really step into those shoes and present himself as an inspiring leader or an alternative to the incumbent PM. The Congress’s losing streak in state assembly polls this year has put the spotlight back on the 47-year-old “youth leader”.

Trudeau, instead, has shocked his critics by being ready. He campaigned like a veteran, building tactical support within the party and leveraging his boyish charm among voters.

I’m no M Night Shyamalan, but therein lies the twist. The polls aren’t indicative of the candidate’s capability, but the public’s perception. Rahul’s defeat doesn’t signify a shift from the dynastic mindset of Indian voters. Remember the buzz around Priyanka Gandhi, who wasn’t even contesting a seat, when she appeared at campaign rallies?

In Canada, voters could see Justin go from being the pampered son to the pragmatic politician. In India, voters had the privilege to witness Rahul’s campaign shift gears from “he’s shy and retiring” to “he’s trying for early retirement”. Winners get to write history, but Rahul got the final word: “Politics is everywhere… it is in your shirt… in your pants.”

Despite how this tale of two scions turns out, the plot points are the same. They have attended the world’s most prestigious institutes, entered politics, worked in white-collar jobs, and pitted their liberal positions against more conservative, right-wing opponents.

Both the babies came with silver spoons firmly lodged in their mouths. Both managed to spit it out – only Rahul decided to stick his foot in it instead.

This is an updated version of an article published earlier.