India's Princeling

Article excerpt

Byline: Swapan Dasgupta

A 'part-time politician' promises change. Is he for real?

Whenever the government in Delhi is confronted with a crisis--and these have been bimonthly affairs ever since the showpiece Commonwealth Games of 2010 became a tale of scandalous mismanagement--Twitter has been abuzz with an inevitable question: where is Rahul Gandhi? It's a question that can rarely be definitively answered.

Two biographies have been written about the 42-year-old vice president and heir apparent of India's ruling Congress party. Common to both books is a curious omission: neither author interviewed or interacted with the subject, a member of Parliament whose name is often prefaced with the words "youth icon."

The Gandhis are special. The normal rules of politics don't apply to the family. India's democracy is chaotic and spiritedly argumentative, and the media are fiercely competitive, deeply divided on political and ideological lines, and modestly irreverent. At the same time, the incessant questioning, hectoring, and even insolence stops at the door of the Gandhi family. Sonia Gandhi, chairperson of the Congress party, rarely subjects herself to interrogation (unless it is carefully prescripted), and questioning her son, Rahul, invariably results in a polite brushoff.

Rahul enjoys the highest level of security available--on par with the prime minister. Yet, queries about his movements under the Right to Information Act are routinely declined on grounds of "security." The point is, Rahul chooses not to get his hands dirty.

This Christmas, Delhi exploded in spontaneous anger over a horrific gang rape that led to the death of the victim. There were protests that led to a bewildered police force using tear gas and water cannons. The mood soon turned antipolitical, and there was resentment against the government's emphasis on VIP security and its neglect of the safety of ordinary people. Politicians skulked inside their protected bungalows, afraid to engage with the angry youngsters who spearheaded the protests. The more clever among them expressed their sympathy through ritualized soundbites on TV, and Sonia Gandhi, it is said, met with a delegation. …