Sugata Srinivasaraju’s critique of Congress leader Rahul Gandhi is empathetic and rigorous but doesn’t delve deeper
In the very first line of his new book, Strange Burdens, author, journalist and political commentator Sugata Srinivasaraju declares rather emphatically that it is “not a biography” of Rahul Gandhi.
In these politically polarised times, when the most innocuous 1,000-word profile is examined through a “for” or “against” lens, a 336-page volume on a political figure who evokes deep emotions, even among those who claim they are “apolitical”, is risky territory. For good measure, Srinivasaraju clarifies that his book is neither a myth-making nor a myth-busting project. And that it does not make predictions.
There is no escaping some of this though. Over 11 chapters of a full dissection of the 52-year-old Congress leader, his mind, words, actions (and inaction), the reader is left with an impression that is already widespread—after 20 years in the battlefield, Rahul Gandhi is still a work in progress. His ideas are half-formed, absent of specifics. His ambivalence towards power, the seeming conviction and sense of entitlement that it will be his one day without having to work for it (because that would make him “power hungry”) does not win elections.
Gandhi is his own worst enemy. He lacks “operational knowledge” about the country’s “intertwined social hierarchies, structures and cultural faults”. He is up against a formidable rival and an election-winning machine that neither he, despite having his heart in the right place, nor his party know how to combat. That is a prediction right there, whether the author terms it one or not.
For instance, Gandhi, he says, has no credible answer yet to Narendra Modi’s “idea of Bharat”. Srinivasaraju argues that while saving the idea of India is a recurring theme in Gandhi’s utterances, his casting of this in “elite” and narrow constitutional and federal terms robs it of all passion. If what Gandhi means by the idea of India, the author argues, is a recent past in which the country was harmonious, tolerant, secular, compassionate, and where democracy was not backsliding, he has failed to frame this in the idiom of the masses and their lived experiences.
“A majority of India relates to democracy primarily as a cultural idea,” the author contends, finding further evidence of Gandhi’s disconnect in his 45-minute speech to Parliament on 3 February 2022. The speech had sparked much polarised debate at the time, praised by some as a “scathing” attack on the government and ridiculed by others as “confused”. Gandhi had taken on the government for creating “two Indias”; one an “amiron ka Hindustan” and another sunk in poverty. He attacked the government for not addressing unemployment and its failure to protect Indian territory in Ladakh. And describing India as a “union of states”, he warned that Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) rule was trying to destroy a diversity his family had made sacrifices for with their blood, by bringing back a “kingship” that the Congress had destroyed in 1947.
Srinivasaraju points out that Gandhi did not use the word cultural once. “One wonders if Rahul often used the phrase (the idea of India) to make up for a lack of cultural imagination,” he writes. “The phrase for him was not a cultural depiction of a nation but an invocation of a constitutional arrangement, at best a moral imperative, that we had developed to manage as cultural diversity.”
An earlier reference to the “idea of India” had come in his resignation letter when he stepped down as Congress president in July 2019 after the election debacle: “Every cell in my body instinctively resists their idea of India. Where they see difference, I see similarity. Where they see hatred, I see love. What they fear, I embrace. This compassionate idea permeates the hearts of millions and millions of my beloved citizens. It is this idea of India that we will now vehemently defend.” Here, Srinivasaraju says, Gandhi could come across as a “keeper, guardian” and a “true heir” of certain values in an “undefined recent past”, but this runs the risk of opening him up to the accusation that he is harking back to the India of the Nehru-Gandhis, his family.’
‘Strange Burdens: The Politics and Predicaments of Rahul Gandhi by Sugata Srinivasaraju; Published by Vintage Books/Penguin Random House India; 336 pages; ₹699
Modi, on the other hand, frames his idea of the past in civilisational terms, with much wider resonance. Gandhi’s pitch for federalism, which he reduced in his Parliament speech to speaking only about Tamil Nadu, carries little conviction for the author, as there is no effort to confront the centralising impulses of his grandmother and father. Even worse, when Gandhi talks about regionalism, he makes “an indirect admission” that it is not the Congress but the regional parties that are the real alternative to the BJP. Nor is anyone the wiser about what Gandhi thinks of the everyday challenges to what he calls the “union of states”, such as water sharing or boundary disputes.
The book is replete with the Congress’ missed opportunities—how Gandhi or the party had some winning cards but did not know how to play them, or perhaps did not even know they held them. For instance, on federalism, the author suggests that if cultural ideation is a problem for Rahul, he could argue the idea of India even in constitutional terms, by putting forward the idea of a “permanent coalition” at the centre to manage the country’s diverse regions and their interests.
Then too, for every substantive question posed by the Congress, the BJP has a counter—you say 2002, they say 1984; you say LAC 2020, they say 1962/Aksai Chin; you say Rafale, they say Bofors—and it all leads back to Gandhi’s own family. The author says Gandhi has never reflected on these charges or dealt with them with any seriousness, and warns that these burdens will not get any lighter. Indeed, for Gandhi, power itself is a burden.
Through the book, which at times reads like a long op-ed—a risk inherent in writing about a contemporary subject, though the author does say at the start that it was meant to be a longish essay—Srinivasaraju also takes swipes at “lazy liberals”, an overused adjective, having replaced “woolly-headed” sometime in the last 20 years. Many liberals seem to use it a lot themselves to claim they are somehow more “objective” than their fellow travellers.
As much as the book is a full-on critique of Gandhi, including of the Bharat Jodo Yatra, which made the nation stop and take note of him, the book is also about Modi. It had to be. Srinivasaraju is no Modi fan and writes with much empathy for Gandhi, but calls it tough love. In his final analysis, Gandhi falls short and Modi is running away with everything.
The author points out the irony of a privileged Gandhi trying to fit into the shoes of a commoner, while Modi the commoner acquired an imperial gait. “The archetype of how a king should walk, talk, behave and dress was embodied in the Modi spectacle for the masses—he became the new democratic royalty.”
“All the thirty-six qualities of the king that Bhishma recounted to Yudhistra … (people) attributed to Modi”.
In the author’s reading, Modi and the BJP still need Gandhi to keep alive the kaamdhar vs naamdhar myth, to appear bigger, more history-making than the Nehru-Gandhi family. But is it also possible that the reason Gandhi remains the primary target for his far more powerful opponent is that he is still the only national leader, strange burdens and all, who can take on the BJP? Srinivasaraju hypothetically suggests that if Gandhi chose to walk away, “the show would end”. He could have delved deeper, perhaps even to ask, after Gandhi who, what?
Nirupama Subramanian is a journalist.