Member of Parliament from his mid-30s, Rahul Gandhi promised Uttar Pradesh a future delinked from caste, and where merit would be given top priority. The fact that he himself is of indeterminate caste worked in his favour, as none saw him as a caste rival (the way Jats and Yadavs are presumed to be, for instance). Admittedly, merit has not been the only factor behind Rahul's post-2004 rise in politics, but it was hoped that he would halt adherence to the Dynastic Principle on the part of other Congress party leaders asked to recommend names for party tickets. Over the past few years, there have been several Obama-style remarks from Rahul, calling for change, and for the young to be given the major say.
Uttar Pradesh is the first big test of just how closely practice will follow precept in Rahul's case, and thus far, the results are not encouraging. For him, "change" seems to mean only more of the same. The Congress party's main mascots in UP are Beni Prasad Verma and Ajit Singh, the first achieving prominence because he is a Kurmi, and the other having made a profitable career entirely out of his (Jat) caste and his genealogy. As for merit, more than a hundred tickets for the coming Assembly polls are in line to be given for reasons of bloodline, whether it is the son of the ubiquitous Beni Verma himself, or the lucky offspring of other Congress stalwarts such as Jagdambika Pal, Rabinder Malik and Zafar Ali Naqvi. Perhaps to add diversity into the dynastic mix, tickets for the UP Assembly are reportedly being given to "Raja of Amethi" Sanjay Singh's spouse, Minister of State R.P.N. Singh's mother and Minister of State Pradip Jain's wife. Anna Hazare's IAC would have a field day with most of Rahul's picks, given their present lifestyles. Indeed, one searches in vain in the list of Congress MPs to find someone who is "economically weak". Instead, most are examples of the proposition that "serving the people" seems to be the fastest way to personal wealth.
That caste has not been brushed aside by Rahul Gandhi is clear not only by his cosying up to Beni Verma, Ajit Singh and other caste leaders, or his use of the card in several interactions, but also from his bizarre highlighting of Sam Pitroda as a Vishwakarma (helpfully translated as "carpenter"). Till last month, nobody in India thought in caste terms about the much-travelled Pitroda, whom Rahul showcased in order to show that under his branch of the Nehru family, even a man from the carpenter caste was enabled to bring about a telecom revolution in India's somewhat patronizing approach. Judged by a study of the candidates and their constituencies, the overwhelming majority of Congress tickets for the coming UP Assembly polls appear to be based on caste, including the hundred and more to be given to those who have joined the Congress from other parties.
To those who hope that a 21st century India led by Rahul Gandhi will free itself from the insinuation of religion into political life, his pilgrimage to both the Deoband and Nadwa seminaries reveal an inclination to follow his grandmother Indira Gandhi's example, rather than anchor himself firmly in the 21st century. The defeated PM had landed at the door of the Shahi Imam of the Jama Masjid in Delhi soon after the 1977 Lok Sabha polls. The Muslim community has for too long been suffering from the penchant of non-Muslim leaders of treating the clergy (especially the Wahabbi element) as representing the views and aspirations of a community no different in its chemistry and outlook from any other, and Rahul has not thus far been an exception to this 20th century practice. Who can forget that in 1985, Rajiv Gandhi turned his back on Arif Mohammad Khan and other Muslim leaders of Congress such as the moderniser Salman Khurshid, by getting passed the Muslim Women's Bill, a step which hugely boosted the influence of the religious right among both Muslims and Hindus? UP indicates that a Prime Minister Rahul Gandhi would not be any different from his father's example, even though much water has flowed down the Ganga since the 1980s. Looking at the choices he has made, Rahul Gandhi seems to have firmly tethered himself to the politics of his grandmother, father and mother, even while the rest of India has moved on.
The Congress party's favoured choice to replace Manmohan Singh appears to have become belatedly spooked by his 2007 failure to convert his visiting of more than 250 Assembly constituencies into wins. The Congress got just 21 out of 403 MLAs. He was different during the 2009 Lok Sabha polls, casting away the caste and community rhetoric of the Mulayams and the Mayawatis in favour of working towards a society where such walls would be torn down. Sadly, despite his party having done well in nearly a hundred Assembly segments in 2009, despite Rahul's modern views, he seems to have returned to the Indira-Sonia model of politics, returning to the tactics used by his grandmother and mother. Part of this consists of throwing the blame at every door instead of his party's. Listening to his laments about the condition of the state, one could be forgiven for not knowing that the Congress party has been running the country since 2004, and yet has still to come up with a substantive policy package for UP. Rahul's view of the state has been gleaned helicopter to helicopter (the roads in the state being too dusty to get about in), pre-cooked food in thermos flasks in tow, eaten of course in the dwellings of the underprivileged, who hopefully get to share the victuals. Even the bottled water favoured on such tours is the imported Evian, rather than the country's own brands.
ayawati, of course, gets special attention, being described by Rahul as "the elephant in Lucknow who eats the money so lavishly provided by the Centre". In Rahulspeak, Central funds are gifts from the Congress, specifically from the family that controls it, and not the due of the country's most populous state.
Since he became seriously involved in UP politics from 2007 onwards, Rahul has made several visits to the state, often in the company of foreign notables, all of whom seem appreciative at being given the opportunity to indulge in poverty tourism with the future Prime Minister of India.
He may yet make it to the job, but looking at his campaigning in UP this year, that may not be enough to bring India closer towards replacing the 19th century that still permeates the governance structure of the country with the 21st century.