For a man who has been in the public eye since he was 14, for someone who officially entered full-time politics 9 years ago, for a 43-year-old who might well become India's next prime minister, Rahul Gandhi is bafflingly opaque. He is a sphinx not only to the public, but to his own party.
The Congress rank and file know Rahul primarily as the son, grandson and great grandson of party presidents and prime ministers. In the 1980s, they saw an awkward, bespectacled boy who appeared younger than his tall sister, a poor academic performer who nonetheless made it to the elite St Stephen's College on a sports quota for shooting. (He pulled off a bull's eye with an air gun at a school function in Amethi a couple of years ago.)
He then went abroad to study and work and reappeared in 2002, some three years after his mother's entry into politics. If he has achievements or successes to boast of during that time, nothing is known of them.
Congressmen are fuzzy about his academic record (international relations, philosophy and development studies) and career (management consultant-turned-entrepreneur, although his company, Backops Services Pvt Ltd, is now defunct), details of which have been gleaned by the press but not officially confirmed by the party.
Of his personal life, too, little is known. He has been spotted with a Venezuelan national and thereafter with a succession of Delhi socialites - among them, Jahnvi (sister of Shahjahanabad MP Jitin Prasada and daughter of his mother's erstwhile challenger, the late Jitendra Prasada) and an Afghan national.
After hours, he frequents nightclubs and fashionable eateries, the existence of which most Congress workers are unaware of. His intimates, his passions, his life apart from politics, even his general likes and dislikes, they are all mysteries. Which adds to the average Congressman's quandary: does one woo him with books, works of art, pieces of music or boondi ke ladoo?
It's one thing that Congressmen don't know about Rahul's religious beliefs, dietary preferences and feelings about marriage. But his party is just as hard put to explain Rahul's political and economic philosophy. Does he subscribe to neoliberalism or socialism or to a mixed economy? Nobody seems to be sure.
On specific issues, the picture is equally unclear. For instance, he popped up in Odisha in 2010 to defend the land rights of the Dongrias of Niyamgiri, but failed to speak up on similar diversions of forest land in Chhattisgarh and Andhra Pradesh. He has also never articulated his positions on Schedule 5 of the Constitution or on the PESA Act, both of which protect forest land.
Congressmen outside his immediate circle find Rahul Gandhi mystifying and disappointing. One 'young' Congress MP, who ought to have been delighted with the generational shift within the party, says, "There's no connect between what he says and what he does. What does he stand for? How does he rate people? Where is he at this moment? BJP workers don't need to ask these questions of Narendra Modi. They already know."
Which seems a valid point. A BJP worker can provide chapter and verse on 'Narendrabhai' - his early years and 'marriage', the fact that he earned his master's degree despite having had to man a tea stall in his youth, his career as a pracharak, his performance as BJP general secretary in charge of Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, his fondness for writing poetry, the books he's written, his interests in ecology and the environment, his religious commitment and vegetarianism, his proximity to Gujarat minister Anandiben Patel, his bonhomie with industrialist Gautam Adani, his stand on issues ranging from the Multi Commodity Exchange (MCX) to the Goods and Services Tax (GST).
And party workers know where Narendrabhai is on any given day. They can even tell you - in confidence, of course - about his struggle with the Vajpayee-Advani duo during the NDA years, his dislike of former BJP organising secretary Sanjay Joshi, and his fondness for good clothes, south Indian food and air-conditioned cars.
For Congress members, on the other hand, decoding 'RG' has become a matter of urgency with the general elections on the horizon next year.
How does one go about getting a party ticket in the new setup? Is the traditional method still the way to go - of cultivating powerful satraps or organisational bosses in Delhi and contributing to their private coffers? Or will the number crunchers at RG's 12, Tughlaq Lane residence-cum-office take the final call? Will sitting legislators be repeated? Will the caste factor be decisive or will it now be 'clean image' and 'winnability'?
His Obscure Ways
Traditional Congress politics - touchy-feely and based on a system of patronage, lobbying, networking, exchange of favours and sycophancy - is far removed from RG's rants about meritocracy, professionalism and egalitarianism. In January 2013, when RG was formally anointed crown prince by being elevated to Congress vice president at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) conclave, he monotoned to his eager audience how "our youth are alienated... excluded from the political class... our public systems... are designed to promote mediocrity... we [the Congress] do not focus on leadership development. All decisions are taken at the top without consulting the organisation. The Congress worker must be given due honour."
And at his now-famous CII speech in April 2013, he told the nation's industrialists, "Wherever we have not embraced the excluded we have fallen backwards."
The grand old party, long accustomed to a durbari culture, is struggling to come to terms with the new dispensation. With Rahul, there is no touching of feet or giving of autographs - instead, there are notes and presentations. But that is where the egalitarianism stops.
Take the business of securing appointments with the Congress No. 2, which is of vital importance to provincial leaders - not to discuss anything substantive but to impress votaries back home with their access to the powers that be.
A young worker from Aligarh wrestled with RG's office for a year, negotiating the complexities of voicemail and email in increasing frustration. "They say, state your reason for wanting to meet," he recalls. "In politics, where is the reason to meet? You simply meet. Express loyalty. Cite your grievance. If something comes up in the talk, bonus. If not, he will at least remember your face."
Congress president Sonia Gandhi is also not easily accessible, but she is positively gregarious compared with her son and heir. RG is highly selective about the people he meets and, to the frustration of Congressmen, his screening process is a complete mystery. Party MPs have not been given appointments while low-level party workers have met him repeatedly. Some of those to whom he grants an audience never get another one. Others find their allocated five minutes stretching to 15.
When one MP-aspirant from Haryana decided to seek an audience with RG, his first thought was to approach the young Deepender Hooda, regarded as one of the Congress VP's intimates. Before he could do so, a party colleague told the aspirant he would be better off putting in an email giving a credible reason for the meeting.
With a tech-savvy friend, he drafted a request to discuss the plight and political preferences of a specific migrant community in the state. For good measure, he put in a call to one Ramakrishna (said to be a Special Protection Group retiree) at 12, Tughlaq Lane and PP Madhavan (part of the Malayali troika of gatekeepers) at 10, Janpath.
A month later, he got a call summoning him to an audience at 10, Janpath. He was not kept waiting too long - a mere 25 minutes. RG was casually friendly. He had a hard copy of the note and proceeded to question him in Hindi on the politics of the state, the district and the community.
He appeared quite knowledgeable but, like most upper crust Indians reared in the modern secular-liberal world, could not grasp how politics plays out at the grassroots level. No refreshments were served. "It was like giving a job interview," recalls the mid-level party worker about meeting RG. "Questions on top of questions before I had finished giving the [previous] answer."
After 15 minutes of Q&A, the aspiring Congressman was told he ought to stay in touch with RG's political aide and general secretary Kanishka Singh. There has been no follow-up.
Another anecdote from Rasheed Kidwai's Sonia: A Biography illuminates how RG's style of functioning is alien to his party. Veteran UP politician Siraj Mehdi once invited RG to a function of the UP Women's Cricket Association, and informed the Lucknow media that the young leader would attend without waiting for an official acceptance. When RG's office demanded an explanation for this solecism, Mehdi denied having made any such claim and asked who had complained. He was told the information came from Google. For days thereafter, Mehdi went around looking for 'Google', the snitch in the state Congress.
A Revolving Team
Rahul's impatience with circumlocution and sycophancy is well known. He also dislikes being treated as a dispenser of patronage or wisdom and, most of all, as an arbiter in factional feuds. He's good at absorbing information and is briefed on each person he meets beforehand.
Having said that, there aren't enough touch points between him and the party. Unlike Sonia, who quickly shed her shyness and opened her doors to politicians of all hues, RG doesn't see mingling and pressing flesh as part of his job description.
Bypassing the recognized hierarchies in the party, RG has built his own team. Party workers and leaders alike have yet to figure out why relative unknowns like Madhusudan Mistry and Mohan Prakash have been promoted to general secretaries and given charge of the two most important states: Uttar Pradesh and Maharashtra. Both are regarded as outsiders. Mistry was an acolyte of former BJP leader Shankar Singh Vaghela, while Prakash is from the Janata Dal.
Until recently, Minister of State for Youth Affairs and Sports and the Minster of State for Defence, Bhanwar Jitendra Singh, who joined the Congress after a long stint in the BJP, was regarded as RG's closest confidante - more a friend than a political associate. In a party where the top spot is reserved for family, being the chief sidekick is as good as it gets. But RG's favourites, like those of his father before him, tend to be short-lived and the word in party circles is that Bhanwar no longer has the prince's ear.
RG's acolytes tend to fall into two categories. There are the US-educated MBAs or techies who man Tughlaq Lane, where management-speak is the lingua franca: gathering an "early harvest", aiming for the "low-hanging fruit", working within "time horizons".
Kanishka Singh, son of a diplomat, and Sachin Rao, a software analyst, fall into this category. Singh is the gatekeeper, an upscale version of Sonia Gandhi's Vincent George. "Alag biradri hai," a Congress office-bearer observes. "Yeh to kagazi sher hain. Aam aadmi se koi lena dena nahin hai (They are a different breed. Paper tigers. Nothing to do with the common man)."
The Tughlaq Lane staff work in tandem with the 'war room' at Gurudwara Rakab Ganj road, where an in-house survey and psephology team generate data round the clock. It is here that the much-reviled but admirably detailed self-assessment forms for Congress legislators and mid-level Congress office-bearers are drawn up. (Sample question: How many votes did you poll at the booth where you cast your own?)
Then there is the grassroots-jholawalla brigade. RG's fascination with rusticity is well known. Mandsaur MP Meenakshi Natarajan is believed to have floored RG with her sellotaped spectacles and rumpled kurtas. Beni Prasad Verma, despite a series of political gaffes, survives partly because RG finds him a fount of earthy wisdom. Likewise, CP Joshi's blunt and idiomatic take on Rajasthan politics has served him well.
The late Nand Kumar Patel, Congress chief of Chhattisgarh, was a hot favourite and was held up as an example by RG to other state chiefs. Patel was a grassroots politician who engaged directly with his constituents, holding endless party meetings across the state. Like Beni, he brought in a whiff of the village.
Naturally, meeting Kanishka Singh or Madhusudan Mistry is an objective for all Congressmen. An AICC secretary proudly displayed his email exchanges with Singh on his phone. "He [Singh] has never failed to reply to my messages, even if late," he declares. Not that Singh and Mistry are accessible to all. If they deign to give you time or reply to your messages, you are clearly someone of significance.
To complicate matters further for the rank-and-file, Team Rahul operates on a revolving door principle. No one can claim a permanent spot. The importance of Jairam Ramesh has declined dramatically. Natarajan no longer enjoys her previous clout. And Digvijay Singh's proximity could not prevent him from being supplanted by Mistry as general secretary in charge of UP.
Party workers who spent months cultivating a particular leader may find him to be suddenly out in the cold.
Increasingly, RG's style of functioning invites comparison with his late uncle, Sanjay Gandhi. Like him, RG has subsumed the powers of the Congress president, brought in young and educated people, commands the loyalty of his buddies (not necessarily the other way around), professes to want change, is impatient with bureaucracies and is a man of few words but a strong sense of destiny.
And like Sanjay, Rahul seeks to radically remake the party and existing public systems, especially the 'defunct' educational system.
Unlike his uncle, though, RG seems philosophically a democrat despite his opaque and apparently capricious style of functioning. A Congress general secretary credits him with trying to institutionalise democratic processes. "Selection of candidates is based on eight different sources," he says, "including our own surveys, reports of block presidents, Pradesh Congress Committee (PCC) chiefs, Congress Legislative Party (CLP) leaders and central observers." He points to the election of Siddaramaiah as Karnataka chief minister: "He was the choice of the MLAs."
On the other hand, Vijay Bahuguna was selected rather than elected as Uttarakhand CM at the expense of the 'MLAs' choice' Harish Rawat - reportedly at RG's behest.
RG speaks disparagingly of dynasty-driven politics but is most comfortable with the sons and daughters of established politicians - be it his constant companion Deepender Hooda or Jitin Prasada, Sachin Pilot, Sandeep Dikshit, Milind Deora, Omar Abdullah or RPN Singh. In Bhopal, he promised party workers he would break the hold of the regional satraps. Three months later, they are as strong as ever.
He dines at a Dalit household in an obscure village but surrounds himself with thakurs and Brahmins. He talks of empowering party workers, but arbitrary appointments and lack of access leave them feeling more excluded than ever. He places tremendous emphasis on social media but is not on Twitter himself. He is in favour of economic reforms and welfarism but does not believe the western model of capitalism works. So what does he believe in? No one seems to know.
Rasheed Kidwai, also the author of 24, Akbar Road, a close look at the Congress organisation since Independence, is one of the few journalists to have interacted with RG. Kidwai thinks RG has ambitions but not the will to fulfil them. "He [RG] wants change without working to change anything," he says.
Is RG a political dilettante, a deluded messiah or simply a work in progress? That depends on whom you ask. Author Ramachandra Guha described him as a "well-intentioned dilettante" who suffers from "not having done any job at all".
A Union minister commends his understanding of what ails India, but feels he suffers from a messianic complex: "He wants to be an extraordinary PM. Perhaps he's read too many political biographies." Yet another Union minister dismissed RG as "foolish, no idea of policy, just fashionable statements", and cites his CII speech this year which lacked any policy focus and meandered randomly from China to India's cultural exports to his first-hand experience of a slow train from Gorakhpur to Mumbai.
A constant criticism has been RG's penchant for taking up causes for a day. A member of Team Rahul defends his boss, saying, "It is for others to follow up." Once a leader has indicated a broad direction, goes this line of thought, his people should rally support for the cause. If they don't, they are failing in their political function. But at the ground level, this often translates into confusion over whether to take up a cause or not.
RG's tendency to keep a low profile precisely when he shouldn't - the Uttarakhand floods, for instance - also doesn't go down well with party workers, who are big on grand gestures. Like Modi's gesture of sweeping into Uttarakhand to rescue his Gujarati brethren. The social media had a field day mocking RG's complete absence. On Twitter, #WhereIsPappu trended for almost three days.
By now, Rahul's flash disappearances have become a byword. He was invisible during the protests over the Delhi gang rape last December - a lost opportunity to connect with agitated youth. After the Congress' UP assembly election debacle that he managed, RG vanished from Parliament and failed to attend official functions.
Earlier, he had gone missing during the Anna Hazare agitation for the Jan Lokpal Bill. Union minister Salman Khurshid and East Delhi MP Sandeep Dikshit were key negotiators, while RG surfaced only briefly in Parliament to propose a constitutional amendment to address Hazare's concerns - a rather long-term solution to an immediate problem.
The Shiv Sena-owned Marathi newspaper, Saamna, famously published a 'missing person' advertisement on RG in August 2011. It taunted him for not having backed farmers' protests against land acquisition in Maharashtra, after having done so in Bhatta Parsaul in UP. RG promptly landed up in Pune to meet the farmers, but by then the ad had already become a talking point everywhere.
Rising Hope, Falling Hope
The fact that Congress leaders can't air these grievances on the record shows that, at the end of the day, nothing has changed. The pyramid of patronage, with mother and son at the pinnacle, remains intact.
Had RG been able to boast of dramatic electoral successes, his lack of clarity, consistency and transparency would have been overlooked. But so far, he has not shown himself to be a vote-catcher or even an electoral strategist.
The 2012 assembly election in UP was fronted by RG, who held over 200 rallies across the state. The Congress crashed at number four in UP with a mere 28 assembly seats out of 403. RG's focus on lower caste Muslims, non-Jatavs Dalits and backward castes did not pay off. Nor did his poor governance-zero development diatribes against Mayawati. Voters disenchanted with the BSP opted for fresh-faced aspirant Akhilesh Yadav against RG, who was clearly in UP just to campaign and not to stay and govern.
A senior Congress leader feels that Sonia and Rahul represent a conflict of perspectives, temperaments and generations. She still acts as a shock absorber for him, insulating him from the strife and squabbles within the UPA.
However, it is also notable that decision-making in the Congress increasingly rests now with RG. Whether it is FDI or Telangana, Rahul must be convinced in order to convince Sonia. Before PM Manmohan Singh addressed the CLP, the AICC, the Cabinet or the Congress president Sonia Gandhi on FDI in multi-brand retail, he met and convinced vice president Rahul Gandhi of its vital importance and how, without it, the Indian economy would be looking at 1991 redux.
Similarly, the pro-Telangana faction within the Andhra Pradesh Congress made it a point to bring RG on board. Manmohan Singh also discussed cash transfers of subsidies with RG before making it official.
Congress MPs and officials leave party meetings these days with the impression that Team Rahul is satisfied with itself and not overly concerned with RG's failures or weaknesses. The attitude seems to be: If the party tanks in 2014, there's always 2019. As for the Congress rank-and-file, it will do what that comes naturally to them - clamour for another Nehru-Gandhi.
That Rahul Gandhi is in charge is now established wisdom. Sonia Gandhi invariably tells party leaders who seek her to hold discussions with him. But Congress workers would have preferred his charismatic sister, who might well have given Narendra Modi a run for his money. With the economy sinking relentlessly and prices rising inexorably, they were hoping for a heavy dose of populism to mitigate the effects of food inflation and rampant corruption.
The Congress' three-pronged strategy of populism, regionalism and communalism - the Food Security Bill, the Telangana resolution and attacking Modi on the 2002 riots - has had little visible impact so far. Congress officials are not hopeful about realistically coming back to power next year - not with Rahul Gandhi leading them.
But in politics, hope floats. Perhaps the generous monsoon this year will boost the flagging economy's growth rate. Perhaps the ever-unpredictable Indian voter will give the grand old party another chance. Perhaps Modi will self-destruct. Or perhaps RG will come through.
Bhavdeep Kang has been a journalist for 27 years. She has worked with The Times of India, The Sunday Observer, The Indian Express, The Pioneer, The Telegraph, India Today and Outlook. Today, she writes on politics, agriculture and food policy. Follow her at https://twitter.com/bhavkang