Rahul, the cipher?

Mr Rahul Gandhi faces crucial challenges in defining himself and what he stands for if reactions to his elevation as vice-president of India’s ruling Congress Party serves as a gauge of voter expectations ahead of national elections due next year. 

While history suggests that members of the Nehru-Gandhi clan are not to be underestimated, responses by seasoned political observers and on social media share a common theme - he has to do more to pencil in what he means in his call for change. 

The 42-year-old politician was anointed the vice president of the Congress party over last weekend, taking charge from his ailing mother and chief, Sonia Gandhi.

There is much jubilation within the Congress, long eager for a jolt of youthful energy. Mr Gandhi has spoken of transforming the party, including changing its culture of dynastic politics.

But to many Indians, the move is as inconsequential as his agenda of change, given that he was already powerful in a party his family has tightly controlled for six decades.

Reflecting the cynicism of the young generation of restless, educated Indians he is trying to woo, people on social media by and large ridicule Mr Gandhi’s elevation as the result of “family inheritance”.

The mainstream media has been more restrained. It has focused on the challenges he would face energising the Congress party in the run-up to his first major test of leadership - next year’s national elections - which are expected to be tough.

“So far he has pretty much been a cipher, on the principle that being all things to all men is sound political strategy,” said The Times of India in an editorial.

“This attitude of remote, patriarchal (or matriarchal) benevolence in a patronage-based society, is however wearing thin as India evolves rapidly.”

For one, Mr Gandhi has been widely seen as a shy figure who entered politics because his party required a unifying figure, more than out of a willingness to do so. He has repeatedly refused more responsibility, earning him the title of India's “reluctant prince”.

Many see in him an ineffectual politician, at best brimming with good intentions but not bursting with great, ground-breaking  ideas

Mr Gandhi was silent for most of last year and has rarely been heard in parliament since he was elected eight years ago.

His party has no shortage of problems: rising social unrest, corruption and a sagging economy, fuelling an anti-incumbency mood among voters. But it faces a divided opposition and still has a fair chance of returning to power for a third term since 2004. 

“The task before Rahul is not just to shed his reticence and provide leadership upfront, but to craft a new idiom for his party that will give shape and substance to his promise of change,” says political commentator Arati Jerath.

After accepting the senior role, Mr Gandhi gave an emotional speech. He peppered it with stories about the sacrifices his Nehru-Gandhi family had made for India and his desire to transform not only the party but the country. But he gave no hint of his policy vision.

So far, Mr Gandhi has trailed the charismatic, Hindu rival leader, Narendra Modi, in all the prime minister preference polls.

The last one, conducted by a leading media house in August last year (2012) gave him just 29 per cent top 42 per cent voted for Mr Modi.

Still, most analysts warn against writing off the scion of a family which has given India three prime ministers and one very powerful daughter-in-law, Sonia Gandhi, who has carefully sought to advance her son, Rahul.

“Rahul Gandhi may yet have a plan,” says political columnist Sidharth Bhatia. “When his mother took over the party, she was made fun of. His father was laughed at for bringing in a (clannish) culture. His grand mother was called a goongi gudiya (dumb doll).

“All of them led the party to victory and were successful leaders.”