Dear Mr Rahul Gandhi,
You probably don’t remember me, but I met you very briefly 30 years ago, in 1988. It was the first day of your short stint as a student at St. Stephen’s college in New Delhi. I was one year your senior from the college across the street. We exchanged a few words as you sat under a large tree with some of your classmates, surrounded by your bodyguards. You looked distinctly uncomfortable with all the attention you were getting and so I kept our conversation brief. (My classmate, on the other hand, proceeded to get you, a college ‘fresher’, to sing a song – and found himself in a photo with you on the front page of the Times of India the next morning.)
A few short years later, tragedy struck when your father, the sixth prime minister of India, was assassinated. I’ll never forget his funeral procession. There was this one point when you jumped out of a car and ran alongside his hearse for almost a kilometre. I never quite understood why you did that, but I do remember very clearly our hearts went out to you on that grim summer day in 1991.
Fast forward two decades or so to the fag end of UPA-II’s tenure. By that time, Narendra Modi had clearly begun his ascent as the rising star on the political horizon, and the troll machine had also begun its work of deriding you in earnest. The jokes were in poor taste and the nicknames were derogatory. (To be fair, that TV interview with Arnab Goswami was cringe-worthy and did much damage to your image, broadcast as it was, nationally.)
I do, however, remember a Congress party advertisement on a bus stop just before the 2014 general elections that said “Main hahi, hum (Not me, us)”. And to be honest, I liked it. In a country where Modi’s face and the unabashedly hubristic “Ab ki baar Modi sarkaar” slogan were everywhere, it was, frankly, nice to see a reference to humility and teamwork in an advertisement. Of course, the nuance of your message was drowned out by the cult of Modi’s personality and your party was reduced to a mere 44 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Most people I know wrote you and your party off at that point completely. (As someone who studies the psychology of success and failure, I am genuinely curious to know how you felt about your future at that point.) But politics is a strange thing. Who would have thought that a mere four years later, you would wrest three Bharatiya Janata Party stronghold states and lead your part to victory in what have been called the most important assembly elections of our times? The same dailies which derided you started hailing your qualities and leadership abilities, literally overnight.
But leadership has many definitions. For the last few years, ‘strong leadership’ had became synonymous with Modi’s swagger and take-no-prisoners approach. But that type of leadership has left India damaged. It is now time for the other type of leadership to come to the fore – the kind that lies at the crossroads of compassion, humility, resilience and courage.
Mr Gandhi, I do not doubt your compassion. You may not have experienced poverty firsthand, but I believe you really do care about the marginalised. I have seen you eat with Dalits, chat with university students, reassure teachers and genuinely listen to the plight of farmers. You have physically embraced the poorest of the poor (in stark contrast to our prime minister, who only seems to reserve his hugs for the richest of the rich or for foreign heads of state).
I do not doubt your resilience either. You’ve been called ‘Pappu’, ‘Shehzada’, ‘Naamdaar’, ‘Rahul Baba’ and worse by your adversaries, year after year. It could not have been easy to hear all that and still maintain your dignity and sense of humour. The image painted was one of the immature, entitled, reluctant dilettante. And yet, despite all the invective, scorn and doubt hurled at you, you have managed to form governments in Karnataka, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan and the mighty Madhya Pradesh. Full marks to your ability to get up one more time than you fell down.
As far as humility goes, we appreciate your down-to-earth manner. You will probably never be a master of soaring oratory like your leading nemesis, but that’s quite all right. We have had our fill of poetic words that mean nothing. We need leaders who operate from a place of self-effacement and humility, and can collaborate with others and bring out the best in them.
In many ways you have also displayed your courage. Not too many people have the guts to actually name and call out the richest industrialists in India. You have called a spade a spade on many occasions. But, if I may say so, there is a deeper courage waiting to be expressed. As someone who has lived through the reign of 12 prime ministers (though admittedly I was a child at the time of your grandmother’s and Morarji Desai’s tenures), I think I speak for a lot of Indians when I say that we as a nation are experiencing what might well be called an existential crisis of faith.
On the eve of 2019, one of the biggest questions rankling many of us is: Is there really such a thing as character, virtue or morality left in public life? Or are we forever doomed to put up with politicians for whom the end justifies the means and whose morals are flexible and principles negotiable. (As Groucho Marx said, “I have my principles! But if you don’t like them, I have other principles.”)
We don’t expect much from Narendra Modi. Five years of braggadocio, chest-thumping, relentless self-promotion and outright deceit have left us jaded and unexpectant. But, somehow, Mr Gandhi, we expect more from you. Maybe it’s because you are the 88th president of a political party that has had giants like Gopal Krishna Gokhale, Dadabhai Naoroji, Maulana Abul Kalam, Sarojini Naidu, Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Patel at its helm.
We desperately need leaders with moral courage. At this point in our nation’s history, when doublespeak, propaganda, spin, and outright falsehood have dominated the national discourse, our country needs the refreshment of truth. Sunshine is the best disinfectant. Honesty heals. Will yours be that voice of deep honesty and truth?
If we as citizens of India are to give the party you lead our vote, then we need to be proud of that decision. The BJP has let us down profoundly, but the Congress has not covered itself in glory either. You have an opportunity to change that. You have, for example, the opportunity to explain to us why you chose Kamal Nath to be chief minister of Madhya Pradesh with the shadow of communal violence hanging over his head. These things are important, you know? For a lot of us, they actually matter.
By the same token, we’d also like to know what your policy is regarding candidates with criminal records. According to the Association for Democratic Reforms and Chhattisgarh Election Watch, 18 out of 72 candidates who stood for the recent assembly elections in Chhattisgarh and admitted to having a criminal record were from the Congress, and six out of 72 were from the BJP. A man is known by the company he keeps, but a company is also known by the men it keeps.
Then there is the matter of election funding. Will you put your weight behind electoral reforms and do everything in your power to make details of political party funding transparent and available to the public (including donor details) under the Right to Information Act? As we all know, the destruction of democracy begins with the unholy nexus between private donors, special interest groups and political parties.
Mr Gandhi, the people of India are tired of being deceived and taken for granted. The need of the hour is not political cleverness, it is strength of character. We are tired of seeing principles sacrificed at the altar of political expediency, and we are most certainly tired of seeing our collective well-being put aside for the sake of the 1% who currently control over 70% of our country’s resources.
I don’t know what will happen in 2019. I don’t know whether you will become prime minister. But whatever happens, you have, right now, the opportunity to earn a place in the history of India and the hearts of her people by doing the right thing, come what may. It sounds simple, but the answers to our most vexing problems usually are. Not easy, but simple. Douglas Macarthur said it well: “Last, but by no means least, have the courage of your convictions, the courage to see things through. The world is in a constant conspiracy against the brave. It’s the age-old struggle – the roar of the crowd on one side and the voice of your conscience on the other.”
We need leaders who will listen to the voice of conscience, no matter how quiet or different its instructions are to the crowd’s. The eyes of the nation have, in a sense, moved away from the predictable spectacle that is Narendra Modi, and they are now watching you very closely. What will you do about it?
Dare I say it? The nation would like to know.
With best regards,
A citizen of India
Rohit Kumar is an educator with a background in positive psychology and psychometrics. He works with high school students on emotional intelligence and adolescence issues to help make schools bullying-free zones.