Rahul Gandhi can change Congress’ image with cabinet entry

October 17, 2012

India is asking the same old question after news reports said Congress General Secretary Rahul Gandhi met Prime Minister Manmohan Singh on Wednesday before a possible cabinet reshuffle later this month: will Gandhi be one of the cards in his deck?

Gandhi’s entry into the government would be the only opportunity for him to prove that he has what it takes to one day rule India. He’s seen as the prime-minister-in-waiting, and a cabinet post would better equip him to deal with the hurly-burly of Indian politics.

Several cabinet posts are vacant, and some cabinet ministers hold additional portfolios. And even after passing market-moving reform measures, Congress’ task of boosting its public image is incomplete.

If you go by age, Gandhi is 42, just about ripe. David Cameron became the youngest prime minister of Britain at 44. When Barack Obama took over as the 44th American president, he was 47. Gandhi’s grandmother and India’s first woman to serve as prime minister, Indira Gandhi, was appointed Congress president when she was in her early 40’s.

But Rahul has never expressed willingness to join the government or lead the Congress party. He wants to work with the people. The Uttar Pradesh poll disaster, in which the Congress party suffered a major setback, perhaps makes it more attractive for him to take the humble approach.

Gandhi’s biggest problem is communication, which is also true of his mother, Congress President Sonia Gandhi. How can you be in politics and not talk? It is tough to imagine India’s top leaders sharing a stage for debate, speaking to each other in a civilised manner, or worse yet, barely at all and without any melodrama.

If Rahul wants to be a mass leader and win hearts, he should reach out to people. In this day and age, communication is a Twitter account or a camera link away. There’s a lot to talk about that doesn’t involve implying that 70 percent of Punjab’s youth are junkies … from corruption to social activism to the state of the economy and ways to fix it.

Taking charge of the ministry of railways, for instance, could be challenging but will open a door to connect with millions of Indians who use its creaky infrastructure every day.

It would be interesting to see how he would handle unpopular measures like raising ticket prices to make sure that the railroad has enough money to keep its tracks safe. Dinesh Trivedi showed everybody how to do it, but he fell on his railroad spike after he couldn’t take the heat for his action.

Gandhi has an opportunity and he should make the most of it. If he wants to do things differently and lead the country one day, a bit of brand building is necessary in the coming years and it is time to start that exercise now.

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