Rahul Gandhi. Photographer: Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times via Getty Images
Rahul Gandhi. Photographer: Mujeeb Faruqui/Hindustan Times via Getty Images

The word “raga” is central to Indian classical music. A raga is a series of notes played over and over in a sequence of ascending speed, often producing a mood of forbidding austerity, philosophical detachment or otherworldliness. This week, the young Indian politician and prime ministerial hopeful Rahul Gandhi, recently nicknamed “RaGa” by the Indian news media, proved himself firmly in tune with this tradition during his long-awaited debut television interview. For the 80-minute span of the interview, and for days afterward, Gandhi had the whole country discussing his breathtaking and mystifying rehearsal of political notes in all kinds of sequences, rooted in a reason that could only be musical.

The interview was billed as "the biggest political interview of the year." After all, Gandhi, one of India’s most powerful if enigmatic men, had never given an interviewer such access in more than a decade in public life. But the prospect proved more exciting than the reality.

From beginning to end, Gandhi doggedly batted down questions about India’s political system, its economy, corruption, dynastic politics and the ruling Congress Party's prospects in the coming general elections (early opinion polls suggest they are dismal). Pressed expertly by his seasoned and combative interlocutor, star television news anchor Arnab Goswami, Gandhi vexed all but himself with a series of exasperating and patronizing cliches about deepening democracy, opening up the system, respecting processes and empowering women. Questions on specific issues were, almost without exception, dismissed as “superficialities” obscuring “the real issues,” ones that he alone had thought to address. He sounded like an earnest student practicing the same scale all day long, in defiance of the world’s noise and nuisance.

Gandhi’s repetitive and roundabout emphases were defended afterward by a Congress Party spokesperson who insisted that he was only trying to elevate political discourse in India and achieve “a new normal.” Many Indians would argue, though, that a word already exists for this ambitious project: paranormal, or outside the range of scientific explanation. How else to explain answers connected by such fragile threads of coherence to questions of real import, such as this:

Q: Mr. Gandhi the other question is about price rise and you got a round of applause when you spoke about the LPG cylinders, you told the Prime Minister quite charmingly -- that Mr. PM please make things less difficult for households. But I am questioning your silence all these years, because in this period from 2004-2013 the wholesale price index of food goes up by 157%, vegetables by 350% and Onions by 521%, you don't speak on that. When Raj Babbar says you can get food at 12 rupees a meal, you don't speak then, when Rashid Masood says you can get food at 5 rupees a meal you don't speak then, the accusation there is and the general feeling Mr. Rahul Gandhi is that you have really woken up to the issue after the 4-0 drubbing in the last state election, do you concede that?

A: No, I think women are the backbone of this country and women need to be empowered and I felt that price rise is an issue cylinders were a big issue, I went to Kerala and I got a sense that women were concerned about that and I made that view clear to everybody in the AICC session.

Later:

Q: What is your view on Arvind Kejriwal?

A: He is a leader of an opposition party like many others, what we have to do as the Congress party and again in front of us is an election, what we have to do is 3 things. One is we have to transform ourselves, we have bring in youngsters, we have to give them space. Two is we have to look at manufacturing, we have already set up the corridors North, South, East & West, how we can take the energy of the Indian people and build a manufacturing superhouse... That is what I think the real issues are.

Although he has been a member of parliament for almost a decade -- and the Congress Party’s heir-in-waiting for almost that long -- so infrequent are Gandhi’s speeches and political interventions that he opens himself up to enormous scrutiny each time he appears in public. Last year, he received poor reviews on two major occasions with ponderous prepared speeches, one on the theme of politics and the nature of political power (“Power is poison”) and the other on India’s place in the world as an emerging economy ("Between the elephant and the beehive, which is more powerful? The answer is that they can't be compared").

But because this week’s appearance wasn't a speech but an interview -- one that required Gandhi to think on his feet and hold his own against a range of not-very-surprising questions -- this was a much more embarrassing failure. All throughout, Indian voters could hear the register of another mind, against which Gandhi’s own appeared sadly bedraggled, unfocused and inept. Every politician has a pet word or concept that serves as a rhetorical get-out-of-jail-free card. But Gandhi’s overreliance on mumblings about reforming a “system” that shuts out the powerless and the meritorious -- he used the word 72 times in the interview, almost always implying something nebulous and malevolent -- frankly beggars belief.

To tell the truth -- unlike Gandhi, who claims virtuously to be speaking it all the time -- were it not for the existence of that very “system,” it’s likely that Gandhi’s political career would be all but finished by now. The constituencies that have been carefully nursed for decades by families with vast networks of patronage (including in Amethi, the district Gandhi represents), the vast apparatus of a moribund 129-year-old party, the bureaucrats coming out in droves to ascribe all agency to the Top Man, the semi-feudal world in which each man genuflects meekly before the one above him and never asks questions, the “500 people running the entire system” (Gandhi’s words) -- all these have enabled the flourishing of an anachronistic figure who claims he has no interest in power but is obliged by the demands of lineage to wield it, who has never held a post in government but is his party’s unanimous choice for prime minister.

Indeed, the “system” insulates Gandhi so securely from any real risk -- other than criticism in the news media and on social media, both of which were plentiful this week -- that it essentially means that, as Dhiraj Nayyar wrote at Firstpost.com: "Unlike most other politicians, Rahul Gandhi can afford to lose, just as he can afford to bumble through an interview. He can say that he will take full responsibility for the defeat of the Congress because there are no consequences for him -- especially since he has no thirst for power. He is an anomaly. To be fair, Rahul said as much. Except that he seemed proud of it."

It’s one thing to set up a straw man in an argument, but an entire straw system? To give him his due, only RaGa could have dared to cross that line. Come elections in May, expect the system to bail him out and return him to Parliament. It will likely prove unable, though, to prevent the long-fated political rout of the Congress Party.

(Chandrahas Choudhury, a novelist, is the New Delhi correspondent for World View. His novel "Arzee the Dwarf" is published by New York Review Books. Follow him on Twitter.)

To contact the writer of this article:
Chandrahas Choudhury at chandrahas.choudhury@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article:
Brooke Sample at bsample1@bloomberg.net.