Politics is the original 'dirty picture', cruel and ruthless. Last week, on the day the legendary Rahul Dravid announced his retirement from international cricket, an sms doing the rounds said: "Why has the wrong Rahul retired?" The Uttar Pradesh defeat has suddenly led to obituaries being written of Rahul Gandhi, the same Rahul whose each and every move, during the elections, was followed by a frenzied media. Perhaps, for a few days, the political Rahul might have felt like his cricketing namesake. After all, soon after the Australia tour debacle, we had cricket fans calling for the removal of the 'senior' players. They conveniently forgot that Dravid had scored four remarkable centuries in five games only months earlier in England. Politics, like cricket, can be extraordinarily fickle.
That's where though, I am afraid, the comparisons between the two Rahuls might end. Dravid, after all, represents a triumph of middle class India blessed with solid old-fashioned values of hard work and determination. He did not arrive on the cricket scene with a silver spoon or with a famous surname. It is often forgotten that Dravid had to play almost half a dozen years in the Ranji Trophy for Karnataka before he was picked for the country for the sheer weight of his runs. Cricket is the ultimate meritocracy where talent, and not lineage, matters.
By contrast, in politics, especially the Congress party, only family appears to matter. Sriprakash Jaiswal (this government's foot-in-the-mouth prize-winner) revealed the sycophantic Congress mindset when he claimed that Rahul Gandhi could be Prime Minister if he wanted so even at midnight. Defeats like UP are, to that extent, only minor blips in Rahul's political career since for the average Congressman, the Gandhi family is preordained to rule India.
Rahul Dravid had to prove himself in Karnataka before he could aspire to play for India. Rahul Gandhi, it seems, faces no such similar 'shop floor' test. What is true of the Gandhis at the Centre is true to a lesser or greater degree in most states and political parties except the Left and the BJP. Even the latest political posterboy, Akhilesh Yadav, would not be the UP chief minister at 38 if he were not Mulayam Singh Yadav's son.
Rahul Dravid's career also represents the ultimate triumph of placing the team above the individual. Whether be it his brave decision to declare an innings when the mighty Tendulkar was batting on 194 in a Test match, or taking on the unfamiliar role of a wicket-keeper, Dravid always put his team first. By contrast, the Uttar Pradesh election became more about Brand Rahul when it really should have been structured around Team Congress. It would be unfair to blame Rahul Gandhi for this but the fact is the era of an Indira-like politician with a cross-class, cross-caste appeal is truly over. Individual charisma alone will not win you an election; a strong grassroots organisation will give you a distinct edge in a competitive election space.
Rahul Dravid's greatness can also be measured by the fact that he did not resort to theatrics at any stage in his long career which explains why he is so universally respected in the cricket world. Rahul Gandhi, by contrast, has shown a proclivity for political theatre. Be it staying in a Dalit's home for a night or tearing up the Samajwadi Party manifesto at a public meeting, there is a touch of histrionics in his politics that can be self-defeating. We live in an age where an earthy 'rootedness' is often more appreciated than designer flamboyance. Building a political organisation is not like a T 20 match; it requires dogged persistence to overcome all obstacles over a lengthy period of time.
What is also striking about Rahul the cricketer is how he always raised the bar for himself. When he started off in his career, he was seen as little more than a solid Test match player. Over time, he evolved into a top class One Day player. By the end of his career, he was a shot maker good enough to be picked for 20-20 cricket. From being a useful slip fielder, he ended his career by becoming the first fielder to take more than 200 catches. At every stage, it seemed as if he wanted to take on a new challenge that would stretch his abilities to the limit.
By contrast, Rahul Gandhi still hasn't been able to take his politics to the next level, quite simply because we still don't know who the real Rahul is, despite him being in public life now for almost a decade. Encircled by security and a small coterie of advisers, he hasn't really opened himself up for scrutiny. Yes, his Hindi and oratorical skills have shown a staggering improvement and his acceptance of personal responsibility for the UP defeat was a step in the right direction. But we still don't have a clear idea where he stands on most critical issues of national importance. Even his one intervention during the Lokpal debate was a prepared speech rather than a spontaneous expression of his political beliefs. At 41, he still seems somehow stuck in the image of a youth leader, still discovering India rather than one ready to lead it.
Rahul Dravid spent most of his career under the shadow of the great Tendulkar. But he never let that overawe him. Rather, he used the opportunity to carve out an independent identity for himself, emerging as Indian cricket's man for all seasons. Like 'The Wall,' who went on to become the country's finest ever number three batsman. Rahul too has grown up in the shadows, in a way, of the Indira-Rajiv-Sonia triumvirate. It's time now for him to break free and become his own man. In cricketing terms, he needs to raise his game before it's too late.