Suleiman Khan was puzzled. The Saudi dailies were full of news about Donald Trump, the man with a coiffed mop of blond hair and a permanent pout who wanted to be president of the United States. Why did he look so angry all the time, wondered Suleiman.
Islamophobia had gripped the US ahead of the Republican and Democratic primaries. Trump and Dr Ben Carson, a retired black neurosurgeon who looked half-asleep most of the time, were constantly making angry anti-Muslim remarks in their campaign speeches.
All because of these Islamist terrorists, Suleiman thought to himself glumly. And, to make it even more depressing, Trump was leading in every opinion poll among Republican presidential candidates. Even pitted against Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton, Trump was just one percentage point behind in the polls. What was America coming to, Suleiman mused.
And then Suleiman’s mood suddenly brightened. His eye fell on a news item in a local newspaper: Rahul Gandhi was kicking up a storm in India’s Parliament. Suleiman turned his new LED television set on. Surfing Indian news channels, he stopped at one where eight people in tiny vertical boxes on the TV screen were shouting at the same time.
He caught a few words in the din: “Rahul”, “Sonia”, “Swamy”, “National Herald”, “Pakistan”, “Sushma”, “GST”, “Jaitley”, “VK Singh”. And then the screen cut to a middle-aged, square-jawed man in a white kurta pyjama, speaking and gesticulating angrily.
Rahul Gandhi’s put on weight, Suleiman thought to himself. He looks just like his grandfather Feroze Gandhi. Only angrier.
From what he could gather in the chaotic debate, Rahul had become aggressive and vocal after ten years of parliamentary silence. In contrast, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was looking thoughtful and defensive.
Intrigued at this reversal of roles, Suleiman speed-dialled his friend Anwar Sheikh in Delhi. It was 7.30 pm in Riyadh and Suleiman, after counting on his fingers the time difference between Saudi Arabia and India, figured it would be 10pm in Delhi.
Seeing Suleiman’s name flashing on his phone screen, Anwar said cheerfully: “As-salaam alaikum, Suleiman.”
“Wa-alaikum salaam, Anwarbhai. I am watching eight people on an Indian TV channel shouting at one another at the same time about the tough, aggressive new Rahul. He and his mother Sonia have blocked Parliament because of some court order over a newspaper called National Herald. I always thought Rahul was a soft-spoken young man like his father Rajiv. What’s got into him?”
Anwar coughed, partly in mirth, partly due to Delhi’s smog. “Suleiman, you are stuck in 2004 when you left India. Rahul was soft-spoken then. Those days are over. After the Bihar elections, Rahul has come into his own. He has Modi and his ministers on the run, in parliament and outside. And forget about National Herald. As Sonia said, she is after all Indira Gandhi’s daughter-in-law. She’s not scared of anyone. It’s all a political vendetta by the BJP and that incorrigible fellow Subramanian Swamy. This case will be forgotten in a few days. No one can question our Sonia and Rahul.”
Suleiman was further intrigued. “But Anwarbhai, what has changed? The Congress still has only 44 MPs in the Lok Sabha. Yet they’re behaving like the ruling party, not the Opposition, ticking government ministers off, challenging the Delhi High Court order on National Herald, stalling parliament and holding up the Goods and Services Tax (GST) Bill. Why is the BJP, with 281 MPs, behaving like the Opposition?”
“Now, now Suleiman,” Anwar laughed, “First of all, the Congress has 45 MPs, not 44. Remember, it won a by-election in Madhya Pradesh last month. The tide is turning! Look at Gujarat – the Congress won 23 out of 31 district panchayats and 113 out of 193 taluka panchayats. Rahul is now confident he can be prime minister in 2019. Modi will soon be history.”
As he absorbed all this, Suleiman glanced at the TV screen in front of him. The anchor was shouting at his panelists, telling them to stop shouting.
He turned his attention back to his friend in Delhi. “But Anwarbhai,” Suleiman said pensively, does Rahul have any administrative experience? Has he run a state as chief minister or served in any ministry in the Union Cabinet when the Congress-led UPA government was in power?”
Anwar chuckled again. “Don’t be naïve, Suleiman. He’s a Gandhi. He doesn’t need administrative experience to be prime minister. Look at Rajiv. He flew old Indian Airlines Avro planes from 1968 to 1980. Yet he was prime minister by 1984. This is India, not America. We don’t have primaries. We have dynasties.”
“Of course,” agreed Suleiman. “It’s like that here in Saudi too. Our Kings all come from one family, al-Saud. It keeps things nice and simple.”
Anwar didn’t like the comparison but let it pass. “You know, Suleiman,” he said, his voice clear and strong over the line from Delhi, “it’ll soon be just like old times. A Gandhi as Indian prime minister and a Gandhi as Congress party president. And 15-year-old Raihan, Priyanka and Robert Vadra’s son, when he turns 25 in 2025, can stand from Rae Bareli or Amethi. The family has looked after both constituencies so well over the years.”
Suleiman was startled but managed to keep his tone even. Ten years in Saudi Arabia had taught him that discretion was usually the better part of valour.
He said tentatively: “Anwarbhai, a report by an NGO, Naandi Foundation, released by then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in 2013, said Rae Bareli was one of the most backward constituencies in India. Nearly 70 per cent of children under the age of 5 in Rae Bareli, according to Naandi Foundation, are stunted or severely malnourished. How can that be? This is a constituency that has been looked after by the Gandhis since 1952 when Rahul’s grandfather Feroze Gandhi was first elected from there! Aren’t Rahul and Sonia worried that they won’t be re-elected from there in the future?”
Anwar’s chortle drowned out even the TV anchor who was closing a debate on Rahul’s new-found aggression despite the controversy over the National Herald case.
“Suleiman,” Anwar laughed, “you’ve been out of touch with Indian politics for far too long. Sonia will win from Rae Bareli and Rahul will win from Amethi even if the two constituencies have no electricity, water, sanitation or roads. It’s about Family.”
Suleiman’s eyes widened. “You mean like in The Godfather?”
There was a sudden click at the other end. Anwar’s phone line had gone dead.
Must be one of those call drops everyone in India complains about, Suleiman thought to himself, switching his phone off and turning back to his TV set.