In interviews and speeches, Rahul Gandhi has often spoken of his traumatic childhood during which he saw his father and grandmother assassinated. These statements are often dismissed as ploys to gain sympathy. Yet he makes the point so often and so forcefully, it may be useful to consider the possibility that his grief is genuine, and that it has defined his politics in ways that makes it impractical for him to lead the Congress party.

Rahul's personal agony is reflected in his ambivalence towards politics, his distrust of the system in which he must operate, and his fleeting attempts at redefining the idea of power and its pursuit. His psychological makeup seems to explain why he is out of sync with his party, unable to become an inspiration to it.

Perhaps the most glaring revelation of the debilitating impact of Rahul Gandhi’s past on his politics was to be had during his controversial interview with TV anchor Arnab Goswami, whose relentless style of questioning mounted unbearable pressure on the Congress vice president. It is in strenuous conditions that human beings provide a glimpse into their inner selves. Despite Rahul’s propensity to speak of himself in the imperious third person – yes, Prime Minister Narendra Modi shares this virtue too – the fragility of his personality was evident.

“In my life I have seen my grandmother die, I have seen my father die, I have seen my grandmother go to jail and I have actually been through a tremendous amount of pain as a child,” he told Goswami. He cited this as the reason for why he doesn’t like what he “sees in politics”. Rahul compared himself to Arjun, to his ability to focus on the object he aims at, blind to anything else. "I am blind because I saw people I love destroyed by the system."

His aim, as he emphasised throughout the interview, is to reform or change the system. Rahul is blind to the aspects of the system that are actually beneficial – the aspects that his grandmother (Indira Gandhi) and his father (Rajiv Gandhi) believed in, and which rewarded them by electing them both prime minister. Rahul is unable to see these elevating aspects of the system because it ultimately claimed the two people whom he loved deeply and inflicted immeasurable pain on him.

It is through his pain that he senses the pain of others. He is consequently inspired to transform the system. “I am blind because the system everyday is unfair to our people,” he told Goswami. The word “unfair” is the closest he comes to invoking a politically analytical term to justify his arguments for reforming the system.

For most of the interview, the system was personalised. Right after this, Rahul said, “The system everyday... everyday hurts people and I have felt the pain that the system can cause.” He has felt it because he saw his father in “constant-constant combat with the system in India and then I saw him die, actually”. In other words, Rahul finds the system flawed not because he has witnessed it grind common people, but because the proof of its flaws is the pain he experienced at the assassinations of his grandmother and then father.

Rahul still seems to be in grief, unless we assume he is putting on an act to remind his listeners of the contributions of the Nehru dynasty. Excessive self-pity has its own psychological quirks. Nevertheless, even he knows that the attraction of the dynasty has weakened considerably over the last two decades. Obviously, Rahul does not believe that in rekindling the memory of his family’s “sacrifices”, he might trigger a sympathy wave more than 20 years later. It would appear that the sorrow that has blinded him to the goodness of the system has also rendered him out of touch with reality.

Accepting his display of grief to be genuine, the pertinent question is: Can someone who detests the system thrive in it? To transform the system, you need to first succeed in it, to capture its commanding heights. This creates a vicious circle, for the Congress is part of the system too. In fact, for much of India’s post-Independence history, the Congress has been the system. You can’t head a system and be a rebel at the same time. You can’t be the system’s principal beneficiary, as he and his family have been for generations, and still disparage or, worse, subvert it.

Rahul is a divided self. He confessed to Arnab as much. “I am an anomaly in the environment that I’m in,” he said. “I don’t get driven by the desire for power... Maybe it is because of my family circumstances and what happened to my family.” But what is there in him “is a strong desire to reduce the pain that people feel... as a result of the system that is predatory.” For many, though, since he is the system, he is also the predator, thus making his pronouncements, however heartfelt, appear hypocritical.

That the past hobbles Rahul is evident from his responses to Arnab’s questions on the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. He obstinately refused to apologise for them, insisting on a fundamental difference between 1984 and the 2002 riots of Gujarat. “I remember, I was a child then [1984], I remember the government was doing everything it could to stop the riots,” he said. “In Gujarat the opposite was the case.”

Even a political greenhorn would have thought it pointless to flail around in the trap Arnab had laid out. He would have apologised on behalf of the Congress, and moved on. But for Rahul to apologise now would have implied disbelieving his father. It would have meant accepting a more complicated narrative of the 1984 riots, a narrative in which his father was not only wronged but also the one who wronged. A still-grieving Rahul is still not prepared to reinterpret or rewrite his memory of 1984. Perhaps this is because it would lead him to negate the childhood emotions he experienced at the assassination of Indira Gandhi.

In his speech last year at the All India Congress Committee session in Jaipur when he was declared party vice president, Rahul said, “When I was a little boy I loved to play badminton. I loved it because it gave me balance in a complicated world. I was taught how to play, in my grandmother’s house, by two of the policemen who protected my grandmother. They were my friends. Then one day they killed my grandmother and took away the balance in my life. I felt pain like I had never felt before.”

The imagery of pain recurs through the interview with Goswami and his speech in Jaipur. It is as if Rahul’s personality is constructed around the emotion of pain. He clings to it as if he would disintegrate without it. But the narrative of pain, one so personal, isn’t what an aspiring India is willing to listen to.

This isn’t to mock his pain, or make light of it. We know Rahul and his sister Priyanka had abnormally sequestered childhoods, living behind a perpetual security cordon, stifling as well menacing. Rahul was home-tutored in his final year in school. For a year, he was in Delhi’s St Stephen’s College, sparking off a furore that stringent admission rules had been bent to accommodate him. A year later, he left St Stephen’s for college in the US, from where he went to England following security concerns arising from the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi.

His has been an abnormal early life, a time in which young people, particularly politicians of tomorrow, develop social skills to negotiate their way through an economically unequal, socially heterogeneous world. It’s how you understand what inspires and moves people. But Rahul lived in a fortress, then abroad. It explains his disconnection from ordinary people, his lack of spontaneity, his aloofness.

In this sense, Priyanka has been luckier. She studied in a Delhi college. But, more significantly, from whatever we know, she tried to bring closure to her traumatised past. Meditation and Buddhist chants have been her weapons to trump memory. Her endeavour to reconcile herself to her past was eloquently symbolised by her courageous decision to meet Nalini, a member of the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam death squad responsible for the assassination of her father. There are some tears all of us must shed, to lighten the burden of the past.

For Rahul, nudged into a leadership role, solace seems to lie in redefining power. In his speech in Jaipur, he said, “Last night everyone congratulated me [on becoming the vice president]. But last night my mother came to my room and she sat with me and she cried. Why did she cry? She cried because she understands that the power so many seek is actually a poison... The only antidote to this poison is for all of us to see it for what it really is and not become attached to it.”

Not getting attached to power even though you want to acquire it is a contradiction. In Rahul’s case it can be explained thus: Rahul detests power because it destroyed those he loved. And because he loves them he must seek to acquire power in order to perpetuate the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. He resolves this dilemma by defining power as an instrument to change the system that claimed those whom he loved.

Rahul’s conception of power suits more the Aam Aadmi Party than the Congress. Many dismiss his definition of power as mere rhetoric. This is particularly true of Congress members, who desire power because it is an elixir to them, because they relish it. This lust for power makes electoral victory imperative. But Rahul’s past has blunted his thirst for power. This is why there is such disquiet in the Congress about his suitability to lead the party. This is why every defeat will damage Rahul even further as a person. Might it not make sense for him to walk away from it all?