When after a decade-long demand for him to take over the reins of the party, Rahul Gandhi eventually got elected as the 60th president of the Indian National Congress on December 16, 2017, the BJP was pleased. Its president, Amit Shah, and its spokespersons publicly claimed that Mr Gandhi was an asset to them for ensuring the victory of their party. One year is a long time in politics. After the results of the Assembly elections in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh, reflecting the mood of the people of these states, the SanghParivar might wish to revisit their assessment of the young Congress president and reset their strategy for the 2019 parliamentary elections.
Mr Gandhi has endured harsh criticism, ridicule, unflattering jibes, constant trolling on the social media and disdainful dismissal of his leadership qualities in the last 10 years. He has been called a “shehzada” who was a reluctant politician, a novice in cut-throat competitive politics, whose party has shrunken beyond recognition and earned the distinction of snatching defeat out of the jaws of victory. He has been riled as a “Pappu” who can’t dance and has been catapulted as the president of the party solely on account his family. The party, which once ruled over the whole country, has been reduced to just one and a half state while he was doing his decade-long apprentice in politics. Though he wasn’t the party chief, as its star campaigner he couldn’t avoid a major share of responsibility for the defeats of his party in the parliamentary and Assembly elections.
Mr Gandhi carries the burden of resurrecting the 135-year-old, weather-beaten Congress Party whose cadre until the recent elections lacked motivation, enthusiasm and fire within to take the fight to the enemy camp. Over the years, it has become a lumbering, battle-shy, sycophantic, motley crowd of cheerleaders and hangers-on who have lost touch with the masses. He also seems weighed down by the responsibility of carrying forward the legacy of his family, which has given five generations of leaders but whose charisma and appeal has been on the wane.
Besides, in the form of the present Prime Minister, he has a formidable rival. Narendra Modi is a self-made, shrewd, battle-hardened, media and business-savvy successful chief minister who has risen to the top by outwitting and toppling the veterans of his own party and meticulously creating a widely-held perception, presenting a grand national vision with his oratorical and communication skills and announcements of hundreds of policies and public-oriented schemes solidly supported by a well-trained, well-indoctrinated and disciplined ground swell of the RSS cadre. With a slew of tantalising promises and an image of a 24×7 CEO-style Prime Minister bubbling with energy, confidence and ideas, he is able to convince millions of Indians, especially the Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and WhatsApp-hooked youth, that he alone could transform India for the better in the 21st century. He is heads and shoulders above his political rivals in use of the social media; it helps.
On the other hand, prior to December 2017, Mr Gandhi’s own conduct didn’t generate a positive image. He criss-crossed the country to discover India a la his grandfather, slept at Kalavati’s place in Amethi with the then British foreign secretary to reach out to dalits (Kalavati didn’t vote for his party), disappeared from India for long spells several times leaving his party spokespersons fumble to explain his whereabouts, tore down the ordinance promulgated by his party’s government while Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was still abroad, looked nervous and unsure in his interview with Arnab Goswami of Times Now and couldn’t read two lines of a Urdu couplet in Parliament without looking at a written piece of paper. Going by his Hamlet-like confusing signals, the media went to the town to pronounce that he wasn’t cut out for politics; he wasn’t Prime Minister material!
Mr Gandhi’s trip to Cambodia, Myanmar, Vietnam (2015) and his successful lecture tour to the prestigious American universities, including the University of California at Berkley, seem to have done him a lot of good. He discovered self-belief that he could take on the seemingly invincible Narendra Modi and defeat him. He seems to have concluded that targeting the Prime Minister directly day after day will give him a new, bold avatar. He has borrowed several tricks of Mr Modi himself. He still rolls up his kurta’s sleeves and enacts a Modi keeping his message simple and pointed: Bhaiyya, aapke bank kekhatemein 15 lakh rupayeaaye? Aapkonaukarimili? Aapkoapnifasalkisahikeematmili? Aapka loan maanfhua? Aapko OROP mili? Himself pronouncing a no, he adds: KyonkiModijike pass aapkeliye paisa nahihaiparantu Anil Ambanikeliyehai, Adani keliyehai! This oversimplified response resonates with millions of disgruntled voters today. After the biting “suit-boot kisarkar” jibe, his chaukidar ban gayachor allegation has rattled the BJP and the government. It dents Mr Modi’s famous line: “Na khaunganakhanedoonga.” Irrespective of the facts and assertions to the contrary, Mr Gandhi has, emulating late V.P. Singh, uses the Rafale deal to create a perception, at least among the urban population, that daalmeikuch kalahai.
The watershed moment was his 40 minute-long pointed speech in Parliament which he capped with a forced hug on a bewildered Modi (July 20). In the last three months, he has emerged as a feisty, energetic, confident and competitive campaigner who tries to be wherever a problem crops up, flags the local issues and articulates them with empathy, thus connecting with the people which he wasn’t able to do in the past. While the disenchantment with the NDA government and the mismatch between Mr Modi’s tall promises and actual delivery have helped as has the strong anti-incumbency feelings against the three BJP chief ministers, for the first time since Mr Gandhi’s coronation as president, voters have started looking at the Congress again, though results have been below expectations, as a serious alternative. Mr Gandhi seems to have overcome his personal fears and taken the plunge as a full-time politician, which should augur well for his party. He is using every trick to win support from innumerable visits to temples, to reaching out to jawans, kisans, students, dalits, Muslims and regional politicians. Going by his metamorphosis in just one year, the BJP will be committing a political harakiri by dismissing him as a “Pappu”. Now “Pappu” can not only dance, but make others dance too!