By Seema Mustafa
Just a few days ago Congress President Rahul Gandhi interacted with a large audience of university teachers. And confirmed what has been evident for a while— a makeover that intelligently encapsulates his shy demeanour and turns it into an asset with sufficient inputs that he convinces the audience (unlike in the past) that he knows what he is talking about. And that if he is not saying more it is in deference to those he is addressing, and not because he does not have the knowledge or a point of view.
The makeover—and one believes there are several who can be credited with the visible change—was visible abroad at the first instance during his University interactions such as Berkeley where he came through as this good looking, polished, gentle, and yet informed Indian leader who said his words quietly, and then showed the patience to listen to others, and take questions that he answered in some detail. A certain respect for the person on the other side that is going down well with those who are now turning up in increasingly larger numbers to listen to the Congress leader.
To the point where at a veterans gathering at the India International Centre just a day or two ago, a private conversation started with the usual, where is the Congress going, what is it doing? And then someone quietly volunteered, “But Rahul Gandhi has changed, he seems to be doing well.” And immediately the response was a positive yes, with the seniors adding. “Yes he is showing promise isn’t he?” A long way from the Papoo tag that had hounded him well into his career as a politician.
So what has changed?
One accessibility. From keeping himself locked indoors, and rarely meeting anyone with or without an appointment, Rahul Gandhi has broken several self imposed barriers to become more accessible to party leaders, as well as outsiders. A military officer shared the information of how he had just put in a request to meet the Congress president, without any godfather, and was surprised when he got the green signal and an appointment. He found the interaction “very satisfying”, 45 minutes of what he described as “solid” conversation. He is meeting people, individually, in small groups, in large audiences, professionals, intelligentsia, women, students in cities and towns.
Two, humility. His arrogance seems to have disappeared, the turn of the head, the cynical hard look…one remembers a while ago when his party was in power and a Congress MP came and sat beside him, speaking into his ear. Rahul Gandhi kept looking straight ahead. The MP pulled away looking for a response. There was none. Not a flicker of expressing on the leaders face. The MP, flustered and very sheepish, looked around hoping no one had noticed, got up and left. This seems to have been replaced with smiles, handshakes, acknowledgements in and outside Parliament that works again well for the Congress President.
The two new qualities are reflected in the ease with which he has managed to forge alliances. Making it very clear that all doors are open, and that the Congress is not thirsty or for that matter hungry for power. And is quite willing to take the back seat and stitch together a larger coalition to take on the BJP and its allies in the 2018 general elections. He is also managing his own party well, having revived the Youth Congress to some extent. The other mass organisations still remain in the doldrums but the Youth Congress is more visible now, with its leaders echoing the party line with some of the verve associated with this wing maybe 20 odd years ago. For example, Youth Congress leaders demonstrating against the Rafale deal tonsured their heads in protest. The old guard in the party has been shown respect, unlike earlier, and accommodated strategically in decision making bodies while the younger leaders have been sent into— and trusted with—the field. As in Rajasthan with Ashok Gehlot in AICC committees and Sachin Pilot in the state.
Three, knowledge. This perhaps has been Rahul Gandhi’s biggest breakthrough as he is now studying what he speaks on. And hence brings a certain informed view into his speeches, and his responses. The information is limited at times, but is not delivered with hesitation but rather quiet aplomb. And he does not hesitate to take on the mantle of the ‘student’ as in the interaction with the professors who loved it, and read him long homilies. He stood by listening, responding, giving time, polite and sympathetic and in the middle of it said that while the rest would be looked at by the manifesto committee he could say for certain that the attack on the autonomy of educational institutions by the current government would be fully reversed if the Congress came to power. A one liner that one heard being quoted by a senior academic in a Delhi drawing room shortly after.
And this knowledge is being translated into campaigns, such as the one on Rafale. A journalist friend appearing as an expert on a BBC Radio Hindi program that gets phone ins from the districts of India said he was stunned at the number of calls on the Rafale deal. And that 98 percent of the callers spoke of it as a ‘scam’ with the Congress campaign clearly being carried through into the smaller towns and districts. There is a briefing on the Rafale deal almost every other day by Congress leaders, demonstrations, and references by the Congress President.
Four, humour. This has become a weapon that Rahul Gandhi uses in sharp contrast to the jibes of BJP president Amit Shah or for that matter Prime Minister Narendra Modi. His remarks are hard hitting against the BJP, but usually clothed in humour that makes hard political comments less offensive. This seems to be working as humour is not part of the BJP propaganda machine, and hence even on the social media the response is more hateful and vicious with the trolls often crossing all lines of decent comment. The Congress however, manages to remain within the limits with the Congress President repeatedly urging the party not to cross swords in the same vein. Congress party’s social media team is particularly innovative, with jokes, memes, laughter being used to blunt the BJP attack, and in the process occupy as a Congress leader said, the “civilised” space. The hug (of PM Modi) that got Rahul Gandhi some flak from his own party was part of the makeover, intended to project the Congress president as this approachable, reasonable, gentle , smart alternative to the BJP leadership.
In fact even more than the policies, it is the personal alternative that the Congress seems to be focusing on, PM Modi, the hard and flamboyant orator who captured the public imagination in 20-14, the hare in the electoral race. And now Congress President Rahul Gandhi, overcoming his lesser skills in oratory with a genteel, intelligent, suave approach coming in from behind—the tortoise determined to win the race. The one threatening, the other compassionate. The one angry the other calm. The one hard, the other gentle. The one unapproachable, the other with all doors open now. The one avoiding the media, the other always willing to talk to journalists. The one keeping away from personal contacts, the other revelling in these. The one speaking mostly from the podium, the other from within the crowd. The one at his best while addressing public rallies, the other shining in town hall kind of meetings.
2019 will determine whether the fable works on the ground.