Changed Challenger!

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It has been a silent metamorphosis that has shocked two persons the most, Narendra Modi and Amit Shah, and people are likening it to the makeover by his grandmother, late Indira Gandhi. Is the Congress looking up under Rahul Gandhi?

Sharad Gupta

Sharad Gupta

Sharad Gupta is a political commentator with over 30 years experience of working with publications like The Times of India, The Indian Express, India Today, Hindustan and Dainik Bhaskar. He is presently Senior Editor with Parliamentarian

As Rahul Gandhi prepares to lead the Grand Old Party from the front, some instances stand out to describe his political journey. First, of course, is the teary-eyed speech at his elevation as party’s national vice president a few years ago. The way he described his conversation with mother about politics being a poison, presented him as a very sensitive but reluctant person to don the second most important post in the party.

The second instance was his interview given to television journalist Arnab Goswami in the run-up to 2014 general elections, in which he came across as the politically naive person who wasn’t exactly clued on to intricacies of politics.

The two instances were soon going to be forgotten by the masses characterised by its proverbial short memory as Rahul addressed students of the University of California at Berkeley in the United States of America in September 2017. He emerged as a politically savvy, youthful person who was not averse to poke fun at himself while praising the good qualities of his rivals. Rahul Gandhi said PM Narendra Modi is a “much better communicator” than himself, who knows how to “give a message to three or four different groups” of people in a crowd. He also had good words for the ‘Make in India’ initiative, one of Modi government’s flagship programmes but added his own take on it by saying

‘Make in India’ should help small and medium enterprises transform into global companies rather than facilitating big businesses in steadying their growth curve.

Rebutting Ridicule

Referring to his description in social media as ‘Pappu’ (a buffoon) he called it the handiwork of 1,000 BJP workers, who have been deployed by the current dispensation to ‘spread baseless malicious things’ about him. He left it to the people to judge him on the basis of how he spoke, what he spoke and the way he conducted himself.

In the past, Rahul had always talked about giving opportunities to young people who do not belong to any political dynasty. At Berkeley, he wasn’t at all cagey or apologetic about it. He said that dynasty politics was a part of Indian society and gave examples of the phenomenon from political parties, film industry and businesses.

In his pre-poll interview with Arnab Goswami in 2014, Rahul had sidestepped a question on whether he would offer an apology for the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, saying he was very young. But at Berkeley, he offered consolation to those who lost their families and presented himself as someone who is with them in their quest for justice. Party colleagues feel that his interactions with scholars and the entire board of Washington Post, New York Times and Reuters during the trip gave him a ‘neutral audience for the first time.’ Back home, Rahul had to face an audience fed on black humour generated ad nauseam by social media activists employed by

the BJP.

The Metamorphosis

People have been comparing his metamorphosis to that of his grandmother and former Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, who suddenly changed gears from being ‘goongi gudiya’ (mute doll) to the ‘only man in the cabinet’. Some attribute it to his new social media team headed by former Karnataka MP Divya Spandan aka Ramya (her film name, she has been an actress before trooping into politics). Punchy tweets, animated speeches, interactive sessions at international platforms to drive home the point that ‘Pappu’ can finally speak.

Congress leaders, however, don’t agree to such suggestions. “How much can you tutor someone? If he did not have it in him, he would never be able to learn,” is the senior leadership’s refrain. They insist Rahul is erudite, a voracious reader, curious, and has a sharp sense of humour traits he always exhibited but was never acknowledged.

“It is the same Rahul Gandhi, who had coined jabs like ‘suit boot ki sarkar’ and ‘fair and lovely scheme’. The person is the same, the perception has changed. None of us sees any change in him. He was always open, transparent, down to earth,” argues a senior Congress leader. Indeed, Narendra Modi has shunned suits like a hot potato and has returned to his old attire kurta-pyjama and jacket. But, nobody credits Rahul for the change.

But can a change in social media team indeed bring about this transformation? Congress leaders don’t agree. “The ideas and concept emanate from the top. A team can only supplement the efforts. Whether it is Berkeley or Baroda, the issues he raised are important and that is why they got traction,” maintained Rajasthan Congress chief Sachin Pilot, who is also known to be Rahul’s close friend. “Rahul Gandhi believes in collective leadership and free-flowing discussions on all issues. So I am sure he will like to see the credit of the successes go to the party, to the team and his colleagues too,” Pilot added.

Young Brigade

In fact, when Rahul entered politics he was barely 30. He was distracted by a lot many things. Had poor vocabulary and even poorer stage presence. Though he had ideas to rejuvenate the Congress by infusing young blood, he couldn’t implement his ideas because he couldn’t alienate the old guard. Even Narendra Modi could do that only after receiving mammoth mandate in 2014 elections.

Now things seem to be changing. With most old guards, having lost the elections and with his own elevation as party chief, Rahul would have the mandate to effect changes that were close to his heart like decentralisation of the party. He is having young energetic leaders to hold reigns of Congress’s state units.

While Sachin Pilot is Rajasthan PCC chief, Dr Ajoy Kumar is in charge of Jharkhand Congress and Bharatsinh Solanki is in charge of poll-bound Gujarat. A young Jyotiraditya Scindia is being projected as chief ministerial candidate in Madhya Pradesh. Chief Minister Siddaramaiah is likely to lead Congress’ charge in the upcoming Karnataka assembly elections. Rahul has already appointed trusted aides like KC Venugopal as general secretary, Madhu Yaskhi Goud and Manicka Tagore as secretaries to assist Siddaramaiah.

Gujarat Gurgling

It could be debated whether Rahul has some role in changing the political atmosphere in the country but things have suddenly changed for Modi, and they have changed for the worse especially in his home state Gujarat. A state which was already reeling under internecine rivalry of BJP leaders once Modi and Amit Shah left it for the Centre, demonetisation and GST came like rude shocks. Their combined effect is what is making the Modi-Shah duo put in their best efforts to ensure their party remains in power in the state which has been the Hindutva Laboratory. But, Rahul indeed had some role in swaying deals with OBC leader Alpesh Thakore, Patidar leader Hardik Patel and Dalit leader Jignesh Mevani. With the three youthful leaders with sizeable influence in their own community behind them, throwing their lot with the Congress, winning back Gujarat will be an uphill task for the BJP. Rahul has been raising probing questions to Modi and Shah in Gujarat. If he manages to win the state for Congress, it will be a big feather in his cap. But, even if he doesn’t win, it will be a credible feat for him to have put the formidable Modi-Shah back to the grind. In any case, failures are not new to Rahul. He has campaigned extensively in UP Assembly elections in 2007, 2012 and 2017 - even stitching together an alliance with Samajwadi Party last time, but failed to stem the erosion in his party’s support base.

Challenges Ahoy

Rahul belongs to the fifth generation of Nehru-Gandhi dynasty and is the sixth person in the family to head the party. Each one of them had their own challenges. Moti Lal Nehru led the party in its quest for freedom from colonial rule. Jawaharlal had to lead the party in newly-independent India. Indira had to fight the old guard of the Syndicate. Rajiv took over the party and the government in very tragic circumstances. He had high ideas and hopes for the country but few could materialise as he lost the way and frittered away the power. A grieving Sonia in 1991 refused to take over the party and the government for five years. When ultimately she took the plunge in 1998, Congress had been out of power for over two years. She led the party as Leader of Opposition and led it back to power only to renunciate the post in favour of Dr Manmohan Singh.

Indira had been trained in politics and international affairs under her father. But Rajiv had no such luxury. He had been a career pilot until just four years when he had to take over as party chief and Prime Minister. Sonia too had been accustomed to politics and diplomacy while travelling with her husband. But, Rahul has had no such opportunity.

Moreover, Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s BJP was accommodative; Narendra Modi’s BJP is ruthless, domineering and ascendant. Social media has changed forever the public discourse. Rahul is taking over at a point when Congress is at its lowest ebb. There is the little scope of party going further down. after having hit the nadir.

Zilch Opposition

The only advantage Rahul has is that the opposition is more or less unoccupied and there aren’t many challengers either. Mulayam Singh and his son Akhilesh Yadav are at loggerheads among themselves. Their party has been beaten to a batter by the BJP this year. Mayawati’s BSP has been almost decimated. Though it has managed to maintain its vote share at 22 percent so far, it drew a blank in parliamentary elections and was reduced to just 17 seats in Assembly elections held this year. Both the parties’ top leaders are facing CBI probes in disproportionate assets cases. Odisha’s Navin Patnaik has been ailing for quite some time and has a nondescript second line of leadership. The Left Front is in disarray. Haryana’s Chautala clan is in jail. Bihar’s RJD leadership is in grip of CBI and Enforcement Directorate. Mamata Banerjee and Arvind Kejriwal have been forced to save their backyard. Karnataka’s Deve Gowda clan stands totally discredited. Andhra and Telangana parties are either with BJP or are in no position to stake a national claim. That leaves only Congress as having good prospects as a formidable opposition party which could dislodge the BJP if push came to shove. That is why whether Congress comes back to power or not, Rahul is likely to remain relevant for at least some time to come.

Sporting Politics

In sports, a weather-beaten person or team always has its chances. A team with a sound defence in hockey or football can often fancy its chances. In boxing, a person who can absorb and endure punches has better chances to win. Rahul seems to have suffered his punches and overcome them.

Secondly, he doesn’t seem to have challenges within his party. The party needs the charisma of a Gandhi clan to survive and succeed. Not many Congress leaders have a base of their own. That is why they clamour for the vote catching phenomenon of the Gandhi clan.

Rahul has had his fair share of failures but was hardly ever blamed for them. There may be a certain allowance for failures but no leader in a democracy enjoys a free pass. It is difficult to see Narendra Modi and Amit Shah remain at the helm if BJP is ousted in 2019. Rahul is the perennial night watchman — every run is a bonus while dismissals are unexceptional. Nobody expects much from him, and therefore even a modest performance in Gujarat will be interpreted as his success.

Rahul though seems to have learnt a lot from his failures. And that is evident in his political conduct as well. The way he rebuked Youth Congress leaders for making personal remarks against Modi was an indication of his coming of age.

Finally, bringing in a sports analogy once again, it is always easier to attack than defend - who knows it better than Arvind Kejriwal. Rahul has been vehemently trying to cash in on the collateral damage caused by disruptive reforms. He still doesn’t have much to show except clever quips on social media and criticism of Modi, but if he manages to tap into the winter of discontent, that might still be enough.

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