Modi May Win 2019 But Rahul Gandhi, Too, Has Come of Age As A Neta
How do you respond when someone calls your father names? Do you punch him in the nose, launch a counter-attack on his family, or do you send him love and a hug to boot?
Incredibly, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, who is undoubtedly the main challenger to Prime Minister Narendra Modi in this long and gruelling general elections, has opted to do the latter. When Modi called his father Rajiv Gandhi, a former Prime Minister who was assassinated 28 years ago, "Bhrashtachari No 1", Rahul responded with a tweet that said, “Modi ji, The battle is over. Your Karma awaits you. Projecting your inner beliefs about yourself onto my father won’t protect you. All my love and a huge hug.”
And when the PM ratcheted up his attempt to make the late Rajiv Gandhi’s alleged misdemeanours his big issue in the last leg of Election 2019, Rahul reacted with a curveball tweet: “Dear Mr Modi, Your recent statements, interviews & videos are giving India the distinct feeling that you’re cracking under pressure.”
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His inference was clear: the PM was clutching at straws and showing his desperation by trashing a slain leader to try and discredit both Rahul and the Congress party.
Rahul Gandhi’s New Avatar: Mr Repartee
Rahul’s smart and measured response to Modi’s latest poll gambit — he has left the job of refuting the PM’s charges against his father to his partymen — epitomises the long way he has come as a politician and the leader of the Congress party. From a political featherweight—an uncertain and aloof entrant into the messiness of Indian politics—who was widely dismissed as someone with little to recommend him, 48-year-old Rahul Gandhi has transformed himself into a confident and articulate leader who knows how to take the battle to his opponent’s camp.
He has kept his focus relentlessly on the core issues facing the country: unemployment at a 45-year high, rural distress, the crumbling of institutions and, of course, the alleged mega corruption in the Rafale jet deal for which he squarely blames the Prime Minister.
No matter how assiduously Modi and his team have trumpeted national security as the core election issue by citing the terror attack in Pulwama and the subsequent air strike in Pakistan’s Balakot, Rahul has refused to be deflected or put on the backfoot.
In rally after rally, in interview after interview, he has hammered the Prime Minister for his politicisation of the armed forces, his unkept promises — the fabled 2 crore jobs a year or Rs 15 lakh in every person’s bank account — and the pain he brought to the economy by the ill-conceived note ban of 2016 and the clumsy implementation of the Goods and Services Tax in 2017.
Rahul Gandhi is Self-Assured and It Shows!
Simultaneously, the Congress president has held forth on what his party plans to do to vivify the economy once again — its proposed minimum income scheme for the poor, the Nyuntam Aay Yojana, being one of the main pillars of that strategy. Like Arjun, my focus is on the eye of the fish, Rahul said in an interview to a television channel.
To several others he has said, “I challenge the Prime Minister to have a debate with me on Rafale and other issues. Let him look the people of India in the eye and answer some of my questions. He won’t be able to do it.”
In the interviews Rahul gives on the sidelines of his rallies, he sounds self-assured, charged-up and handles even the tough questions (such as those on the Congress’s failure to stitch up alliances in Uttar Pradesh and Delhi) with aplomb.
His body language is relaxed, but firm, and while he listens to the questions and is lucid in his answers, he refuses to be interrupted midstream. “Let me finish,” he says and continues to make his point. And he doesn’t forget to inject a bit of charm into the interaction. “I don’t say “Chowkidar chor hai,” he dimples, when someone asks him about his personal attack on the PM, “I just say ‘chowkidar’.” Then he throws the word at the crowd, which enthusiastically shouts back, “chor hai!”
Rahul’s Rise from the Pit of ‘Pappu’
Contrast this with Rahul’s disastrous maiden television interview with Times Now before the 2014 general elections. Back then, the Gandhi scion appeared ill-at-ease, hesitant, unsure of his facts, and tried to respond to every question with his scripted answers on how he wanted to improve the “system” and work for women’s empowerment and the youth.
But if that one interview contributed to his image as a “pappu”, a figure of fun of sorts, the way Rahul Gandhi is conducting his campaign in 2019 is a testament to how much he has overhauled himself. No doubt, the Congress’s stunning defeat in 2014, which saw it get its lowest ever score of 44 seats in Parliament, was the goad for the transformation. It was the adversity that would have stiffened his resolve, polished his mettle and made him stronger.
In the last few years, the once reticent MP from Amethi has been increasingly vocal in Parliament.
His “suit-boot ki sarkar” jibe against the Modi government in 2015 was probably the real turning point in the trajectory of Rahul Gandhi’s political maturity.
The barb resonated with the people and prompted the BJP-led NDA government to bend over backwards to give itself a pro-poor image.
Rahul Gandhi’s Strategy of Love and Hate
Today, apart from attacking the Prime Minister for his failures and presenting his party (and himself) as the alternative, Rahul is trying to do something else. He is trying to show the people of India that he represents an ideology that is the opposite of the one Modi adheres to. In a clever strategy, he has reduced terms like centrist, liberal and right wing into simply “love” and “hate”.
He is telling the people that he is on the side of love while his opponent is a votary of hate — as exemplified by the growing intolerance and communal polarisation in the country.
In other words, Rahul is claiming an almost moral force in his quest for power.
Hence the famous hug he gave to Modi in Parliament last year. Hence the love and hugs he sends Modi’s way each time the latter insults and badmouths his long-dead father. “Our country has always been known for bhaichara and pyar ki bhaavna,” he said in an interview recently. It is a measure of Rahul's newfound astuteness that he is claiming that benevolent, inclusive space for himself.
Whatever the verdict is on May 23, Rahul Gandhi’s coming of age as a politician must rank as one of its high points.
(Shuma Raha is a journalist and author based in Delhi. She tweets at @ShumaRaha. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)