Rahul Gandhi at the Congress headquarters in New Delhi, on Dec 11, 2018. (Photographer: Ravi Choudhary/PTI)

Resilience! One Year Of Rahul Gandhi As Congress President  

BloombergQuintOpinion

Victory! It’s such a tonic for any campaigner, lifting his spirit, confidence and legitimacy, especially if it comes after a string of defeats. And so it was for Rahul Gandhi on Tuesday, when he led the Congress to a stunning 3-0 win in the BJP’s heartland bastions of Chhatisgarh, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh. Shunning the triumphalism patented by Prime Minister Modi in similar moments, he was graceful and dignified in his short acceptance speech.

Resilience! One Year Of Rahul Gandhi As Congress President  

A true leader is always tested in adversity. Does he quit or have the stamina of a marathon runner? Does he pick himself up after every stumble, each injury? In that sense, after 2014’s shattering failure, Rahul Gandhi has come of age.

And suddenly, as if on cue, a brutally unfair media has discovered glorious leadership qualities in the man they were abusing and caricaturing until the day-before-yesterday. In a delicious irony, Rahul is being hailed as the ‘biggest winner’, while Prime Minister Modi, who once could do no wrong, is getting labeled the ‘biggest loser’. It is the characteristic genuflection of a turncoat.

Charmingly, Rahul Gandhi has won these accolades just a few days short of marking his first anniversary as President of the Grand Old Party. It is, then, the perfect moment to assess his political spurs through the debut year. And lest you think that I have become a ‘time server’ too, I must reiterate that I have asserted, consistently from Day One, that Rahul Gandhi has been savvy and bold, rapidly maturing into a politician of substance. So, I shall time-stamp each assertion to prove that this is not my ‘wisdom of hindsight’.

Alpesh Thakor with Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat. (Photograph: PTI)
Alpesh Thakor with Rahul Gandhi in Gujarat. (Photograph: PTI)

There comes a ‘resurrection moment’ in politics. Mrs Indira Gandhi saw it in Karnataka in 1978; VP Singh in Allahabad a decade later; the Labour party in the United Kingdom this year; and I am willing to bet that a Rahul-led Congress has witnessed some such moment today. Prime Minister Modi is the epitome of Gujarat, the iconic son of the soil who could dare not be challenged. But Rahul got into the Lion’s Den when he could have stayed out of it. And he came tantalizingly close – just 4 percentage points away (up 12 percentage points from 2014, and 6 percentage points from 2012) – to vanquishing somebody who was seen until this morning as politically indestructible and immortal.

So Prime Minister Modi did not win; and Rahul did not lose. On the index of political courage, Rahul scored.
Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy meets Congress President Rahul Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)
Karnataka Chief Minister HD Kumaraswamy meets Congress President Rahul Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)

Rahul learnt the art of a quick/opportunistic compromise in Karnataka, by agreeing to hand over leadership to the junior partner; you could call it desperation, but a kinder interpretation would be a strategic retreat to build up reserves for the final assault in 2019; therefore, I would call it a smart manoeuver. He also revamped his top leadership, dropping a few heavyweights, but keeping many others for continuity, and inducting plenty of young talent.

The BJP regime is coming across as sour, prickly and forever angry. I am not sure if Prime Minister Modi has seen the prime time performance of his spokesmen? If he hasn’t, then he must. Every evening, unprintable invectives are heaped on Rahul Gandhi’s “dynasty”. But people don’t share that hate.

Even Nehru’s harshest critics concede that he is an architect of modern India.
Jawaharlal Nehru, on the night of Aug. 14, 1947. (Photograph: NMML)
Jawaharlal Nehru, on the night of Aug. 14, 1947. (Photograph: NMML)

Indira Gandhi may be reviled for the Emergency, but she also has a horde of admirers. Rajiv Gandhi may have fumbled on Bofors, Shah Bano, Ayodhya and IPKF – but he also ushered in the first whiff of a modern economy. What’s more, Indira and Rajiv were assassinated in the cause of the country. As it is, Indians abhor anybody who speaks ill of the dead.

So when BJP spokesmen jeer at the “dynasty”, as opposed to using parliamentary language to criticize them, many Indians don’t like that. And when Rahul refuses to go tit for tat against such uncouth language, he is somewhere beginning to hit a chord with middle class Indians who do not like the daily cacophony of hate.

I’ve just finished reading the economic resolution adopted by the AICC Plenary Session, and I was forced to read it again to ensure that I hadn’t skipped these stock Congress phrases from the past, like “garibi hatao”, socialism and “poverty alleviation programs”. But my eyes had not been deceived.

These tired shibboleths from Congress’s geriatric history did not find even one mention in the crisply written and expertly curated (no typos or unseemly para mis-alignments) 12-page document.

There was a young and modern turn of phrase here. The primacy given to the private sector in creating jobs (the omission of the public sector in this context is a refreshing acknowledgement, via the silence, about the abysmal productivity of government equity capital in commercial activities); the focus on wealth creation by a vibrant middle class, not as an after-thought or anonymous footnote to “the struggles of millions living below the poverty line”, but as a vocal and upfront ambition … clearly there’s a welcome, incipient attempt to discard clichés.

Then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra with Congress President Rahul Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)
Then Chief Justice of India Dipak Misra with Congress President Rahul Gandhi. (Photograph: PTI)

It’s a rare celestial event when a politician deliberately gambles on something that has the potential to implode in his face. I would put Rahul Gandhi’s decision to move a high-stakes impeachment motion against Chief Justice Dipak Mishra squarely in this category. It was disruptive. It’s double-edged. But see how the boomerang has become a navigated missile on a perfect trajectory!

Political doomsayers once feared that this government would supersede Justice Ranjan Gogoi because he was seen to be ‘inconvenient for the rulers’. But now, under the harsh glare of the ‘post-impeachment spotlight’, public opinion has hardened. Prime Minister Modi will risk political opprobrium if he chooses to still go down the supersession route. Has he been check-mated, stymied, even out-smarted?

To Rahul Gandhi’s credit, he marshalled six major political parties to sign on the petition. These included such heartland titans (and forever Congress detractors) like BSP and SP, besides NCP, CPM, CPI and IUML. It’s a political coup in sheer arithmetic terms too.

Resilience! One Year Of Rahul Gandhi As Congress President  

The following conclusions may still be erroneous or turn out to be exaggerated, but they certainly enjoy a stronger ring of truth after the by-elections’ polling data:

  • An equal 43 percent like both Modi and Rahul; and since fewer people dislike Rahul, his ‘net likeability’ is actually better than Modi’s.
  • Rahul has also managed to convince nearly 30 percent of his ‘naysayers’ into becoming ‘supporters’; conversely, Modi has converted 35 oercent of his earlier supporters into opponents.
  • Rahul’s biggest gains have come among middle-aged and elderly voters (those with a higher propensity to go out and vote) ; Modi’s fall is sharpest among middle and lower class voters.

He finally added the one tackle that was missing from his arsenal, namely the ability to create the big political photo-op and dominate the narrative. His hug ambushed the ‘master’, who sat motionless and unsure on his throne, as Gandhi stole the headlines.

Clearly, Rahul had gotten under the rulers’ skin. Their responses were singularly humourless.

The Home Minister likened the hug to the massive chipko (clinging to trees) environmental protest, trying to be sarcastic but betraying nervousness; another minister accused Rahul of snorting substance; an MP castigated him for being “undignified”; the Speaker of the Lok Sabha went so far as to call it “indecorous”. And all Rahul had done was hug the Indian Prime Minister!

For years now, Congress had walked straight into the trap set by BJP/RSS’s aggressive Hindutva. In a defensive reaction, Congress would embrace an ‘irreligious, hard-Left secularism’ which had alienated a vast majority of deeply religious, yet liberal, Hindus. It had become easy for BJP/RSS to castigate Congress as ‘anti-Hindu’; and whenever the party tried to correct its excessive slant towards ‘political atheism’, it was damned as ‘pandering to soft Hindutva’, a pale, opportunistic imitation of BJP’s core ideology.

Rahul Gandhi at a temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan. (Photograph: PTI)
Rahul Gandhi at a temple in Pushkar, Rajasthan. (Photograph: PTI)
But Rahul Gandhi has stood firm against such diatribes; he has kept the liberal ayatollahs of Lutyens Delhi at bay; and unhesitatingly tried to reclaim Mahatma Gandhi’s legacy of ‘liberal Hinduism’ as a sharp anti-dote to BJP/RSS’s regressive Hindutva. I believe it has paid him handsome dividends in these polls, which should bolster his conviction further. Mahatma Gandhi ran the whole independence movement on the fulcrum of liberal Hinduism; today, Rahul Gandhi can blunt BJP/RSS’s radical Hindutva by reimagining Gandhian Hinduism in contemporary politics.

My Conclusion

Rahul Gandhi has begun his innings as Congress President on a solid, confident note. He has been greeted with incipient success. I am sure he realises that this is just the first step in an arduous journey. He has to unite the opposition to defeat the BJP in 2019. And after that, he has to embark on the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding the Congress in huge swathes of the country from where it has vanished. I can only end with an Urdu couplet for him:

Surkh ru hota hai Insaan thokray khaaney kay baad, Rang laati hai Hina patthar par pis jaaney kay baad.

(A human being matures through debilitating crises, just as the henna dye gives off colour after being ground on stone.)

Raghav Bahl is the co-founder and chairman of Quintillion Media, including BloombergQuint. He is the author of two books, viz ‘Superpower?: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise’, and ‘Super Economies: America, India, China & The Future Of The World’.