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Politics

Pappu and Panauti: Are Perceptions of Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi Changing?

The BJP leadership’s agitated response after Rahul Gandhi used the word 'panauti' has to be seen in the background of a changing political environment.

Rahul Gandhi’s term panauti (jinx), seems to have stung the BJP and Narendra Modi enough for the party to rush to the Election Commission (EC) to complain about it. Gandhi had initially not mentioned Modi by name, only implying that the presence of a panauti in Ahmedabad had caused India to lose the World Cup final against Australia, but later went full frontal.

The word has stuck, picking up traction on social media where all kinds of jokes and references are being made using it. The BJP understands that, hence the objection. So far the EC has not taken action against Gandhi, but in getting hot and bothered about it, the BJP protests too much. 

Only recently, Union home minister Amit Shah had talked about how Rahul Gandhi and his family were the ‘Rahu Ketu’ (bad omens) of India, a statement that Shah’s office had proudly posted on X. Modi himself had called his Congress rival as moorkhon ka sardar (the chief of fools). To then raise a hue and cry against Rahul Gandhi seems churlish.

But the BJP leadership’s agitated response against Gandhi has to be seen in the background of a changing political environment, when he and his party are doing well and are likely to put up a good performance in the elections in five states whose results will be known on Sunday. Predicting election results is always hazardous, but if the Congress wins in two or three of them, or at least comes out as the single largest party, it will be a big boost after the handsome victory in Karnataka recently. This will put it in pole position in the INDIA bloc, which will then confidently face the BJP in the 2024 general elections.

Additionally, Modi is not the charmed leader that he was seven or eight years ago when he could do no wrong. The crisis in Manipur, the conflict with China, in which India has lost territory and even the inability to speak on many domestic issues have shown a lack of leadership. The impression that he is very close to billionaire capitalists, especially Gautam Adani, is now well entrenched. The last time Rahul Gandhi hit home was when he called the Modi government a suit-boot ki sarkar in 2015, which resulted in the government giving up the controversial land Bill soon after and instead introducing social welfare policies.

But the Modi government or the BJP did not politically fear Rahul Gandhi. It had won the 2014 elections handsomely and the Congress had been reduced to 44 seats. 

That was when Rahul Gandhi was called Pappu. Post-2014, that was the nickname given to the Congress leader, and the meaning was clear—he was an ignoramus, a babe in the political woods, a clueless dynast who was no threat to anyone, let alone the giant BJP machine. He may make the occasional noise, but that would not translate into votes or seats and could be safely ignored. An entire industry emerged on social media to ridicule him, composed mainly of the right-wing ecosystem. Joining them were the neutrals, the fence-sitting commentators who made fun of him and his attempts to be a politician – why does he travel so much, they asked, is he even serious? They even made fun of his on-off beard – make up your mind, they wrote.

Gandhi knew this, and once in Parliament referenced the name in his speech, admitting he knew he was called Pappu and then walked across and embraced Modi in a bear hug. It didn’t make any difference politically – the BJP won the 2019 elections with an even bigger majority, but in retrospect showed that Gandhi was not going to disappear from the scene.

His big moment came when he undertook the Bharat Jodo Yatra, a long walk from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, with thousands of people joining him at various points. He met the press, spoke with citizens along the way, and displayed resilience and determination; the mainstream media gave him minimal coverage, but social media and the international press amplified it. It provided a contrast with Narendra Modi – where the prime minister was all about self-aggrandisation. Whether going off to international summits or exploiting India’s G20 presidency – a rotational affair for member states – Narendra Modi has not found time to devote to critical matters at home, except whenever there is an election campaign or an opportunity to take part in a Hindu ceremony is involved. Which has meant that many domestic crises, such as Manipur have gone unattended. Not that internationally things are any better – even with friendly nations near and far – from the Maldives to Canada and the US, our relations are under strain.

Meanwhile, post-Bharat Jodo Yatra, the sobriquet of pappu has dissipated and instead, Gandhi is perceived as a mature political leader. Mallikarjun Kharge is now the president of the Congress, and runs the party. In most states going to elections, Kharge has worked with the local leadership, with Rahul Gandhi deferring to him.

The BJP still relies on its biggest star Narendra Modi, but it did not work in West Bengal or Karnataka. If – and it may not – the same happens in key Hindi belt states, then his sheen would seem to be fading. And the BJP has no second line of leadership. 

With the general elections just about six months away, neither Modi nor the BJP can afford to be seen falling behind and not just electorally. It is a short period in which he will want to show he continues to be not just a vote winner but also capable of big, winning ideas who can deal with crises on the domestic and international front.

No one gives the INDIA bloc a realistic chance of defeating a Modi-led BJP in the general elections, but he also has to win big – that is the kind of victory he and his party have got used to. His performance at the state level has not been that impressive, the party outright winning only in two big states, Gujarat and UP, but he has ensured he is never blamed. That will not any longer work now, post Karnataka; the party has to post not just one but two, maybe three impressive victories in the state elections – if that doesn’t happen, doubts will set in. You can be sure then that the opposition will fully exploit the panauti tag.

A version of this piece was first published on The India Cable – a premium newsletter from The Wire & Galileo Ideas – and has been republished here. To subscribe to The India Cable, click here.