Has Rahul Gandhi Changed or Are We Seeing Him Differently?

Slowly but surely, the Congress is shuffling back into the game and Rahul, the man who everyone, including his own party, gave up on, is chiefly responsible for that.

Rahul Gandhi. Credit: Facebook/Rahul Gandhi

Rahul Gandhi. Credit: Facebook/Rahul Gandhi

In October 2012, Rahul Gandhi said in Chandigarh that seven out of every ten youth in Punjab had a drug problem. It sounded like an outrageous statistic and his claim was met with derision and ridicule. Even the fact that this was probably the first time a national leader had mentioned the subject in public was ignored – the very fact that Rahul had said it made it a legitimate subject for not just online trolling but also media criticism. Once again, it was emphasised that the young Gandhi family scion was simply not cut out for politics.

Since then of course Punjab’s drug problem has found its way into the political discourse, popular culture and journalistic investigation. We don’t now contest that it is a severe one, just what is the true extent of it and what is the solution.

Rahul in those days and for a long time could do no right. He was the object of ridicule, the callow and immature Pappu in contrast to the street smart, canny and clever politician Narendra Modi. Whenever Modi spoke of Rahul, it was in terms designed to humiliate. The election results in 2014 and several times subsequently showed the glaring contrast between the two as political players. Even those not inclined towards Modi were dismissive of Rahul and of course the trolls had a field day, making cruel fun of him.

Now, the tables have turned. Rahul is in a position where every utterance by him – even frivolous ones, like the tweet about his pet dog – is met with great approval. His US tour, where he met with academics, journalists and NRIs, has impressed many skeptics (nothing like endorsement from the West) and now he draws huge crowds in India wherever he goes.

At the same time, Modi has come under fire not just from politicians for the problems created by demonetisation and the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax, but even the business community, his greatest supporters, are angry. The PR spins about how both these initiatives have actually achieved a lot – the banishment of black money, reduction in terrorism and fake currency, a switch over to digital currency – have failed in the face of harsh realities on the ground. Small businesses are folding up and people are losing jobs. Even the BJP’s own MPs are now beginning to talk about it. Modi’s favourite economists may claim demonetisation was a success, but nobody is buying that anymore and this could have political repercussions in Gujarat, where elections will be held next month. A resurrected Congress, led by the same Rahul, is gearing up to give a good fight to Modi in his home state. An electoral upset could be humiliating and could set off an unpredictable chain of events; winning Gujarat is imperative for Modi.

The strangest things happen in politics and there is no saying how the public views its leaders and changes its mind, but it is still worth asking how this reversal came about. That the sheen has worn off Modi after three and a half years is understandable; people go by their experience and at the moment many Indians are hurting and more worryingly, have little faith that their lives will get better any time soon. But why is Rahul getting so much traction? Is it just that he is a port in the storm and Indians are ready to try him, or is it something more? No one is yet saying that he will defeat Modi in 2019 or even in Gujarat, so why bother to invest in him?

Also read: Is the Congress Crawling Out of Its Self-Imposed Shell?

There are no easy answers, because public opinion is always a mercurial, even fickle thing, impossible to predict and difficult to fully understand. One cannot even assume that Rahul’s rising popularity and Modi’s dipping ratings are connected. Modi still has significant support. But there is no denying that Rahul is now being taken very seriously.

Indeed, the BJP, and especially Modi and Amit Shah, never did not take Rahul seriously. They saw that as long as Sonia Gandhi and Rahul were at the helm of affairs, the Congress would continue to remain a political contender – the constant refrain of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat‘ may have been a sign of the BJP’s arrogance, but also showed that unless it was completely eliminated, there was always a chance it would rise again. And to finish off the Congress, it was imperative to demolish the Gandhis, not just politically but as people.

The ‘suit-boot ki sarkar remark was the first time any political rival had said something of the kind at a time when Modi was at his peak. It was less than a year after Modi won his stupendous victory and it stung. That jibe became a kind of leitmotif and Modi has done everything in his power since then to show he cares for the common Indian citizen and is not just preoccupied with the issues of big business. His closest supporters have been startled at the populist turn of his policies (though of course in practice it is the humble citizen who has been crushed under them the most).

The point is that Rahul did on occasion have the ability to strike, but the narrative of him being indolent and largely ineffectual was so deeply rooted that nobody was willing to give him a chance. Faced with immense hostility from the BJP, its troll army and a media which moves in herds rather than think for itself, he remained a non-starter. In addition, his own party men were not inclined to fully back him up – in the absence of any clear signalling by his mother and senior party bosses, he was handicapped and did not have the full support of his own party. In addition, he was a poor public speaker who looked even weaker when compared to the bombastic Modi. Congressmen deserted the party in droves and some even blamed him directly for their decision.

Rahul Gandhi in Surat. Credit: Twitter/OfficeofRG

Rahul Gandhi in Surat. Credit: Twitter/OfficeofRG

But many who met him privately said, pleasantly surprised, that he was bright and well-mannered. They praised his grasp of issues. They expressed astonishment that this side of Rahul was not visible to the general public. But it was; he made several good speeches, but it was only when there was a peppy, headline-worthy remark – such as ‘fair and lovely scheme’ – that it was given any significant coverage.

The US visit was an opportunity to speak to serious audiences without the ambient noise of the Indian media and Twitter nitpicking over every small word and remark. When every stray, often out of context, statement becomes a major ‘controversy’ in the Breaking News cycle and is analysed on the loop by breathless journalists, it is difficult to look at the matter soberly.

In the US, Rahul said that Modi was his prime minister too, refusing to get drawn into taking cheap potshots at him. He admitted that dynasty was a fact of life in Indian politics. In his sessions with editors of the big papers, he spoke about the Indian and the global situation (it was his insistence that the meetings remained off the record). All this filtered back to India and was met with approval, even some respect. The same people who laughed at him now saw him in a different light.

Since then, he has been hitting pay dirt and his speeches are being given more coverage than in the past. He comes across as cheerful, relaxed and sharp. He is back to coining phrases like Gabbar Singh Tax, which catch the fancy of the social media. And he has also shown some political acumen in trying to tie up with the Patidar and other groupings in Gujarat.

In contrast, Modi the prime minister is sounding defensive and almost desperate – he has been holding public meetings all over the small state of Himachal Pradesh and has many rallies lined up in Gujarat. It hasn’t helped that his own party men like Yashwant Sinha are criticising his policies. A year ago, what Sinha said wouldn’t have mattered; today it is lapped up. More significantly, the comedians are out in full force and hilarious memes on Modi are all over the place. Things have changed.

It may still not make the crucial difference in Gujarat and the BJP may still form the next government. That will give Modi much-needed breathing space and confidence as he marches towards the 2019 elections. Also, popularity with social media users is one thing, winning elections is another. Most of all, and this is something that Rahul needs to think about, his party is not making its stand clear on crucial issues such as secularism and the rising intolerance in India. We need him to make a forthright statement on where he and his party stand. Yet, slowly but surely, the Congress is shuffling back into the game and Rahul, the man who everyone, including his own party, gave up on, is chiefly responsible for that.