It is now widely agreed that Congress leader Rahul Gandhi has shed his earlier image of ‘Pappu’ that included being a reluctant politician, being indifferent and also perhaps a tad incompetent. All that has changed for good but it’s not yet clear what his new image is. What is the new space that he can carve out to earn trust and credibility?
The Bharat Jodo Yatra is pitched to be only partially political in the sense of not aiming exclusively at electoral outcomes. The yatra and Gandhi’s speeches have expanded the meaning and purpose of ‘politics’ beyond electoralism. He is raising significant issues of polarisation and its effect on the social fabric, and the fear and hatred in society. He is walking with social activists to go beyond the mainstream.
Gandhi’s new image is that of an activist who is not in a hurry to grab power but understands that the issues at hand need long-term engagement. I had written long back that the Congress needs to transform from a party to a movement to include social protests beyond narrow electoral calculations.
The Bharat Jodo Yatra has precisely done that. It has managed to set a new narrative and it is already getting reflected in Modi’s advisory at the Bharatiya Janata Party’s national executive meeting, which now says the BJP needs to reach out to the Muslims, even if they do not vote for the party. Modi is talking of churches and hosting Sufi nights.
The prime minister realises the potential of the Bharat Jodo Yatra because the real strength of the BJP’s campaign was their slogan ‘Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas’. But that is getting punctured with the yatra, which is looking performatively richer with Gandhi meeting a wide section of people from the marginalised communities. He looks authentic in his empathy and love, and his preparedness to endure suffering and willingness to listen than talk.
The intimate image of Gandhi is challenging the strongman image of Modi.
Modi, too, demonstrated emotions in his repeated public display of obedience to his mother. He broke down remembering his family but rarely did he demonstrate affection for the poor, except perhaps when he washed the feet of people belonging to the Dalit community, close to the elections. People and the electorate will weigh the authenticity of one against the other; the intimate as against the strongman, the activist as against the ruler.
Modi, too, had already pitched his image beyond the political – beyond the limits of a professional politician. He projected a spiritual self of a fakir, meditating in the caves, and as pradhan sevak (head servant). He offered the slogan ‘Desh chalana hai, sarkar nahi’ (Have to run the country, not the government) and he alluded to the virtues of tapasya and seva.
What then is new in Gandhi’s pitch beyond the political? It is of course the universal appeal of being inclusive of all religions and castes.
Modi’s pitch was more exclusionary and Hindu-centric. Does this underlying notion of civil solidarity have the potential to breach exclusionary notions of majoritarian order? Why does Modi have to change his pitch to a more composite language? Does this mean that Gandhi’s recourse to an inclusive spirituality as against Modi’s weaponised version has the potential to make Modi’s pitch inauthentic?
Could it mean that there is a potential for the consolidated Hindu constituency to realise that Muslims have ended up suffering under the current regime without the Hindus benefitting from toxic majoritarianism? The fact that the migrant who walked back hundreds of miles was not a Hindu for the BJP but they became one against Shaheen Bagh could be a potential narrative in hindsight.
Is there a hidden message that opportunities for development are better under inclusive conditions? People still remember the economy doing well under the Congress and former prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
If such a shift is happening and cracks are developing in the BJP’s narrative, it could be because Gandhi is now demonstrating his willingness to take responsibility that he looked reluctant earlier. Gandhi as someone willing to take responsibility than piggyback on another’s work is crucial to how the narrative is shaping up. As a result, we could see a surprising shift in the BJP’s narrative to ‘soft Hindutva’, as Congress is moving beyond ‘soft Hindutva’ to the strong assertion of an alternative vision of social compassion.
On the other hand, a poor governance record and going weak on the Hindutva agenda will push the BJP on the back foot. Or will this shift offer a new and calmer image to the BJP that might help them reach out to newer constituencies, especially the youth and women? Will the ‘strong leader’ image of Modi combined with a less shrill campaign help the BJP carve out a new political space that would influence the electorate to offer a third term to Modi?
Modi is a politician who can change his pitch faster than one imagines. He is a rank pragmatist with no core commitments. Not even Islamophobia. Because of this, it wouldn’t be easy for Gandhi to carve out a new image that can stick in the voters’ minds. Dialectically, his intimate and activist images will have to counter the changes that Modi will bring in the BJP’s strategy.
But it is here that the Bharat Jodo Yatra might prove to be insufficient. It has opened a ray of hope but that can only be consolidated through a strong emphasis on welfare. A kind of welfare that goes beyond BJP’s transactional and subsistence welfarism. The real test for Gandhi’s new image makeover will begin if he can kick in a strong welfare orientation.
It is clear that the Congress with all its weaknesses won in Himachal Pradesh with the announcement of the old pension scheme (OPS) and the campaign against the hare-brained policy of Agniveers. The next round of the yatra that the Congress is planning needs to go beyond the message of compassion. Compassion without assurance of welfare will look as both a privilege and indifference. The BJP will find an opening to bring back majoritarian anxieties. The narrative is neither locked in nor shifted decisively.
The next round for the Congress will have to imagine concrete welfare policies that are promised to be implemented in a time-bound manner. Gandhi will have to promise greater access to quality education. As part of the agitation for a separate Telangana, a popular slogan was ‘KG to PG Free Education’.
Education is the single most important hope for aspirational mobility, along with greater investments in healthcare, power sector, farm subsidies, and of course, employment. Structural welfarism with social compassion seems to have the potential to push back BJP’s narrative and also compensate for Congress’s tattered organisational structure on the ground. But the shift to structural welfarism will be resisted more from within the Congress than from the outside.
The yatra has given Gandhi the heft to counter the neo-liberal voices within. But will he gain the clarity of the vision to move in this direction? Nothing that he has said so far has given us any such indication.
Global trends with the coming back of Lula in Brazil and the Left in Chile clearly demonstrate the possibility of a strong social democratic orientation. India too needs a Lula. Will Gandhi be India’s Lula?