Ra.Two: Will Rahul Gandhi be a flash in the Congress pan?

On his feet in the Lok Sabha, on the road in Andhra Pradesh, on Twitter and in selfies, Rahul is back from his mystery leave, and how. But will he be a flash in the Congress pan?

Written by Manoj C G | Updated: May 17, 2015 9:56 am
rahul gandhi, rahul gandhi congress, congress, congress news, rahul gandhi leave, rahul gandhi returns, rahul gandhi padayatra, rahul gandhi farmers, rahul gandhi india, rahul gandhi meet farmers, rahul gandhi news, narendra modi, sonia gandhi, bjp, congress, upa, nda, india news, indian congress Has it really taken a 56-inch challenge, a 44-seat shock and an eight-week leave to knock a Rahul 2.0 out of Rahul Gandhi?

He tweets on National Technology Day, and on “25 Baisakh” to mark “Rabindra Jayanti”. He treks to temple, and takes the local train to visit farmers. He offers condolences to Afghanistan after the Kabul attack and Nepal after the quake. He poses with soldiers in jeans, and in scruffy kurta-pyjamas for selfies with others. He addresses party secretaries sitting alone at the head, and when dragged to court, invokes Mahatma Gandhi. His speeches are instantly available on his office’s new Twitter account, followed by video. And he knows the value of rhyming words — somewhat suited, somewhat booted — to address rivals.

But has it really taken a 56-inch challenge, a 44-seat shock and an eight-week leave to knock a Rahul 2.0 out of Rahul Gandhi?

Is it internal deliberation, or external pressure? New advisors, or old beliefs? 10 Janpath or 12 Tughlak Lane? More and most importantly, will Rahul 2.0 last the length of the gap between Parliament’s two sessions?

The Congress certainly prays so.

In the 10 years between Rahul’s first speech in the Lok Sabha in March 2005 till the beginning of this session, he had spoken all of seven times. In the Budget Session that wound up on May 13, the Congress vice-president was heard five times in 25 days.

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Even the party, fighting off jibes since the massive general election loss and during Rahul’s unexplained leave of absence, has been taken by surprise at the newfound rigour of their reluctant crown prince.

The government appears rattled too. While it generally does not reply to Zero Hour speeches by members, ministers in this session have jumped up to counter Rahul’s —even earning a reprimand from the Speaker.

“Whatever has happened in those 56 or 59 days has transformed him. He is a rejuvenated human being. He has come back with a vengeance,” says Rajya Sabha MP Jairam Ramesh, who is among those Rahul consults for policy inputs.

“I found him with a new energy. You can see a shining face, you can see it in the body language. There was no dearth of ideas earlier also. But there is a difference now,” repeats general secretary Madhusudan Mistry.

“He may have used the vacation to identify his strengths and weaknesses and prepared himself to lead the party,” vouches Anil Shastri, a special invitee to the Congress Working Committee.

Others are appreciative but not as exuberant. They point out that the Congress vice-president seems to be talking about the same issues that have always caught his attention, only in a more engaging and consistent manner, and to a plan.

Congress leaders are also conscious of the fact that so far Rahul has stayed away from the toughest part of this rebuilding exercise — reorganisation of the party.

The fact that he attended the Lok Sabha till the last day of the session, during which he repeatedly talked of the “suit-boot ki sarkar’s” neglect of farmers has not escaped other parties as well.

“He is raising good issues in a nice way and getting a good response. What he had needed was consistency and a little more focus. He seems to have found it,” says veteran Trinamool Congress leader Saugata Roy.

The way he addresses the House has also changed. Where Rahul earlier used to read out from a prepared text, he has spoken extempore lately. And engaged with the other side, not rattled by cat calls or disruptions.

The NDA constituents disagree. Says BJP leader and Lok Sabha MP Anurag Thakur, “This is just make-up which makes Rahul look different. In reality he is the same leader, who does not do his homework.”

The Congress, he claimed, was on the backfoot after Rahul raised the Amethi food park issue “without checking facts”.

Adding that everytime Rahul talks of “suit-boot ki sarkar”, “people are reminded of his suited and booted brother-in-law”, Thakur also dismissed Rahul’s sudden interest in Parliament. “It is good for the Congress. Everytime you cannot have (Mallikarjun) Khargeji speaking… But the fact remains that he is not connected to the real world.”

What remains true is that as far as issues Rahul is raising are concerned, they remain of the Rahul of old.

His debut speech in the Lok Sabha on March 21, 2005, was on payment of arrears to cane farmers. His interventions in Parliament in the last fortnight too were on the agrarian situation, tardy procurement of grains from mandis, and on the changes in the land acquisition law, which, he claims, hurt farmer interests.

But as one of the Congress parliamentary leaders quips, at a time when leaders must be seen as much as heard, how Rahul says what he is saying may be enough.

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“The quality of his speeches in Parliament is not important. No one expects quality from him now. We expect him to be active and aggressive. Quality surely will be the next step. It comes with experience,” he says.

However, some veteran Congress leaders are not so sure. “I think we are just witnessing the repeat of his Bhatta-Parsaul phase… He has been handed an issue. BJP sarkar ki buddhi bhrasht ho gayi thi (The BJP government has lost its mind). Otherwise why would it change the land acquisition Act?” a senior leader says, implying that Rahul had stirred from his “slumber” once again to address just the issues he holds dear.

There is at least one change in the old Rahul theme though. After dwelling on empowerment of farmers, tribals and labourers, Rahul had in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections, expanded his focus to include the category “above poverty line and below middle class”. Now he is voicing the concerns of the middle class too — be it issues of home buyers or Net neutrality.

For now though, he wants the focus to be on agrarian distress.

Sources say the Telangana unit of the Congress had wanted Rahul to visit Osmania University, the nerve centre of the separate Telangana movement, during his visit to the state beginning Friday. Students are on a collision course with the Telangana government for its alleged failure to provide jobs. They wanted Rahul to visit the campus and spend a night with them. The Congress could have benefited, but Rahul was not keen. He wanted the spotlight to remain on farmers.

Similarly, there was a proposal that he visit villages in Bihar where Dalits were massacred by Ranvir Sena gunmen in the late 1990s. In both cases of massacres, in Arwal and Jehanabad districts, all the accused have been acquitted. Party leaders wanted him to visit the villages coinciding with the Buddha Purnima earlier this month, a significant day on the Dalit calendar. He kept it for a later date.

But, sources say, Rahul has plans to reach out to Dalits in a big way. He is likely to attack the government for not pushing the Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes (Prevention of Atrocities) Amendment Bill, which seeks to expand the definition of atrocities and enhance punishment. Rahul also plans to visit B R Ambedkar’s birthplace Mhow later this month to kickstart year-long celebrations to mark his 125th birth anniversary.

Most of Rahul’s team members make another significant point — often overlooked.

Ever since Rahul entered politics in 2004, he has consciously tried to build the image of a crusader politician, they note, even that of an outsider disgusted with the way the system runs, sometimes becoming the butt of ridicule in the process.

Now, add his team members, that tactic of his can pay dividends. For, it is the first time since Rahul joined politics that he finds himself in the Opposition. And Rahul’s brand of politics can flourish only when in the Opposition, his aides assert — at the risk of making comparisons with the Left and Aam Aadmi Party.

Flashes of this crusader politics were visible in Bhatta-Parsaul and Niyamgiri. He had visited Dalit households in Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh, shared a meal with them and stayed with them. And he had gone on a padyatra through Vidarbha where he had encountered Kalavati. Much of this activism politics at the time had brought him into conflict with his own government. Few saw his acts of defiance as anything more than the petulance of an entitled heir.

His tearing of an ordinance that would have undone the Supreme Court judgment on disqualification of convicted lawmakers, for example, had damaged both his as well as his government’s image.

“This has been his style. Earlier we were in government, he could not say many things he wanted to say, did not do many things he wanted to do. Can you recall a single instance when he has said there was no corruption in the 2G spectrum case or in the organisation of the Commonwealth Games?” a close aide of his asserts.

Rajasthan Congress president Sachin Pilot refers to his Bhatta-Parsual campaign. “Not even Rahul’s vocal critics can say he was not committed to the cause of farmers when it comes to land acquisition,” he says. “Whatever the perception or media projection, Rahul is leading from the front and his performance, after giving a time of 10 or 11 months to the government, is the same as any strong opposition leader’s.”

Chuckles a senior Congress leader, “Don’t you recall how the BJP looked much better when they were in the Opposition? And now look how many U- turns they have made. Government is a different cup of tea.”

What the Congress still remains a bit squeamish about is why it took so long and an unexplained vacation for Rahul to “emerge”, so to speak.

“The scale of our defeat was staggering. We needed time to come out of it. Then every new government has a honeymoon period. It was only fair that we give it time. Even the people would not have liked to see us go on the streets or shout from the rooftops from the very next day (of the government being formed),” argues former MP Vijay Inder Singla, who was one of the coordinators during Rahul’s recent padyatra in Amravati, Maharashtra.

The Congress also admits that the questions over Rahul’s leadership hurt. Mistry says some of the leaders were plain stupid. “It is very clear who the accepted leader in the Congress is. And they were criticising the leadership through which they want to come back to power. Jis talwar se aap election jeetna chahte ho, aap usi ki daar ko kaat rahe ho (You are blunting the edge of the very sword you want to go to battle with),” he says.

Former Union minister Srikant Jena asked Rahul to move out of Delhi, camp in a village and operate from there. Other party leaders advised him to go on padyatras as his father Rajiv Gandhi and grandmother Indira Gandhi had done after electoral reverses. Many asked him to join social networking sites, interact with the media more.

The loudest voice — and perhaps hitting where it hurt the most — was that if he really wanted to lead, Rahul should do exactly that; take the final plunge and become Congress president.

Mother Sonia Gandhi and sister Priyanka’s words counted the most, and they too urged it was time he unshackled himself. Some leaders say the idea of a break was mooted by Priyanka herself.

To Rahul’s credit, he has put the memory of that break, which once threatened to haunt him, behind him fairly quickly. And it is without any radical change in his personal team or any new political advisor — again giving weight to the claims of his aides that Rahul 2.0 is not very different from Rahul 1.0.

Rahul continues to have a huge channel outside the party apparatus, taking inputs from sources such as academics, NGOs and social organisations. His core personal team still consists of Kaushal Vidyarthee and Alankar Sawai. Kanishka Singh, Rahul’s aide for more than a decade, however, now works with both Rahul’s as well as Priyanka’s office.

K B Baiju, the SPG officer who joined Team Rahul in 2006, works mostly from the National Herald building where the Congress has a makeshift office.

“Rahul is driving the change himself,” says Ramesh. “I think he is extremely conscious of the fact that the leadership of the Congress is beckoning. And that has galvanised him into action. It is just 19 days of RG 2.0. Give him time. I wanted RG 2.0 but what we are seeing is RG 3.0. The challenge, of course, is to sustain the momentum. But I am sure he will… Now he has to put his long-term team in place.”

Another leader, however, worried if the new “avatar” too is making a connect with the people. “The media may relish the change, but on the ground, among the people, his standing has not improved. There is still a negative perception. Of course the perception about Modi is changing but only time will tell whether Rahul will suceed,” he says.

“Now that the Parliament session is over, the big test has begun,” points out another leader. “Rahul has to find a medium, a platform to reach out to people on a regular basis. No one can go on holding padyatras. We will have to see how he remains in the news.”

What most leaders agree on is that Rahul’s coronation as Congress president is imminent, despite the doubts about whether he is ready for the role.

Since the once-in-five-year organisational election process has started, sources say there is a strong possibility of Rahul becoming the Congress chief through this route.

That would bring him to the tricky question of an organisational overhaul — which he has put off so far. “Organisational changes cannot be news-driven. They will happen in due course,” a Rahul associate says.

However, others are not willing to wait. “He has ideas,” concedes Anil Shastri. “Remember he said he wanted to make changes which you cannot even imagine. It is time he does that. If he wants to change something, he should go ahead and do it without fear or favour. He has identified the problems, but not applied the correctives.”

Still, for now, the image of Rahul looking like he is having fun as the Congress vice-president for the first time has excited the party. A former MP who took part in the padyatra in Amravati says he remembers Rahul’s reaction at the end of the 15-km trek. It was hot and everyone was sweating. Then Rahul tapped his stomach and said, “Maza aaya (loved it).”

Later, at a dinner hosted by Sonia, he talked to MPs about the padyatra. Laughing, he told them, many leaders had complained he walked very fast.

A busy month for Rahul: 

Feb 23: Congress announces Rahul has gone on leave
April 16: Returns to India
April 18: First public appearance, meets farmers at his residence
April 19: Addresses a massive kisan rally at Ramlila Maidan in Delhi
April 20: Makes his first speech in this Lok Sabha. Speaks during a debate on agrarian situation in the country. Calls Modi government suit-boot ki sarkar
April 22: Speaks in Lok Sabha on Net neutrality
April 22: Visits Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital where the body of Gajendra Singh, a farmer who died during an AAP rally, is kept
April 23-24: Treks to Kedarnath shrine
April 28: Travels to Punjab by train and visits mandis
April 29: Speaks in Parliament again, flags the lack of procurement of wheat at mandis by government agencies
April 30: Leads a 15-km padyatra in Amravati district of Maharashtra
May 1: Visits Nepal Embassy to pay respects to earthquake victims
May 2: Meets home buyers from NCR region
May 6: Debuts on Twitter
May 7: Raises scrapping of Amethi food park issue, accuses Modi government of politics of revenge
May 8: Meets AICC secretaries
May 11: Claims vested interests in government ‘extending’ fishing ban
May 12: Speaks in Lok Sabha on changes to land acquisition law
May 15: Holds his second padyatra. This time in Adilabad district of Telangana

Pet Issues:

Then
Protested acquisition of land in Bhatta-Parsual near Noida
* Backed tribals against Vedanta’s bauxite mining project in Odisha’s Niyamgiri hills
* Spoke about rampant drug use in Punjab
* Objected to ordinance diluting Supreme Court order on convicted legislators
Now
Focus on farmers, land acquisition law

 

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