When a dog got the BJP’s goat, people in the Grand Old Party knew they had got something right. Late October, Rahul Gandhi introduced his followers to his dog, tweeting a video of the pet doing tricks, along with the comment: “Ppl have been asking who tweets for this guy..It’s me..Pidi. I am way (cooler) than him. Look what I can do with a tweet..oops..treat!”
While the tweet trended on Twitter, with both trolls and praise directed at Rahul, it also left some in the Congress wondering: was Rahul’s tweet directed at them? Says a top party leader, “Several people in the party had started proclaiming themselves as his guru and an impression was gaining ground that this one person was tweeting for him. He wanted to dispel that. It was a message for all of us.”
There was another less cryptic, even if superficial, message for people who have been watching Rahul: he suddenly seemed less diffident, more sure of himself. In his new avatar, Rahul also acted swiftly against Mani Shankar Aiyar for the Congress veteran’s “neech (lowly)” comment against Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This is the same Rahul who, a year ago, had accused the Prime Minister of doing “dalali” with the blood of dead soldiers.
And the same Rahul who, in the September of 2013, had rolled up his sleeves and torn into shreds an ordinance the UPA government headed by his party was bringing to negate a Supreme Court order on disqualifying convicted MPs and MLAs. His act had embarrassed then PM Manmohan Singh and prompted Narendra Modi, then the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, to say the “shehzada (prince)” had committed a sin by insulting the PM — “Congress vice-president ne aapki pagdi uchhaal di”.
It was symbolism then, symbolism now. But the image the Rahul Gandhi of 2017 wants to build and project is not of “an angry outsider” but that of an “evolved politician”.
With the JD(U)’s Nitish Kumar switching over to the NDA, the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav cut to size, the Trinamool Congress’s Mamata Banerjee limiting her ambitions to West Bengal and the the Aam Aadmi Party’s Arvind Kejriwal losing much of his appeal and voice, Rahul has the field wide open to himself. But will he be able to use this opportunity to emerge as the leading Opposition figure to take on a still popular Narendra Modi, both in the run-up to and after the 2019 general elections?
Almost everyone agrees it’s not an easy road ahead. For most part of his 13-year-old political career, Rahul has been criticised for his politics, with many calling it amateurish. Now set to take over as Congress president, Rahul has to set right a lot of things — recast his own image, inject life into a crumbling organisation and forge credible alliances.
New Rahul or another cameo?
For most people in the Congress, their assessment of Rahul has swung from the initial euphoria to despondency and disappointment in the middle years to hope and confidence now. Rahul’s friend and National Conference leader Omar Abdullah says the Congress leader’s prompt action against Mani Shankar Aiyar “should be an eye opener for people who thought he was indecisive or unwilling to take decisions”.
“Over time, you understand your strengths, weaknesses. And then, your confidence levels go up. Rahul has gone through the same evolution. He has his own ideas of what direction he would like to give the Congress… I think we got an indication of that in the way he dealt with the Mani Shankar Aiyar incident. At the moment, it looks like he is going to tolerate no nonsense… Time alone will tell how it goes,” he adds.
One of the criticisms about Rahul’s leadership style has been that he is very rigid and gives restricted access to his own partymen. “There were times in the past when people would get tickets in the Assembly elections and you wouldn’t know anything about the candidate. And then you find out that the ticket was given from (Rahul’s) office… Now those things don’t happen. He consults a lot more,” says a senior leader, adding that he is available on email as well as on phone to general secretaries and secretaries.
Milind Deora, one of Rahul’s closest colleagues, agrees. “Earlier, 10/10 of my suggestions would probably get rejected. Now I see that number has come down to eight,” he jokes. On a serious note, Deora says some of Rahul’s ideas were initially “ambitious”, but points out, “there is no harm in that (as) that is what youth brings to the table. Some of his ideas — democratising the Youth Congress, for instance — were widely accepted by people then. Now, he is obviously far more pragmatic. I see a very healthy evolution and a very natural progression. It is not forced”.
Congressmen say Rahul’s transformation — from someone who alternated between being a recluse who took off on extended foreign breaks and being a cameo activist (visits to Niyamgiri and Bhatta Parsaul, and sleeping in Dalit households), to a man willing to lead from the front and that too consistently — has come as a breather for the party.
“People who were dismissive of his earlier avatar by saying he is not serious (should now realise) that he has a very clear game plan and is gradually growing into the job that he has been training himself for,” says former external affairs minister Salman Khurshid.
A young state Congress chief, considered close to Rahul, believes a section of the party was behind the making of his “pappu” image. “Even before the BJP pounced on him, the bad mouthing had started from 24, Akbar Road (the party office), and by some ministers (in the UPA government). Our leaders were insecure because of the changes that he wanted to bring into the organisation,” he says.
The BJP dismisses any suggestion of a ‘new Rahul’. “Those who are excited about the change in his leadership disposition seem to think that politics is some kind of an acting career where you can change your make-up before every election and come up with a new personality to enthuse voters. Changing tack like an actor shows your lack of maturity,” says BJP spokesperson G V L Narasimha Rao.
Pragmatism or opportunism?
Talking of the ‘pragmatism’ evident in Rahul’s politics, a senior AICC general secretary asks, “Do you remember what he had said at the 2006 Hyderabad plenary and what he is saying and doing nowadays? Isn’t there a change?”
In 2006, Rahul had said: “Someone once asked me what my religion was. I thought about it and I answered that the Indian flag was my religion.”
The general secretary says, “Aaj kal wo mandir ja rahe hain aur Shiv bhakt ho gaye hain (These days he is going to temples and calling himself a devotee of Shiva).”
Rahul’s recent temple visits may have earned him the BJP’s ridicule, but his partymen believe he is heading in the right direction. “This is the culture of India… Indians are religious. But at the same time, right from the days of Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, we have always projected secularism. Nehru and Indira Gandhi also used to visit temples, and it was Nehru’s Cabinet that took a decision to rebuild the Somnath temple,” says former Union minister M Veerappa Moily, adding that he is convinced Rahul will introduce transformational changes in the party. “Anyone who is lazy, who wants old style of politics, can’t survive under him.”
Khurshid agrees. “In the past, there have been leaders who tried to play (religious politics) low-key but today, the mood of the people is that they want to see more of this happen. So there is no harm. Remember, Rahul and his family were always there at Dussehra celebrations…”
So is this soft Hindutva or political expediency? “I don’t think it is (soft Hindutva) and I hope not,” he says.
In the ongoing Gujarat campaign, Rahul hasn’t mentioned Muslims, and the Congress has steadfastly stuck to its themes of vikas and the BJP’s alleged misgovernance. On the 25th anniversary of the Babri Masjid demolition, there was no statement either from Rahul or the Congress. The remarks he made while on the campaign trail in 2007 in Uttar Pradesh — that the demolition would not have taken place had the Gandhi family been in politics in 1991 — now appear to be of a different era.
Khurshid, however, denies that this betrays a lack of clarity. “These are the compulsions which all of us in public life feel. You have to take such public postures that sometimes go beyond your inherent personal views. We all do that, learn to train ourselves to be more inclusive… what we wouldn’t do in our private lives,” he says.
Critics also blame Rahul for failing to come out with a clear ideology. Is he a Gandhian pacifist, Nehruvian socalist, Ambedkarite or Lohiate or all rolled into one? Is he is for a socialist, free or mixed economy? “He is yet to have a grip on ideology. That is the tragedy. Sometimes he talks Lohia’s language… daam bandho (fix prices) and all were Lohia’s slogans,” says a senior Congress leader.
Former Congress MP Sandeep Dikshit agrees that it’s important to come out with a clear stand on what the party stands for. “It is very critical to re-establish paramountcy of the Congress ideology. Right now, people have very odd views that the Congress is some kind of a minority-appeasing party with no clear economic ideology. The businessmen hate us and the Left hates us. We have to reestablish our message among the people,” he says.
The biggest challenge before Rahul is a weak and rudderless organisation. The day Rahul filed his nomination papers for the post of Congress president came news from far off Meghalaya that D D Lapang, the veteran state Congress chief, will not contest next year’s Assembly elections. Several MLAs and some ministers in the Mukul Sangma government too have decided to opt out. The tug of war between the party chief and the CM comes just two months ahead of elections.
While the BJP is running an aggressive campaign in the Northeast, with the party or its allies in power in five of the eight states, the Congress now remains in power only in Mizoram and Meghalaya. In Nagaland, where elections are only a couple of months away, the party does not even have a CM face. In Left-ruled Tripura, seven of its 10 MLAs have already left the party and it has to contend with a rising BJP.
The Congress organisation elsewhere is in a shambles too. After the exit of former CM Ajit Jogi in Chhattisgarh, the party is yet to find a leader of calibre to take on Raman Singh. The Congress has been out of power in Tamil Nadu for 50 years. In Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, it has not tasted success in nearly three decades. In Gujarat, the BJP has been in power for 22 years now. The Congress last had a CM in Odisha in 2000 and in Madhya Pradesh in 2003. In West Bengal, the Congress has not returned to power since the Emergency. These seven states account for 277 seats in the Lok Sabha, and the Congress holds a mere nine of them.
Even in Gujarat, where the Congress is putting up a spirited campaign, a senior leader predicts the party will lose at least 15-20 seats because of poor organisation.
“To my mind, the first challenge is that Rahul has to mould the party into a modern one to suit today’s political requirements. We did not face the kind of BJP then that we are facing today,” says three-term Delhi CM Sheila Dikshit.
Organisationally, Rahul has made his first move, bringing in several young leaders as AICC secretaries and cutting down the role of entrenched leaders such as Digvijaya Singh. The recent appointments to state units have been to a plan.
So in Gujarat, where the party in-charge would have to deal with strongman Shankersinh Vaghela, Rahul chose Ashok Gehlot. In Himachal Pradesh, Sushil Kumar Shinde was made in charge since Virbhadra Singh is known to be a difficult customer. A young K C Venugopal was made in charge of Karnataka, where Rahul wants Chief Minister Siddharamaiah to have a free hand. R P N Singh, a young leader, was given charge of Jharkhand along with the youthful state Congress chief, Ajoy Kumar. The likes of P L Punia, A Chella Kumar, R C Khuntia and Deepak Babaria were also given responsibilities of states.
While saying Rahul will have to find the right harmony, Khurshid indicates it won’t be easy. “The Congress is a rainbow party. There are traditionally different groups in the Congress — everybody is demanding and has enormous expectations. To ensure that nobody feels disheartened and left out is a tough job. Sonia Gandhi did the job admirably. (Rahul) will have to do the same. It is a tough task. There will be pulls and pressures.”
The buzz in the party is that he will have a couple of veterans as vice-presidents, with the names of Sheila Dikshit, Ghulam Nabi Azad, Ashok Gehlot and Meira Kumar doing the rounds. There is also talk of leadership changes in at least 17 states in the next few months.
But what will ultimately test Rahul’s leadership, at least in the short term, will be how effectively he forges electoral alliances in states. “Will he have the flexibility and the wherewithal to negotiate with different opposition leaders and, if required, forge a common alliance before 2019?” asks a Congress leader and former Union minister, while pointing out that traditional Congress allies such as Sharad Pawar, M Karunanidhi, Mamata Banerjee and Lalu Prasad Yadav were at ease dealing with Sonia.
While Sonia’s new role remains unclear, senior Congress leaders believe she will continue as chairperson of the Congress parliamentary party.
The NC’s Abdullah says, “We are part of this loose Opposition cooperation that has been put together. I understand Sonia Gandhi will continue to spearhead that while Rahul looks after the actual Congress affairs. So when that changes and Rahul starts taking a leadership role in Opposition unity and activities, we can reassess this question.”
Senior DMK leader Kanimozhi, whose party has been in alliance with the Congress for a long time, says, “Kalaignar (M Karunanidhi) has a good relationship with Mrs Gandhi. Of course when a new leader comes in, there will be a lot of change… he will bring in fresh ideas. DMK working president M K Stalin has also welcomed Rahul’s elevation.”
The BJP, however, doesn’t think Rahul will be up to the task. “Given his style of functioning, (Rahul) certainly will have much greater difficulty than his mother. Like in the Congress, a generational transition has happened in some other family-owned political parties like the SP. But there are many other political parties, such as the NCP, where he will have to deal with leaders who are far senior in age. And there are leaders like Sharad Yadav, Sitaram Yechury and Prakash Karat — there is no family business there. So he will have to deal with all these well-honed politicians.”
Dilemma: party or persona?
Many in the party say Rahul was always torn on a vital question: should the individual take precedence over the party? Now, that could be changing.
A senior Congress leader says it’s only in the developing world that you “still have standing political parties like the standing armies in the old Soviet model. In global politics, individuals and their ideas precede parties and their ideology. Rahul is now coming around to the idea that personalities matter. We have seen it in India with Modi… In the Congress too, Nehru, Indira and Rajiv were bigger than the party. It is only in the post-Rajiv Congress that this trend changed”.
Congress leaders point to how Rahul is talking more about himself, his faith, his interests — he recently revealed he has a black belt in Aikido, a Japanese martial art; and that he exercises, runs and swims for an hour every day.
But it’s on Twitter where his transformation has been most evident. Not too long ago, the Grand Old Party was a social media laggard and so was Rahul. The party set up a separate social media wing under Deepender Singh Hooda only in the second half of 2013, when it had already lost the perception war in the run-up to the 2014 elections.
Rahul and the Congress are still no match for Narendra Modi and the BJP’s social media presence — Modi has 37.3 million followers, while Rahul has just touched 4.6 million — but Congress insiders say there has been a turnaround. The party’s social media efforts got a boost after the appointment of actor-turned-politician Divya Spandana as the head.
Agreeing that social media has contributed to Rahul gaining ground in the perception battle, the NC’s Abdullah says, “We live in a post-truth era. Perceptions are easily crafted by WhatsApp forwards and Twitter posts and stuff like that. Those of us who knew what he was all about knew that the (earlier) perception about him was not right. And I think gradually the people have started to realise that.”
While Moily too agrees that Rahul is a changed man, as is evident from his well-received Berkeley speech and the wit he displays on social media, another senior minister in the UPA government disagrees. “People don’t change at the age of 47,” he says. “What happens is that the environment changes. With the Modi magic now waning and nobody in the Opposition emerging, Rahul and the Congress again seem to be the great hope of this country.”
He goes on to say, “All those who were calling him pappu were being foolish, they were caught up in the Modi myth. And all those who are building him up into God now are also foolish. In politics, situations change. What will you say if we lose Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat?”