In its August 12-18, 1990 issue, the now defunct Sunday magazine ran an interview with Rajiv Gandhi, months before his assassination in 1991, with the introduction that while “face-to-face it is impossible not to like Rajiv Gandhi,” in his public interactions he tended to be indiscreet and rash, which frequently landed him in trouble.
However, in the interview, the then Leader of the Opposition came through as a politician mellowed by defeat and possessing the humility to accept that, “Yes, I made mistakes.” Rajiv Gandhi wondered why people were now more appreciative of him when he hadn’t “changed a bit”. “When I say or I do something now, suddenly I’m told by media and by other people, ‘It’s fantastic. Why didn’t you do this before?’”
Behind the transformation
Twenty-seven years later, it is his son, Rahul Gandhi, who might have been transformed from “a nice guy prone to gaffes” to someone suddenly winning appreciation. The best that was said of him was that he appeared to be sincere but somewhat dull. As against this, there were the endless Pappu jokes triggered by his seeming gift for saying absolutely the wrong things.
In 2007, he bragged that his family had broken Pakistan in two, which thankfully did not set off a diplomatic crisis. In 2013, to the bewilderment of all, including the Congress, he spoke of Dalits needing the escape velocity of Jupiter to succeed. Mr. Gandhi’s January 2014 interview to Times Now’s Arnab Goswami had Twitterati wisecracking that Mr. Goswami ought to have been sued for harassing a minor.
In recent months, Mr. Gandhi’s public appearances have made people sit up and take notice — and for the entirely different reason that nearly everything about him has changed for the better. The transformation was first noticed on his tour of the United States, where on his campus interactions, he came across as sober, self-assured and able to convey ideas, if not with scintillating intellectual depth, then certainly in a commonsensical way. However, he has been a revelation on the Gujarat campaign trail; indeed if anyone has made a splash in this election, aside from the young caste leaders who have shored up the Congress, it is Rahul Gandhi himself. Gujaratis are talking to him and talking about him.
Although nowhere in the league of the phenomenal Narendra Modi, Mr. Gandhi has developed a distinct style of his own. On the stump, he looks relaxed and confident, slow-delivering his lines to make them uncomplicated and effective. His speeches are direct hits at the Prime Minister and his Gujarat model, and there are frequent digs at the now dying Tata Nano, which he says was part of Mr. Modi’s agenda of “transferring wealth from the poor to the rich.” To much giggling from the audience, he asks, “Any of you here seen a Nano on the road? You? Bhaisaab you?”
His Gabbar Singh Tax for the Goods and Services Tax (GST) broke the Internet and the other runaway hit, vikas gando thayo che (development has gone crazy) is apparently also a surrogate from the Congress stable. If there is a light, fun quality to these coinages, what has earned Mr. Gandhi respect is the line he has drawn at abuse and uncivil language in the face of coarse, low-level personal attacks from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and Mr. Modi.
And yet in a striking parallel with Rajiv Gandhi earlier, Rahul Gandhi’s team insists that he is what he always was, believing in the same things — pro-poor, pro-farmer — he did earlier. And that people are warming to him and his ideas in a changed environment. Not really. The evolution of Pappu to First Congressperson is best seen via his earlier videos where he appears stiff and distracted, struggling to compose his thoughts, and beginning every sentence with “Bhaiya — in short, the stand-up comic’s delight and quite the contrast to the easy camaraderie evident in his recent outings.
Dents in the image
It is true, however, that this change would not have created the buzz it has, had it not coincided with the people’s own willingness to look away from Mr. Modi, if ever so slightly, to a possible, tentative alternative. Up until now, Mr. Modi was god in Gujarat. When he became Prime Minister, the rest of India was awestruck by the power and authority he exuded, magnified by his victory with an absolute majority and the decimation of the Opposition. Today, while the fascination with Mr. Modi undeniably remains, the first murmurs can be heard, among traders, among the unemployed and in middle class households. The constant adjustments to the demands of demonetisation, and now GST and Aadhaar, have devastated small businesses, the poor and the old, many of them living in a blighted world beyond the dips and spikes in the national GDP.
But as everyone agrees, pitted against the combination of Mr. Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party national president Amit Shah, and the humongous election cum public relations machinery they have created, Mr. Gandhi could be a toddler taking his first steps to indulgent applause. Though his elevation to Congress President is imminent, the challenges before him are immense. The Congress organisation is in tatters, its votes are shrinking, and the haze around the party’s vision often makes it indistinguishable from the BJP. It is true that the Congress has always held a range of ideas within it. But the party as a whole was conceived as centrist with a strong liberal core.
The Left and the right co-existed in Jawaharlal Nehru’s Congress but his absolute commitment to the idea of a progressive, enlightened nation ensured that the centre prevailed. The innumerable unethical compromises the Congress made thereafter are not Rahul Gandhi’s doing. But having inherited them, he has to find a way to reassert the party’s founding philosophy and, more difficult still, make it saleable to voters swayed by the BJP’s enormously attractive Hindutva appeal. Recently, the student-wing of the Congress, the National Students Union of India (NSUI), fought and won the students’ union election in Delhi University (DU) on the slogan, “Take back DU.” The NSUI promised a progressive vision based on gender equality and the freedoms to eat, wear and go out as the students pleased, without being shamed as immoral.
The election the Congress fought in DU was tiny but the party went to the heart of what is wrong with India today. Maybe Mr. Gandhi can start with a “Take back India” campaign. But that requires courage and the conviction that the right way is the best way. That is not going to happen, judging by the Congress’s embarrassingly uneducated response to the recent questions on Mr. Gandhi’s religion. The BJP’s multiple spokespersons amplified the noise that television spat out: “Hindu or Catholic?”. Instead of asking why it’s wrong to be a Catholic, the Congress produced photographs of Mr. Gandhi wearing the Janevu (sacred thread).
With all the anti-incumbency, such is the Modi legend that few in Gujarat will bet on the verdict. In any case, Mr. Gandhi’s real fight will begin after Gujarat which is a two-party State. The rest of India is more complex with a bunch of regional leaders, all ambitious for themselves. If this is problematic, consider the twin tags that hound the Congress: dynasty and corruption. On dynasty, Mr. Modi is unbeatable. He is self-made and has ostensibly shed his family in the service of Bharat Mata. Whether Mr. Gandhi, or indeed even the entire Opposition, can summon the cleverness to turn the tables on corruption, only time will tell.
Vidya Subrahmaniam is Senior Fellow at The Hindu Centre for Politics and Public Policy. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org