News Karnataka
Saturday, April 13 2024

Rahul Gandhi: From leader-in-waiting to Modi’s chief challenger

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George W. Bush had a story of redemption. After years of hard drinking, he became a born-again Christian, which gave him the strength and clarity to become a two-term President of the United States. Rahul Gandhi may soon have his own narrative. A year after the devastating defeat of the Congress in the 2014 general election, he took a two-month-long sabbatical in Southeast Asia doing Vipassana meditation, among other things, and came back not just rejuvenated, but reborn.

That rebirth was not before he relived the karma of the Congress loss by interacting with over 500 party workers to understand what went wrong. The answers were tough, likened to “a perfect storm”. In the 10-year Congress-led UPA rule, the government had made many mistakes. The economy had slowed down because of spiralling oil prices, the government had pushed through a massive decentralisation of power, including the Land Acquisition Act and the Right to Information Act that had hit entrenched interests who, they claimed, then backed Narendra Modi. More importantly, there was a growing disconnect between the old Congress leaders and the new ones that Rahul had been grooming. There was an acknowledgement that Modi was successful in creating a perception among the youth that he was the only option for an India crippled with corruption and policy paralysis.

All through the tortuous postmortem, Rahul would tell his close aides that losing badly was “the best thing” that had happened to him and his “biggest learning experience”. On his return from his sabbatical in April 2015, the Congress vice-president set a clear agenda for himself-to demolish the perception Modi had painstakingly cultivated during his unprecedented election campaign. To borrow Paulo Coelho’s words, someone Rahul has been quoting recently, the political environment of the country also conspired to back him in this mission. If Modi’s suit with his name woven in pinstripes made headlines in January 2015, the humiliating defeat for the BJP in Delhi assembly polls the next month busted the myth of his invincibility. In his new avatar, first seen during the monsoon session of Parliament, Rahul invented the first political phrase of his career: “suit boot ki sarkar”.

The political vocabulary was not accidental. In his own words, it was the “sandpaper of Congress that was working on him”. He still reached out to academic advisors of the past, but understood the importance of packaging the message with political rhetoric. Nobody in the party was untouchable; members of the old guard such as Ahmed Patel, P. Chidambaram and Kamal Nath, and young turks such as Jyotiraditya Scindia, Ajay Maken, Randeep Singh Surjewala, Sachin Pilot and Deepender Hooda were fed on speed dial for strategic inputs.

In a country with 65 per cent of its population under the age of 35, Rahul was clear about the core constituency to win this perception battle. So he went on a campus tour across the country, from Bangalore University to the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management in Mumbai, from the University of Hyderabad to the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi. There were faux pas and unimpressed audiences, but the attempt to connect was earnest. He wasn’t a prince in an ivory tower, he was one of them. He traded his political garb of the white kurta for a grey t-shirt and blue denim.

The next step was mastering the art of turning every issue into a battle between the rich and the poor-from land acquisition to GST, from Modi’s foreign trips to farming distress in Maharashtra, Bundelkhand or Andhra Pradesh. The primary discourse shifted from development, jobs, corruption and poverty to the ban on beef, award wapasi, FTII appointment, caste war, and the right to dissent. The war cry came on a platter-a divisive BJP versus an inclusive Congress. If Rahul lent his voice to every issue, jumping from one to another, Modi made the Gandhi scion’s voice louder by maintaining a stoic silence. The all-new Rahul has seen the Congress stock rise in the latest MOTN poll and emerging as Modi’s chief challenger.

Yet, in all the tactical moves that Rahul seemingly made, there was a deep underlying philosophy: the Congress represented the true idea of India as a country that was in constant conversation with itself; that it worked out solutions in a non-violent democratic way rather than imposing rigid dogmas from above. Implicit in it was the criticism of the RSS and the BJP as being arrogant about Hindutva and intolerant of dissent. If Modi’s definition of a Congress-mukt Bharat was the end of corruption, Rahul now reads it as a suppression of dissent. “Congress is a continuous conversation. It’s a convergence of multiple ideas. Modi wants to stop this conversation, whether it’s JNU or Rohith Vemula,” he told India Today in an informal conversation.

Conversation is an idea he banks on to dismiss the criticism of playing disruptive politics by not letting Parliament function and blocking the passage of important legislations. As several Congress leaders close to him say, though the BJP had a muchimproved land bill, they failed to get it through because they refused to have a conversation with the Congress. “Prime Minister Modi, who has little idea about economics, lectured Manmohan Singh on the merits of GST. It was not conversation but arrogance. We brought the bill, so we know it’s good, but the BJP did not listen to our reservations on the current form of the GST bill,” says Randeep Singh Surjewala, in-charge of the party’s communications department.

There were other organic changes as well. For someone who did not join the Manmohan Singh cabinet fearing it would undermine the authority of a person he holds in high regard, the stint in Opposition has unshackled Rahul. Since he joined politics in 2004, his party was in power and he “felt trapped in a strange place” because he could not speak his mind if it contradicted the government’s position.

The 2014 drubbing pushed his learning curve to a new trajectory. He has got his voice back. Despite his reservations about Twitter, he joined the social media platform, which he now uses to voice his views, announce his tour itinerary and even his holiday plans. The easygoing new-age leader who travels economy class and obliges fellow passengers with selfie requests has replaced the reclusive Rahul of pre-2014. “We are getting positive traction among various social groups, from farmers to Dalits, from students to minorities,” says K. Raju, head of the Congress SC cell and Rahul’s chief political advisor.

The barbs and uncharitable remarks that Modi made about Rahul on the campaign trail, and after he became prime minister, do seem to have angered the Congress vice-president. When he speaks about the PM, the contempt is evident. He has told his advisors that he believes Modi is incompetent. From a secretive Naga accord signed by an interlocutor to the policy disaster in Nepal, and from a whimsical visit to Lahore to meet Pakistan PM Nawaz Sharif to policy declarations such as Make in India, which are not based on sound and long-term planning, he is unsparing of his bete noire.
Rahul is now busy fashioning an alternative model to Modi’s vision of India. According to Congress insiders, Rahul is leading the Congress in a state of transition and is in search of an idea which could be his definitive contribution to the country.

There is clever calculus behind Rahul’s ongoing narrative. If Modi’s strength and weakness after he became PM was a centralisation of authority and power in the PMO, Rahul is pushing for the opposite. He is calling for greater decentralisation and dialogue among stakeholders. With the BJP facing criticism for being intolerant and divisive, Rahul joins issue by respecting India’s diversity and lending his ears to the oppressed. If Modi is seen backing big business, Rahul believes that jobs will come from encouraging small and medium businesses. His answer to an India in transition is to focus on improving health and education, which he believes are essential building blocks.

Yet, the battle is still a quarter won. As several Congress leaders admit, Rahul still has to find acceptability among corporate India who see him as anti-industry because of his unrelenting stands on land acquisition and environmental issues. Rather than being constantly negative, he needs to develop a more coherent vision for India. And he has three more years to do that.

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