One year after Congress president Rahul Gandhi started repositioning his public image, what does he have to show in the balance sheet? To get some perspective on the benchmark, project rebranding-the-scion, aka Pappu, kicked off around the time that the BJP stumbled for the first time after the peak scaled during the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections. The dampener was occasioned in Gujarat in August 2017 during the Rajya Sabha elections when party president Amit Shah’s “Operation Defeat Ahmed Patel” came unstuck. Despite this setback to the ruling party’s presiding duo in their home state, Mr Gandhi still faced a formidable challenge in the race to grab prime media space and secure popular approval. His Berkeley interlocution was rivalled by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his showcasing of the civilisational worldview at an event in the heart of the Indian capital to mark 125 years following Swami Vivekanada’s watershed talk in Chicago in 1893.
If nuances are set aside and a detailed perusal made of what the challenger has achieved in the past one year, the most striking conclusion is that the Congress president is less of a bumbler than he was projected as. Instead, the BJP leadership sees Mr Gandhi as serious challenger and credible alternative to Prime Minister Modi. This explains the qualitative shift in the nature of criticism against the Congress chief. The BJP troll army on the social media and its TV shouting brigade, undeniably of zero calibre compared to its party spokepersons of yore, continue belittling Mr Gandhi. But, barring the naamdaar barb which Mr Modi keeps repeating in the hope of arousing people’s sentiments against dynastic politics, credible BJP leaders, in government or the organisation, are more substantive in their criticism.
Going by the first responses to the two contrasting speeches of Mr Gandhi and Mr Modi last September, the former exhibited greater confidence not just compared to his track record but even when juxtaposed with pre-scripted events of the Prime Minister. In fact, most of Mr Modi’s public events have appeared little different from the few rare media interactions that Dr Manmohan Singh had during the decade he was in office. For all his chutzpah and capacity to take the bull by its horns, the Prime Minister has not been open to spontaneous questions and supplementary queries.
Mr Gandhi, in contrast, from his speeches in the United States to the latest in England, displayed comfort with unprompted questioning and demonstrated a gift of the gab and a capacity for repartee. He has successfully pedalled some lines of criticism — for instance, that this government is both the harbinger and sustaining agent of hatred whereas the Congress is wedded to the politics of love. However, if this becomes the focal point — or at least the primary facet — of Mr Gandhi’s bid for power, as it appears at the moment, the Congress president risks addressing only the electorally miniscule middle class intelligentsia whose role as opinion makers remains grossly over-estimated.
In his post-Pappu innings, Mr Gandhi’s emphasis has been on securing the backing of a section of anti-BJP intellectual elite which swears by liberalism and radicalism of various shades, a throwback to the tactics used by his grandmother Indira Gandhi in the late 1960s and early 1970s during her battles with the Syndicate. However, the Congress chief must recognise that although it is important to enlist this group and the diaspora, besides making a mark on the social media, this must be backed by the people’s support on the ground. It is necessary to go beyond the primary concern of the intelligentsia — the besiegement of minds and ideological assaults by the troika, comprising the State, ruling party and unaccountable foot soldiers who lead violent assaults.
The Congress president must not be perceived as a unifocal leader, who is concerned only with the ideological, not the material. Social disharmony may be a cause of worry, but eventually people will vote because their daily necessities are not being met. Consequently, his interventions must raise issues that are agitating the minds of people — farmers’ distress, scarcity of jobs, women’s insecurity, students’ woes over high fees and poor academic standards of institutions, inadequate health infrastructure and, of course, rising prices. The Congress president, as well as other Opposition leaders, must understand that there has been little change in people’s anxieties on these set of issues between 2014 and now. It will be important to understand how Mr Modi converted this sentiment as not just negativity towards the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government, but also into a positive endorsement of Mr Modi himself.
In 2014, he generated hope by marketing a dream. Mr Modi made people optimistic about their future while raising fears at the prospect of the UPA’s return to power. He was a dream seller in a world at a time when the re-election of the Congress-led coalition would be nothing but a continuation of a nightmare. Once people began considering that Mr Modi was an agent of change with the capacity to speed up growth and development, stagnating in the incumbent’s regime, all structural opposition within his own fraternity disappeared. Mr Modi, it must be remembered, was not the choice of the Sangh Parivar or the BJP leadership, but his anointment was forced by a cadre which made it amply clear that for once the individual was more important than the institution.
It is nice to be a good person with a benign face. But rarely have jolly good fellows won elections. The mass quotient and canniness of Rahul Gandhi’s electoral campaign has to increase. He has made the point, rather contentiously among support within the intelligentsia, that he is as good a Hindu as Mr Modi, but heading off to pilgrimages and taking temple breaks repeatedly will not get the Congress any additional votes. Elections are hunting grounds and for that it is necessary to sully one’s teeth, although it is not necessary to lower the bar as has been done by other dramatis personae since 2014.
The writer is the author of Narendra Modi: The Man, the Times and Sikhs: The Untold Agony of 1984