How Rahul Gandhi has finally found his political groove, emerging as the primary challenger to Narendra Modi

If he wants to be the king of the political jungle, he has to transition from being a pit-bull to a lion.

 |  4-minute read |   28-12-2018
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When you hit rock bottom, the saying goes, the only way to go is up. Our Newsmaker of the Year, Congress president Rahul Gandhi, knows what it feels like to be down there.

Four and a half years ago, his party suffered its worst-ever defeat in a general election. Its 44-seat tally was not even enough for it to stake a claim for the seat of Leader of the Opposition.

Four and a half years later, Rahul has finally stepped into the big league, ending the year with Congress governments in four states (not counting the alliance in Karnataka) — Punjab, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. The last three states, won in straight fights with the BJP in December, halted the seemingly unstoppable Modi-Shah juggernaut dead in its tracks in their strongholds.

Until these results were called on December 11, I can now reveal, the Newsmaker of the Year slot was up for grabs. The front-runners were the high-flying businessmen, entrepreneurs and bankers whose sudden fall from pre-eminence rattled corporate India.

The #MeToo movement, which claimed some big names, was another contender. Winners naturally make better covers than also-rans.

The Congress's victories made Rahul Gandhi the unanimous choice in our newsroom. The Congress scion has been an INDIA TODAY Newsmaker of the Year once before, in 2009, when as a first-time MP, he dazzled us with the promise of a refreshingly new brand of politics. It took him close to a decade to blossom into an entirely credible politician.

Last December, when Rahul emerged from his mother Sonia Gandhi's shadow to take over as party president, leading the Congress to its best showing in 32 years in Prime Minister Modi's bastion Gujarat, he was a Newsmaker runner-up.

The Congress's remarkable turnaround under him in just one year — from losing 11 states in four and a half years to winning three Hindi heartland states this year — marks his transformation as a serious contender in India's political melee.

ite-story-rahul-cove_122818023239.jpgIndia Today cover story, The Evolution of Rahul Gandhi, for January 7, 2019.

Rahul is now effectively Leader of the Opposition and first among equals in a group otherwise composed of regional leaders. He seems to be priming himself for a US-style presidential contest in the 2019 Lok Sabha election by cultivating an image conspicuously distinct from that of his prime opponent.

He is wittier, spontaneous, unafraid of addressing press conferences even as he leads from the front, notching up over 50 tours to 17 states in the past 11 months. A big change for a leader who was once pilloried for taking vacations and being unavailable when crucial decisions had to be taken. The reinvented Rahul is a nimble-footed opponent who relentlessly baits the prime minister on the agrarian crisis, the economy, unemployment and the Rafale deal, and one who has taken the social media war back to the BJP camp.

The biggest addition to his skill-set has been humility — he has shown himself capable of not only working with party leaders of all age groups within his party, but also displayed an ability to reach out to potential allies outside.

Be it the TDP's N Chandrababu Naidu, the NCP's Sharad Pawar, the DMK's MK Stalin, the CPI(M)'s Sitaram Yechury, the SP's Akhilesh Yadav or the RJD's Tejashwi Yadav.

At a time when the BJP's own allies are becoming increasingly restive, Rahul knows these friends and allies will be crucial in the upcoming general election.

The real test of his role as a great unifier will, of course, be to bring together the opposition, with its many regional satraps and conflicting ambitions for the top job, on one platform to counter the overpowering image of the prime minister and the BJP's organisational strength. He has displayed the ability to dent 'Brand Modi' at every opportunity.

However, I believe, this won't be sufficient for him to be a winner. He still needs to present his alternative vision of India.

In 2014, Modi sold Hope for a better India. Rahul has to say more than just declaring that Modi didn't live up to his promise. If he wants to be the king of the political jungle, he has to transition from being a pit-bull to a lion.

It's a formidable task and we'll know whether he succeeds in just five months.

On that note, I wish our readers all the very best for the New Year.

(India Today Editor-in-Chief's note for cover story, The Evolution of Rahul Gandhi, for January 7, 2019.)

Also read: Can a resurgent Congress build on the handsome victory in the Hindi heartland?

Writer

Aroon Purie Aroon Purie @aroonpurie

The writer is chairman and editor-in-chief of the India Today Group.

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