2019 Lok Sabha polls: Rahul Gandhi is not a changed man

The real problem with Rahul’s makeover is that it isn’t one. Flashes of the old, bumbling Rahul emerge every now and then.

 |  5-minute read |   29-12-2018
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A downcast Rahul Gandhi turned his back to the bank of cameras lined up in front of him and, head bowed, walked away slowly. His sister, Priyanka Vadra, put a comforting arm around his waist. May 16, 2014, will be a day he won’t forget easily. The Congress had been reduced to 44 Lok Sabha seats, the lowest in its history.

As a political leader, Rahul was written off. The memes on social media were cruel. The politest among them called him a reluctant politician whose heart lay elsewhere. He disappeared for weeks, often months, to undisclosed destinations. He hardly spoke in Parliament. When he did, he was shouted down.

rahul-gandhi-copy1_122918120526.jpgThe real problem with Rahul’s makeover is that it isn’t one. (Photo: PTI)

Change of tack

So when did the new Rahul emerge? There were, with hindsight, three inflection points. The first was the two-month break he took to an East-Asian country to practise vipassana, meditate, introspect and rethink his political career. When he returned there was a spring in his step.

His speeches became more aggressive though he continued to make blunders, mixing up facts and prompting observers to dismiss him as a serious political leader. Rahul’s apparent reluctance to take over as Congress President from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, reinforced the belief that he remained an indecisive, part-time politician.

The second inflection point took place in the United States. Sam Pitroda, the late Rajiv Gandhi’s telecom czar friend, arranged a series of interactions for Rahul with audiences in California among other places. Rahul stumbled a bit but acquired a global profile. Pitroda arranged more such interactions in Singapore and Rahul was growing visibly more comfortable answering questions extempore though he continued to trip over difficult, fact-based questions.

It was then time to re-engineer Rahul’s at home. During the December 2017 Gujarat Assembly election, he visited dozens of temples. The ‘born-again Hindu’ strategy seemed to work, reducing the dominant BJP to 99 seats out of 182. This strategy was replicated in May 2018 during the Karnataka Assembly polls. Later, was finetuned for the three big Assembly elections in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

rahul-mandir-copy_122918124510.jpgIn the lead-up to the polls, Rahul displayed a vigorous Hindutva. (Photo: PTI)

But along with ‘soft Hindutva' (a term the Congress loathes), Rahul knew he needed more ammunition to attack the formidable vote fortress of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. That is where the third inflection point emerged. Haunted by allegations of corruption, especially in defence deals ranging from Bofors to AgustaWestland, Rahul decided to turn the tables with his Rafale onslaught. The gameplan was simple: Fling as much mud as you can and some of it is bound to stick. It did, partly because of the BJP’s inept defence of the Rafale deal. What should have been dismissed as a litany of false charges was allowed to fester.

Buoyed by its success in the Assembly polls, the Congress believes it has a real chance to topple the BJP-led NDA government in the 2019 Lok Sabha election. The victories in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan have reinforced the impression that Rahul Gandhi, at 48, has finally arrived.

Same old Congress

But, has he?

Not quite.

There are several rough edges which need to be smoothened out. Gandhi has not demonstrated a talent for policy-driven leadership. He has (rightly) criticised the BJP’s inconsistent Pakistan policy but has not revealed his own. The same applies to economic reforms.

The new chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, Kamal Nath, announced a farmers’ loan waiver two hours after he was sworn in. Ironically, a group of 13 economists including former RBI governor Raghuram Rajan had days earlier issued a written document declaring that farm-loan waivers should be taken off the table. The appointment of 72-year-old Nath, a Sanjay Gandhi stormtrooper during the 1975-1977 Emergency, was a sign that Rahul did not have the courage to bring about a change in the old, discredited Congress style of politics.

Nath promptly proved this by announcing that 70 per cent of jobs in Madhya Pradesh should go to locals. He criticised workers from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar for taking jobs away from the ‘sons of the soil.’ While BJP-governed states have similar regressive restrictions, Nath effortlessly managed to upset prospective Congress allies in UP — Samajwadi Party supremo Akhilesh Yadav and Bahujan Samajwadi Party chief Mayawati — as well as alienate the JD- (U) in Bihar, converting a mildly reluctant BJP ally into a strong one ahead of the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

rahul-sonia-copy_122918120602.jpgRahul’s reluctance to take over as Congress President from his mother, Sonia Gandhi, reinforced the belief that he remained an indecisive, part-time politician. (Photo: PTI)

Cosmetic change

The real problem with Rahul’s makeover is that it isn’t one. Flashes of the old, bumbling Rahul emerge every now and then. And the Congress remains a party mired in dynastic privilege. A sense of entitlement continues to hobble it. Rahul, though, is fortunate because of two factors: one, India is still a feudal country. Dynasties, despite their abysmal record of governance and corruption, continue to hold electoral sway; and two, the BJP is over-dependent on Modi and party president Amit Shah. The Union Cabinet does not overflow with talent. Performers in key ministries remain muted. Others have not left a significant imprimatur on policy.

But as former Infosys chairman NR Narayana Murthy said in a recent television interview that has since gone viral: “Modi alone will not be successful. How will one individual in a nation of 1.30 billion be able to provide solutions to all our problems?”

While Rahul Gandhi remodels himself, the one-man army that is Modi must allow the lotus to bloom from under his shadow.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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


Minhaz Merchant Minhaz Merchant @minhazmerchant

The writer is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor. He is the author of The New Clash of Civilizations

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