But, truth be told, his heart and mind were not in the Himachal battle. Just like Kerala, the reins of administration in Shimla have oscillated between the Congress and the BJP. And with Virbhadra Singh, the incumbent Congress chief minister mired in controversies and corruption cases, the Congress was facing an uphill task in this hill state. So, Rahul Gandhi was not so much in action in Himachal, and beyond a couple of forays, chose to focus on Gujarat alone.
Even before the elections were announced, he meant business and started travelling across the state and took on the ruling dispensation with earnestness. He bent his back and gave whatever was left of his party’s cadres, all he could, to enthuse them.
It was meant to be a cakewalk at the hustings for the BJP. They have been in office for 22 years, having won five times consecutively. It was the Gujarat model of development, touted by Narendra Modi, that propelled him to power at Centre in the 2014 General Elections. And BJP swept Gujarat 28-0 in Lok Sabha. Modi’s Man Friday Amit Shah - with a mafiosi-like hold over the party cadre - at the helm, the BJP was all primed to go on the offensive with its development agenda and "record/performance" in office over the past five terms.
Rahul Gandhi, on the other hand, was pursuing a hopeless cause with the Congress having been decimated in 2014, down to less than 45 in the lower house of Parliament, and trounced in state after state, and a party president, Sonia Gandhi, not in the pink of her health. With Shankarsinh Vaghela leaving Gujarat Congress and Ahmed Patel scraping through in a scrappy Rajya Sabha tussle, the party was in no shape to even put up a semblance of a fight.
The BJP was led by a gung-ho prime minister and an "invincible" party leader. They had both Centre and state under control. The BJP was fighting trim and had the cadre to cash in on to carry their voters to the booths - which is what ultimately matters - and not the huge gatherings or enthusiastic election meetings.
But following the announcement of election dates, it was the BJP that was on the defensive. It was as if they were the perennial underdogs. The BJP went after Rahul Gandhi and the Congress, as if the latter was in power. It was startling to see a rattled BJP that consciously give up on the development agenda, worried over the impact of demonetisation and "Gabbar Singh Tax" (the Rahul tweet that gained huge traction) on the trading community in Gujarat.
Rahul Gandhi taunted Modi on a daily basis as to why "the PM has forsaken the development agenda". A run through the speeches of Modi during his record rallies reveals a lot. He was not defending his record as PM or of Vijay Rupani’s as CM. Instead, he was reverting to his old refrain of Gujarat Asmita and "attitude of Congress to ignore Gujarat". It was a stunning reversal of roles and the Modi-Shah combine was straining every nerve to defend the huge chasm - 27 per cent-29 per cent - among the parties between 2012 and 2014, and today. Shah had camped for nearly two months in Ahmedabad and was working overtime. It was an election for the "BJP to lose".
And then came Mani Shankar Aiyar gaffes - first, giving the Opposition an opportunity to compare Rahul’s elevation as Congress president with that of Aurangazeb and then the fatal "neech aadmi" jibe. This was a godsend for a gasping BJP and Modi himself latched on to these remarks.
In the end, of course, it proved to be a bridge too far for the Congress to cross. To begin with, it was more than a David versus Goliath. Rahul was a midget and dwarfed by the Modi-Shah combine in every facet of the electoral face-off. Rahul had only himself to offer in challenge and the environment which jangled the nerves of the BJP. He stood up. Was not rattled by the personal barbs thrown at him. Stood taller than he was - displaying a faculty hitherto unseen in him. In fact, what came through these electoral exchanges was that Rahul is here to stay.
Despite his best performance yet, the newly appointed Congress president's party has been trounced again, for the sixth time in Gujarat. But instead of losing heart at the uniform Exit Poll projections (that the BJP was emerging a winner in Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat), Rahul Gandhi gave a balanced first speech upon taking over as the Congress president.
For too long, he has been the butt of the joke, especially with his own partymen clamouring for Priyanka to take over as the Congress chief. However, Rahul has shown different spots this time and India would be the better off with it. And his statement that those in the BJP were brothers and sisters should be taken seriously and reciprocated by the saffron party. National parties cannot go after each other. Growth of regional forces - not regional aspirations - does not augur well for us. The ball is now in the court of the BJP. They should genuinely give up on their Congress-mukt Bharat mindset, for the sake of India.
Meanwhile, Rahul Gandhi and the Congress ought to take heart in the fight back against odds and prepare for the finals in 2019. There is hope yet. PM Modi, on the other, must rise as a statesman and show humility and grace.
Would Modi greet Rahul Gandhi and seek his "brotherly" offer for consensus-building on national issues of importance? Or are we going to witness the same Pappu versus Feku debates that do nothing, but vitiate the atmosphere and set the nation back by decades and more?
It is time for the BJP and the Congress - Modi and Rahul in particular - to work together for India’s betterment as a ruling party and Opposition. Is that too much to expect?