Three things stood out when Rahul Gandhi spoke in Parliament on Wednesday. One, he did not roll up his sleeves. Two, he kept smiling. And, three, he had shaved.
When he went on his jab-fest, rolling out fair and lovely one-liners and barbs, he looked like a man who had come to a party with a long list of punchlines. And when he spoke, it seemed Gandhi just couldn't stop smiling in anticipation of his next jibe.
Since every Gandhi speech is an indicator of his evolutionary cycle, the one he delivered on Wednesday can be considered the exact moment when he discarded his I-am-always-angry avatar. Earlier, each time he spoke, Gandhi seemed to be just a blow away from a fight, arguing in an angry, high-pitched voice that invariably cracked under the strain of his faux rage.
On Wednesday, Gandhi showed that he has found some inner peace.
That the BJP top brass — Arun Jaitley, Rajnath Singh and Sushma Swaraj — has reacted to his barbs in Parliament is an ode to Gandhi's strategy. At least they are taking him seriously. Perhaps he is getting deep enough under their skin to provoke a concerted attack, even if it is a mix of serious rejoinders and flippant retorts.
Much of what Gandhi said is true. During the 2014 campaign, the BJP had indeed promised strict action against black money, a hawkish policy on Pakistan and achche din. Prime Minister Narendra Modi had discarded Sonianomics as a symbol of UPA's failure and advocated a brand of neo-liberalism where socialism and schemes like MNREGA had no place. And, the BJP is indeed a party inspired more by Savarakar than Mahatma Gandhi.
Now that the Modi government has launched amnesty for tax evaders, changed its Pakistan policy half-a-dozen times in two years, increased allocation to MNREGA, promised loan waivers and other social securities to farmers, failed to control prices in spite of the fall in crude prices and raised the temperature on communal issues, Gandhi has enough ammo to attack the NDA.
It is apparent from Gandhi's tactics that the Congress strategy is now based entirely on the principle of negative propaganda, where the opposition relies solely on stoking anger against the incumbent and benefitting from it. His speeches indicate that Gandhi will henceforth just attack Modi and his government, instead of coming up with a constructive agenda of his own.
In its bid to topple Modi, the Congress will behave more and more like the BJP, raking up emotive issues like Pakistan — notice, for instance the brouhaha in Dharamshala over the T-20 match — and price rise, throwing jumlas — suit-boot ki sarkar, Fair & Lovely — and catchy slogans. Gandhi, beware, will act more and more like Modi on the 2014 campaign trail.
Gandhi is lucky that he gets a lot of footage in spite of his inability to add anything substantial to the political narrative. Every time he speaks, he gets the attention of TV channels, newspapers and social media. Nobody knows if it is because they still see in him the potential of a challenger or because they are just being polite. May be it is because it guarantees a lot of audience that would listen to him just to ridicule him later.
But, if he has to succeed, Gandhi will have to ensure that people start taking him seriously, ignore the delivery and pay attention to the content of his speech. He will have to find a way to ensure every time he speaks, people do not curve their lips in derision, start smirking or coining hashtags. For his politics to succeed, Gandhi will have to find a way to make his words carry some weight, instead of being turned into grist for social media joke mills.
Turning up without a stubble, not rolling up sleeves and smiling intermittently is a good beginning.