The much-awaited Rahul Gandhi rally finally happened just hours before the official close of the first phase of campaigning in Gujarat. Amid all the hype and curiosity about how he will take on Narendra Modi, particularly a day after a Congress spokesman in New Delhi formally announced that Rahul will lead the party in the 2014 Lok Sabha campaign, the Gandhi family scion sought to appropriate the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi for himself.
Rahul managed to take some potshots at the Gujarat chief minister, albeit without taking his name - which is part of the party’s unstated strategy for these polls. But his references to the Mahatma appeared to be more philosophical in nature than substantive.
His brief speech in Jamnagar made constant references to Mahatma Gandhi from beginning to end, contrasting the Mahatma’s philosophy with Modi’s practice. It left many observers wondering if pitting the Mahatma against Modi would be enough to overthrow the rule of the Gujarat strongman.
"Whenever I am in faced with a problem, I read Gandhi’s books and get a solution," Rahul said. He conceded that "many people" were asking "how relevant was Mahatma Gandhi in today’s politics" but he answered it this way: "Let me tell you, if I have a Guru in politics, that is Mahatma Gandhi. I want to explain to you why he is my Guru……." He spoke at length about the proximity of his family to Mahatma Gandhi since the time of his great maternal grandfather. He then narrated a story on how Motilal Nehru found Gandhiji sleeping on the floor instead of a bed at their ancestral home Anand Bhawan in Allahabad at dead of the night. Gandhi was disturbed by the thought that when Jawaharlal Nehru was sleeping on a floor in jail, how could he sleep on a bed?
An hour later, at a public rally in Surendranagar, Narendra Modi used the same story of Mahatma Gandhi to ridicule Rahul and make the crowd cheer to that. "It was the greatness of Mahatma Gandhi that he slept on a floor to show solidarity with Jawaharlal Nehru, but that is not the issue. Gandhiji was great but the incident reflects poorly on Motilal Nehru. What kind of father was he who happily slept on a couch when his son slept on the floor in jail?"
Calling him Rahul Baba, Modi went on to rebut, in his characteristic style, some of the issues raised by the Congress general secretary - including his figures on unemployment in the state, and giving credit for the telecom revolution to his father Rajiv Gandhi.
Rahul Gandhi's strategy for convincing voters seemed to be based on a simple premise – list the achievements of the UPA government at the centre, and include all the actions of his father and grandmother. Hence there were references to Indira Gandhi's bank nationalisation and Rajiv Gandhi's initiatives in telecom. Incidentally, while referring to mobile phones, he named Sam Pitroda, a key player in the telecom revolution, as someone who belonged to Gujarat. Pitroda is currently involved in UPA-2 in various capacities. In his poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh, Rahul referred to Pitroda as someone who belonged to the badhai caste (carpenter) from that region.
Rahul targeted Modi basically on three counts: his "arrogance", the "marketing of his own brand" and suppression of facts by non-response to RTIs. He played on the general perception that the Chief Minister was a one-man show who did not involve others in decision-making. The only voice heard in Gujarat was that of Modi, and there was no one to hear the voice of the common man.
The Congress is raising a high pitch on water issues - which is important for the parched Saurashtra region, where Modi is also facing a serious challenge from Keshubhai Patel. If Sonia Gandhi raised the water issue on two previous occasions, Rahul Gandhi again talked about it today.
If Modi's name was not used, even the minority word was missing - nothing to remotely connect anything with 2002. Only two days ago Modi had launched a rapid retaliatory offensive against Prime Minister Manmohan Singh for saying that minorities were not safe in Gujarat. Rahul Gandhi steered clear of that.