Will the idea that Rahul Gandhi matured as a politician in 2017 last long into 2018? After all, he has scored a point or two every now and then in the last few years, raising hopes that he’s coming into his own, only to fall back into a cycle of gaffes, election losses and foreign holidays. Is this second coming for real? To answer this question, we must first examine what has changed about him.
Earlier, it wasn't clear what Rahul was offering to voters. After attending a Rahul rally in Uttar Pradesh in February and one in Gujarat in December 2017, the difference was clear. In Uttar Pradesh, he was running from one point to another, getting lost in his own stories. Such incoherence would leave you wondering at the end: What did he say?
The new Rahul is suddenly coherent. In Gujarat, there was no doubt what Rahul had to say: He was attacking the Narendra Modi government on issues of development and economy, while visiting temples in the mornings.
Rahul used to be seen as someone who just flew from one place to another, visiting a Dalit house here and a meditation retreat there. He would just disappear from public discourse for days. In his ideas and speeches too, he seemed inconsistent.
He began correcting himself in Uttar Pradesh, where he travelled across the state for a month in mid-2016 saying just one thing: Farmers should get farm loan waivers. But then he disappeared for months, re-appearing as the big brother of Akhilesh Yadav in an ill-thought-out pre-poll alliance.
In Gujarat, however, Rahul led from the front and was seen as someone who was serious about Gujarat, not flying in and out of rallies. It helps that unlike the past few New Year’s Eves, Rahul did not fly off to Europe this time, spending a quiet time with his mother in Goa.
Others have given up
If the three best players in a cricket team start faltering, take a break or retire, the fourth best player automatically starts appearing better.
Over the last few months, Modi’s popularity has suffered thanks to a decline in the economy and the hasty implementation of GST. Arvind Kejriwal has laid down his arms, virtually declaring the AAP out of the 2019 race. There was only one more remote contender for national politics — Nitish Kumar, but he gave in to the BJP. As everybody else’s narrative was down, Rahul’s modest improvements started making him look better.
BJP is taking him (too?) seriously
For the last few months, the BJP has been taking him very seriously, all of a sudden. This is a calculated risk by the BJP. As the Modi narrative is a bit down because of the economy, the BJP has tried to focus on Rahul and the Congress to highlight the contrast between the two parties. While the BJP may at worst be accused of failing in its attempts such as demonetisation, economic growth, improving farmers’ incomes, it is deflecting attention to Rahul and the Congress and asking voters: Is Congress really an option for you?
This strategy could well be backfiring. If the BJP has gone from ridiculing Rahul to taking him seriously, one cannot help but think that he matters.
Earlier, we didn’t know what Rahul and his party stood for. However, in 2017, Rahul appeared to have defined what Congress is offering to voters and how it is different from the BJP. The central focus is clearly Left of Centre, welfarist economic, arguing for farm loan waivers and greater state spending for rural welfare. In Gujarat, he went to the extent of naming corporates (Adani, Tatas) he accused Modi of favouring.
At the same time, he has a clear strategy to tackle Hindutva. Whether or not it is the right strategy, there is at least a strategy. The strategy is to avoid falling into the Hindutva trap by not appearing to ‘appease’ Muslims, and using "Hindu symbolism" to show the Congress is not anti-Hindu. His commitment to secularism is now aired in terms of pluralism.
Even until mid-2017, Rahul was making gaffes or saying things that sounded immature, such as saying “aloo ki factory” (potato factory) in Uttar Pradesh when he meant “aloo chips ki factory”. Such gaffes would be exploited by the BJP.
Rahul still uses too many English words in speeches before rural voters. As we saw during his US trip, he is more comfortable speaking in English. But at least the gaffes have stopped.
Use of humour
Instead of being the butt of jokes, Rahul is effectively using humour to make his point. People wondered who was writing his tweets and one-liners, because it couldn't be him. That’s a non-issue as all major politicians, including Modi, have teams of researchers, writers, spin doctors and social media managers. But Rahul made fun of even this question by showing us his pet dog, thus humanising himself.
He’s paying back Modi in the same coin by using smart phrases for popular acronyms, such as Gabbar Singh Tax for GST. The use of humour is making Rahul come across as a smarter politician because humour is a highly effective form of communication. The massive popularity of stand-up comics, even middling ones, is proof.
More freedom within the party
Rahul looks more mature as a politician because he's been showing more confidence, which may be a function of the greater freedom he has within his party these days. Even before he took over as president, being able to swiftly suspend Mani Shankar Aiyar during the Gujarat elections showed he’s being given a freer hand by his mother.
Even in Gujarat, he had a greater say in the election strategy, with the importance of old guard leaders like Ahmed Patel declining. With greater freedom, Rahul feels more in control, and that’s showing in his personality. No longer is he sounding like a reluctant politician. The man who famously said “power is poison” is now talking about winning elections. At long last!
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Updated Date: Jan 02, 2018 09:23:56 IST