Rahul Gandhi's new image of a humble man projects him as Narendra Modi's ideological adversary

Is Rahul Gandhi back?

Once upon a time, the Congress leader attracted just memes, jeers and comic derision. Now he is drawing huge crowds, whistles and applause for his witty one-liners.

During his road show in Gujarat, Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi sort of outdid himself when he threw pointed barbs at the Narendra Modi government and hit exactly at the spot Oscar Wilde famously referred to as "below the intellect".

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi addressing crowd at a rally in Vadodara. PTI

Congress vice-president Rahul Gandhi addressing crowd at a rally in Vadodara. PTI

"Beti bachao is now beta bachao," he said, referring to the controversy over business deals of BJP chief Amit Shah's son, Jay Shah. Then, he hurled back at the BJP the derisive epithet that had become synonymous with him during the 2014 campaign by calling the BJP chief's son Shah-zada. On the prime minister's silence over the Jay Shah controversy, he asked if the chowkidaar was now a bhaagidaar; then echoing the jokes that have now started doing the rounds in social media, he held up Jay Shah as an icon of 'Start Up India.'

A politician, like good cinema or theatre, can be declared a hit only if his audience is having fun. In Gandhi's case, the crowds seem to be loving his one-liners, barbs and jokes. At many places, people enthusiastically participated in his question and answer sessions that seem borrowed straight from Modi's rulebook.

The other parameter of a politician's success or failure is the reaction he evokes from his opponents. In the 2014 campaign, Modi just did not give any weightage to Gandhi's verbal attacks and politics, either ignoring it like inconsequential surround sound or turning it into a joke. Gandhi, back then, resembled a pariah crying himself hoarse in a sound-proof chamber.

But, this seems to have changed. The BJP and the RSS both are now engaging Gandhi, either getting into verbal duels with him or attacking the Congress leader in his family pocket borough of Amethi. Obviously, they are finding, in his aggressive attacks laced with witty lines, an agenda that needs to be countered.

Gandhi's transformation from a butt of jokes, a politician without heft or captive audience to a speaker regaling crowds, connecting with them and, more importantly, having fun while doing all this may look like a recent phenomenon. But, he has been work in progress for some time. A few months ago, when he addressed a rally of farmers in Rajasthan's Baran, the audience was pleasantly surprised by his eloquence. The verdict of the audience, captured on TV channels, was unanimous: Now you can't call him Pappu. He has matured. Since then, he has shown steady improvement as a speaker.

Much of this transformation could be credited to his speechwriters who, instead of making him narrate parables and esoteric concepts like escape velocity, have started giving him punchlines that cut deep. India, after all, is a country bred on films with bombastic, loud dialogue that triggers seetis and taalis. Gandhi's speechwriters have perhaps realised that electioneering in India is more tamasha than serious stuff; and rallies are a spectacle where the principal protagonist thunders, resorts to bluster and sells impossible dreams. They have realised that form and delivery are more important than content and intent.

To this mix of clever messaging, Gandhi has now added that one factor that suits his personality – humility. Instead of taking himself seriously, Gandhi has started resorting to self-deprecating humour, plain speak laced with penitence. He is no longer ashamed of talking about how he has been turned into a butt of jokes by the BJP's troll sena, how his opponents did him a huge favour – "Meri pitai kar-kar ke unhone meri aankhen khol di," he said in Gujarat. He is also not wary of admitting that the UPA was rightly booted out by voters for its flawed policies and mistakes.

This is carefully crafted strategy of projecting himself as a morally upright and contrite man who is modest and humble. This serves as a stark contrast against the image of the BJP that is seen as a clique of aggressive, shrewd politicians who don't back off, accept their mistakes and can go to any length to retain power. Unobtrusively, Gandhi is projecting himself as the ideological adversary and counterpoint to the prime minister and his narrative. He is slowly taking derision and anger out of the equation by himself becoming a target of self-inflicted criticism and humour.

Will Gandhi succeed?

One of the popular fallacies of politics is that politicians succeed only because of their charisma and hard work. The truth is, every successful politician is a reflection of the mood of its electorate, a democratic manifestation of the collective fears, aspiration and angst of the electorate. Every triumphant politician primarily represents an idea whose time has come.

Gandhi would succeed only when India is ready to accept a humble, unassuming man who is trying to project himself as a counterpoint to the politics of the day. His time would come when people are ready to evaluate Modi's government on empirical evidence, judge it on the basis of what it has delivered instead of what it continues to promise – next is moon, Gandhi joked on his last day of the yatra in Gujarat. His time will come when voters are ready to look at Modi as a pradhan sevak entrusted with the job of making the lives of Indians better instead of a Hindu Hriday Samrat out to address imagined and real grievances from the past.

To Gandhi's credit, he is setting himself up as the David in this battle against the giant. And, he has time by his side.

The good news for the Congress is, Gandhi has finally learnt to enjoy the journey.

Updated Date: Nov 23, 2017 19:28 PM

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