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Rahul Gandhi’s US trip does little to improve his image; Congress needs more than a PR exercise

Some vital clues about how the 2019 drama is likely to shape up emerged recently with the main protagonists laying down the markers. No sooner did Rahul Gandhi return from the US trip after a two-week long engagement programme with thought leaders, Narendra Modi headed to Varanasi where he inaugurated a host of developmental projects and claimed that every poor Indian will have a home by 2022.

This presents a cleavage of ideas and gives us a glimpse into the poll strategies of Congress and BJP as they gear up for the Lok Sabha polls.

For Congress, the strategy seems to be one more repackaging of the discredited and rejected Rahul Gandhi brand. The party has embarked on a PR programme to have us believe that behind that awkward gawkiness, Gandhi is actually a smart, thoughtful, conscientious, well-read, energetic and sensitive leader who has been unjustly vilified by BJP through its well-oiled propaganda machinery. The underlying message to voters is clear: BJP was so scared of Gandhi’s awesomeness that it employed a cunning plan to show him as a nitwit, and the public has foolishly bought into that falsity.

 Rahul Gandhi’s US trip does little to improve his image; Congress needs more than a PR exercise

File image of Rahul Gandhi. PTI

On cue, a section of the media, too, seems to have discovered the Gandhi scion’s 'hidden' talents. While some have boldly already announced him to be a better candidate for the prime minister's post than the incumbent, others have offered that the 'myth' of his incompetence has been well and truly busted — all it apparently took for Gandhi was to take a few questions from university students.

It is entirely possible that Gandhi is indeed a very smart (if misunderstood) politician, and that he is finally coming into his own. It's also equally possible (if only theoretically, at this stage) that the route to winning an election in India meanders through lectures at foreign universities. However, till such time when this is proven with data, we will have to go with the axiom that addressing and impressing voters is important to winning elections in India.

For now at least, one must believe (till Gandhi proves otherwise) that the true test of leadership skills lies not in the way a leader performs on foreign shores while interacting with think tank members or students in elite universities, but in the way, the leader handles the rough and tumble of electoral politics. And, the leader, unfortunately, must emerge through the electoral process and not through newsroom fiats.

It is specious to argue that BJP's propaganda machinery has created an impression that the Gandhi dynast is incompetent. Had Gandhi been even a fraction of the leader that Congress and some in media tout him to be, the party wouldn’t have suffered such a stunning debacle in 2014, and BJP’s efforts to show him as ‘incompetent’ or ‘dim-witted’ would have backfired. The BJP exploited Gandhi’s many failures, and it is an entirely plausible electoral strategy.

In the years that Narendra Modi has been in power at the Centre, India is on the verge of becoming 'Congress-mukt'. The grand old party is facing a nationwide wipeout. Electoral reverses are cyclical in nature but the malaise against Congress perhaps runs deeper. Even an existential crisis hasn’t caused the Congress to emerge out of its stupor. The party has been unable to address endemic organisational weaknesses, nurture next generation of leaders, or create alliances to take on the BJP juggernaut. These are structural shortcomings and they won’t be remedied through cosmetic surgeries.

Gandhi’s calibrated trip of the US seems to be a concerted effort to place him as an intelligent (if withdrawn) leader. The itinerary, drawn up by family faithful Sam Pitroda, included interaction with elite university students, business and thought leaders, NRIs and even some staff aides on Capitol Hill, though Seema Sirohi reports from Washington in The Quint that he was largely ignored by the Trump administration and “did not get the kind of high-level attention from the White House or the State Department that out-of-power Americans get when they travel to New Delhi."

The hope is that this interaction with the US intelligentsia will dispel the western press’s negative impression of him, and this positivity will percolate down to, and get magnified in Indian media. The plan may work, but it also raises some questions.

First, if the general purpose of the visit is to convince the world of Gandhi’s leadership acumen, then it is a tacit admission that he suffers from an image deficiency problem, and it is a lame excuse to blame it on the Opposition.

Second, the focus of all Congress attention is on Gandhi alone. This projection of another Gandhi as the panacea for a billion teeming Indians may have worked in the 1980s and 1990s, but the post-liberalisation India is a different animal. In a recent TV interview, P Chidambaram had admitted that Ahmed Patel’s narrow victory to retain Rajya Sabha seat has taught the Congress that it must concentrate on organisational structure. It’s unclear whether the party vice-president’s US trip addresses those concerns.

Third, the Congress has considered it a sacred duty to shield Gandhi from all charges of failure. Yet, the planning of an elaborate Gandhi image makeover exercise as a fulcrum of 2019 campaign is a roundabout way of admitting that the Congress vice-president had, indeed, been a failure.

During the course of interaction, the Gandhi dynast did make some honest admissions and even disarmingly quipped that Modi is a better communicator than him. That may earn him plaudits but does nothing to address the key issues that plague India. Gandhi highlighted the problems but offered no solutions. He offered a muddled view on China instead.

Talking to students at University of California, Berkeley, he said: "India is a democratic country and unlike China, it has to create jobs in a democratic environment. India does not have and nor does it want China's coercive instruments. We cannot follow their model if massive factories are controlled by fear."

Days later at Princeton University, he said: "China is entering spaces with its One Belt One Road. It is moving with tremendous power. It has a vision of the world and from China's perspective, it’s a powerful vision. Does India have a vision?"

These statements show that Gandhi is an earnest and honest man, but political leadership demands clear-headedness. He’s also quite stiff during public interactions, as Sadanand Dhume writes in Times of India. “I caught a glimpse of Gandhi’s less-than-stellar political skills in New York on Wednesday. In a private room ahead of his speech he posed stiffly for photos with an endless parade of pushy non-resident Indians. A natural politician would have fed off the human energy. Gandhi bore the haunted look of a librarian forced to publicly perform vaudeville.”

The BJP, meanwhile, seems to have decided that 2004 debacle was the result of twin deficiencies: A botched up communication strategy, and lack of a base among the poor. Modi seems to be moving quickly on these fronts and he is consciously trying to create a pro-poor image, even at the risk of antagonising the middle-class, BJP’s traditional base.

Between these contrasting ideas, a fascinating contest in 2019 stares at us.

Your guide to the latest election news, analysis, commentary, live updates and schedule for Lok Sabha Elections 2019 on firstpost.com/elections. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram or like our Facebook page for updates from all 543 constituencies for the upcoming general elections.

Updated Date: Sep 23, 2017 18:03:18 IST

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