The world’s largest election is entering its final phase. In just two weeks, we would know who will form the next government. No matter what the outcome is, this would be seen as the election where Rahul Gandhi finally came of age as a political leader.
At the end of the 2014 elections, when the 'Modi wave' shook the political landscape, and transformed it, the Indian National Congress (INC) was reduced to 44 seats. Rahul Gandhi was pretty much written off as a political leader. The jokes and memes that followed Rahul Gandhi around, grew in intensity, and the name “Pappu” became synonymous with him.
The Congress party was in disarray, many defecting from the ranks of the Grand Old Party to the new improved BJP that was welcoming of new leadership. The Congress leadership seemed old, jaded, and out of touch with the new India that was emerging. The Gandhi name that was, until 2014, a fairly strong brand in elections, seemed to be on the wane. Rahul Gandhi’s ‘reluctant leader’ mode did not find too much favour even with those who voted for his party. Also, there was something terribly chaffing about the very idea of only a member of a dynasty being able to lead the Congress. May 2014 was a different place.
In the 5 years between then and now, a lot has changed. There is something about the 2014 election result that snapped Rahul Gandhi and the Congress out of their noblesse oblige mode and got them to rebuild the party ground up. A devastated cadre had to be reassembled to take the party forward. While it was easy to find people, who would represent them in the studios across India, elections aren’t won in the studios, they are won by feet on the ground. Without dedicated cadres, parties can’t win. Rebuilding the cadres became the goal for Gandhi and his party. For the first time since he entered politics over a decade earlier, he began talking like a leader who was there because he was hungry for the top spot and not as one who was forced to take on the mantle.
The 2019 election, Rahul Gandhi has come into his own. A leader in his own right. His embrace of a softer, kinder Hinduism helps counter the BJP’s anti-Hindu charge against the Congress. It also brought back supporters who drifted away from the party, because they saw it as ‘anti-Hindu’. The embrace of technology allowed the party to adopt the tactics that worked so well for the BJP. And, then they began winning seats in elections, and then states in elections.
For the last 24 months or so, Rahul Gandhi has been setting the agenda to which the government has been reacting. Be it his “suit boot ki sarkar’ jibe, or his “Gabbar Singh Tax”, his barbs have hit home and have had the entire cabinet coming out to refute him and defending the government’s record. His continuous barbs of “chowkidar chor hai” have bothered the BJP so much that not only reacted with ill thought through “main bhi chowkidar” campaign but compounded it by adding a suffix of 'chowkidar' to various BJP Twitter handles. When that didn’t work, the prime minister lashed out at Rahul Gandhi’s father Rajiv Gandhi’s record, saying “Your father was termed ‘Mr Clean’ by his courtiers, but his life ended as ‘bhrashtachari No. 1'". For those who don’t know, Rajiv Gandhi’s life ended when a suicide bomber blew him up.
But it is not just the political joust that Rahul Gandhi has learned, his manifesto seems to stamp his vision on the party. At the core is his belief in a variation of a minimum income guarantee programme NYAY. The socialism of the Congress seems to be making way for the social welfarism of Rahul Gandhi. A focus on decentralisation and devolving more power is in stark contrast to the traditional Congress mode of centralisation and concentrating all power in a few hands.
Rahul Gandhi’s big challenge is that he faces one of the most popular prime ministers in decades. Narendra Modi’s personal goodwill amongst the voter is high. Even if there are murmurs against his policies or his party, there is no denying that voters look up to Modi. However, Rahul Gandhi’s constant emphasis on jobs and the 'chowkidar' jibe have been heard by the great Indian public. Whether it makes any difference to the way they vote, is a different story.
Harini Calamur writes on politics, gender and her areas of interest are the intersection of technology, media, and audiences.
First Published: IST