AHMEDABAD/NEW DELHI: It started really with his visit to the United States. His interaction with the students at Berkeley, his meetings with academics, his chit chat with journalists. Reports suddenly turned positive as Rahul Gandhi moved through the US without an entourage, almost on his own, with no grand meetings, but quieter more sober, direct interactions.

Not getting any ammunition, and worried about the positive reception to the Nehru-Gandhi scion the BJP tried to hit back---aided of course by the usual sections of the media---by highlighting his comments on dynasty. Even this did not really work, the first sign that perhaps the mud was not sticking.

Since then the derogatory “Pappu” disappeared, even before the Election Commission intervened, with Rahul Gandhi re-appearing in Gujarat with the reins of the Congress firmly in hand. The diffident, hesitant leader has almost overnight been replaced with a confident, more sober, and yet highly responsive individual who has upset the BJP’s calculations and almost punctured its campaign.

All allegations by the BJP are like water on a ducks back, insofar as Rahul Gandhi is concerned with his own party too now taking him very seriously. Instead of appearing to look over his shoulder for directions from invisible sources, the new Rahul Gandhi is on the one hand countering Prime Minister Narendra Modi directly and on the other building his own team and organisation in Gujarat and the Congress party.

The OfficeofRG, his Twitter handle, is very responsive, young and yet mature. He has taken the lead on the social media, with no significant leader except perhaps Shashi Tharoor using Twitter in this fashion, to a point where he has surpassed even PM Modi on this. In the process he has taken away the BJP advantage, with his tweets being more humorous (like that of his dog Pidi who became an overnight sensation), and more direct as the recent confrontation with industrialist Anil Ambani indicates. In the process he has taken away Advantage Modi on the social media, bringing it under his direct grasp.

For a Congress that has not spoken boldly for a long while, Rahul Gandhi is setting a new trend with his direct speech, and easy interactions with the media. In fact this is working for him very positively in Gujarat as he stops to meet people, shakes hands, allows the elder women to embrace him, smiles, listens to grievances and does not hesitate to break his own security barriers. His accessibility thus is in strong contrast to that of PM Modi and even BJP President Amit Shah, who still remain behind a wall of security, unable to connect individually with either the people or the media.

Rahul Gandhi seems to have acquired new leadership skills in dealing with his party in Gujarat. Unlike Uttar Pradesh where he did little to strengthen the organisation despite some misguided effort, here he seems to have come with a strategy and a plan. The party workers sound enthusiastic, almost rejuvenated, and are not sitting indoors as many of the aggrieved Congressmen were in UP. Rahul Gandhi is more directly accessible to them, as is the team that he has brought in as zonal managers. This, Congressmen say, is majorly different in that for the first time the party vice president is providing leadership.

In this election Rahul Gandhi is laughing at his opponents, rather than the other way around. The BJP is finding it difficult to burst this bubble with the the Congress leader using a mixture of serious statements and humorous jibes to keep the ruling party at bay.

He has also overshadowed for the first time in over a decade his mother Congress president Sonia Gandhi, and his sister Priyanka Vadra. This is the first election where their absence is not even being mentioned by the party, with Rahul Gandhi carving his own space as a charismatic leader. He is drawing the crowds in Gujarat and not a single Congress member, old or new, can be heard pining for Priyanka. No one is talking of ‘beti’ in the party or of Sonia Gandhi and her sacrifice.

This, in itself, is a major shift within the party that is now looking at Rahul Gandhi with new admiration. The BJP is finding it difficult to counter him, as he no longer ducks, but catches the ball and throws it right back. A new Rahul Gandhi who both the BJP and the Congress are trying to decipher.