Political Person of 2018
A makeover that has not ceased to astound
2018 belonged to Rahul Gandhi. In a complete make-over the Congress president never ceased to astound, not just the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, but his own party where leaders had actively participated in the propaganda campaign against him whispering the derogatory ‘pappu’ tag with a smirk every now and again.
Rahul Gandhi not only left these words of endearment far behind, but placed the BJP on alert even as his own party cynics snapped to attention and rushed to embrace the man now all of them call a ‘leader’.
This is no mean feat. Particularly for a reluctant politician who spent the initial years making it clear that for him all his other commitments meant more than the Congress party. The past 12 months saw a decided reversal in this attitude, along with a new determination and courage. The arrogance of ignorance has been replaced, very visibly so, by a certain humility and respect that is being felt by the Congress leaders in particular - whether in or out of the concentric circles of favour.
The doors, from being tightly shut, have swung open with Rahul Gandhi now meeting the Congress and opposition leaders more frequently than ever before.
But the major transformation has been in his approach. Not his personality which remains smiling shy, and quiet. But in his speech where Prime Minister Narendra Modi is targeted in no uncertain words; his social media chatter laced with sharp, and often acerbic humour; and in his almost one a day public performances where he interacts with the audience with a candidness - and as one put it in a very Indian adjective “freshness” - that has made fence sitters jump over to his side.
Be it an audience in Berkley or a meeting of intellectuals in Bangalore, Rahul Gandhi has a similar approach, where he moves away from the podium to the audience in the interaction. It has worked well for him, particularly when the main target of his political speeches PM Modi has been unable to shed his aversion for intimate public interactions throughout his term in power.
In a deliberately crafted strategy, Rahul Gandhi has been able to pit himself directly against the PM. He is the only Indian Opposition leader to do so, with all others remaining at the state level. The campaign on the Rafale deal, the push on agrarian distress albeit a little late in the day, and the focus on joblessness provide the larger plank for the 2019 elections.
But care has been taken to keep the offensive decent, with the big hug in Parliament a case in point. A hard hitting speech, a walk across the House, and a big hug that caught everyone - not just PM Modi - by surprise. And then the wink after he sat down, directed at friend and colleague Jyotiraditya Scindia but captured by the cameras. Very Rahul Gandhi, and to twist a song, “a little bit of criticism, a litle bit of humour on the side…”
Their president has managed two big pluses for the Congress party in this year. He has brought its use of the social media on par with the BJP despite the latter’s head start. And has set Twitter trending with his sharp jibes and comments on a daily basis. And he has helped enthuse a fairly demoralised party by egging it on at different levels and bringing it to power in three states in the Hindi heartland. A major New Year’s gift that has Congress members eating out of his hand, as nothing succeeds like success in the not-so-grand old party, with shouts of ‘Rahul Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi’ eclipsing the ‘We Want Priyanka Gandhi’ demand that had almost become a slogan a year before.
Rahul Gandhi always likes to remind his hall room audiences that he is a good listener. This seems to be reflected in his political strategy that allowed the Janata Dal (Secular) to take the lead in Karnataka after the elections, without bringing the polity to a brink. Again in Madhya Pradesh he passed over friend Scindia to hand charge to the more happening Kamal Nath midway through the campaign; and in Rajasthan agreed with advice to bring Ashok Gehlot on board when it became clear that Sachin Pilot might not be able to deliver on his own. A far cry from the Rahul Gandhi who would keep leaders like Amarinder Singh cooling their heels for days on end in a display of arrogance that did not go down well with the party. And would play favourites brazenly, as with Navjot Singh Sidhu. This too has been tempered.
Rahul Gandhi does not match Narendra Modi in oratory, but has a decided edge in humour, accessibility, a winsome personality, and above all interactive ability. He is also confrontationist when required, as on the Rafale deal, where he has come out fists flying.
Congress managers are playing these assets to the hilt to build a foil to the authoritarian Prime Minister, in a strategy that will be tested in the 2019 parliamentary elections.