Who won the elections for the Opposition? Rahul Gandhi of course. Simply because he was the first leader who broke through the fog of fear that had been created by the central government through intimidation, lynchings, arrests, threats. It had begun to seem as if democracy was paralysed as institutions collapsed, the Opposition disintegrated, the media crawled, and the people cowered wondering what had happened to the India they knew.

There was little resistance to this sense of helplessness except from the odd journalist, the isolated lawyer, and the few activists who defied the might of the state. The regional leaders in the north fell to BJP intimidation and pressure like skittles with some like Nitish Kumar of Bihar switching sides without shame, and others like Akhilesh Yadav preferring to keep silent. It was in the midst of this environment of fear that Rahul Gandhi walked thousands of kilometres spreading as he said love against hate, peace against conflict, and most importantly for Indian polity courage against fear.

In the process he opened a shut door. And slowly the Opposition started emerging from their shells, there was some movement, and by the time the Lok Sabha general elections came around an Opposition alternative I.N.D.I.A was in place after some major hiccups. The electoral battle began, as Rahul Gandhi mounted a campaign large and strong enough to counter Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the BJP despite the state might. Ministers in regional governments were arrested, chief ministers were locked up in jail, other political leaders were threatened and yet the counter campaign against the BJP did not falter. With the result that apart from the leaders like Stalin in the South, Tejaswi Yadav and Akhilesh Yadav, Udhav Thackeray and Sharad Pawar joined Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi across the northern belt of India to bring out the voters in a strong assertion for economic rights and justice.

Apart from Rahul Gandhi’s amazing courage that has been on display for years, and recognised now for almost two years, there are two other major contributions by him that have made the difference in the 2024 polls. Even if I.N.D.I.A did not form the government, it has reduced the BJP numbers to a minority; and given the country the strong opposition that a democracy needs.

Rahul Gandhi influenced two important decisions. One, he stitched together the national opposition alliance. He ensured that the Congress left its ego at home, and reached out to the regional players allowing them more than equal say on the negotiating table. Seat adjustment talks were done in private, and as sources said, the Congress negotiators were most accommodating and clearly armed with instructions that the regional parties should hold sway. Instead of asking for the usual unrealistic number of seats the Congress party played second fiddle in crucial states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where regional dominance is an established fact. The turn around in Maharashtra and UP changed the numbers on the scoreboard in favour of the Opposition. While Sharad Pawar and Udhav Thackeray were allowed their head in Maharashtra, both Priyanka and Rahul Gandhi came out for a strong campaign in UP where they not only defeated the BJP in some of its strongholds but helped Akhilesh Yadav to burst through the barriers with an extremely impressive tally. Joint press conferences, rallies, public meetings established the presence of a viable opposition to the impoverished, persecuted, neglected masses of UP and as Rahul Gandhi said later, they did so well because of the poor of India, and not the middle class and the rich who preferred to hedge their bets as always.

Rahul Gandhi was able to realise the absence of a party machinery in the states named above, and did not try to flex muscles that did not exist. He relied instead on the machinery of the regional political parties to mop up the votes on polling day, votes that he had helped to garner through sound policy and a good campaign. In states where the Congress is in direct fight with the BJP — such as Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and even Haryana that it could have swept because of the backlash of the farmers agitation — it did not do so well because of the absence of a good state leadership and organisation. But more of this later.

Two, and this is as important, Rahul Gandhi was able to set out an alternative narrative. And for the first time ensure that neither the Congress nor the allies played the game as per BJP rules. The manifesto of the party, and the overarching campaign of I.N.D.I.A did not even bother to counter PM Modi and the BJP and instead spoke of crucial guarantees for the vulnerable sections of society including women and youth; and promised economic and social equality. A strong campaign was able to take this message to the ground, and this along with Rahul Gandhi’s pro-people persona established through his two yatra yielded dividends. And in UP for instance, the masses forgot that Akhilesh Yadav had been missing from the field for a long while now, and rose to embrace him and the Samajwadi party with gusto.

Rahul Gandhi’s real personality, which has not shown any signs of cracks, emerged through his first yatra and was strengthened by the second. Manipur, it must be noted, voted Congress in both Lok Sabha seats - a major tribute to his love and not hate message and the fact that he chose to start the second Bharat Jodo Nyay yatra from Manipur. Through these walkathons he showed a certain simplicity and honesty of purpose that resonated with the people as he walked through India. But his affection for the people was perhaps the big eye opener for cynical India, as his hugs and embrace for the poorest of the poor, the ease with which he shared a meal with them, hugged them, reassured them earned new confidence across. He did not waste time on celebrities and intellectuals, he bonded directly with the masses, giving time to the farmers, the students, the women and the poorest of the poor.

This is his inherent strength that he has got clearly from his great grandfather but also his grandmother in her pre-Emergency days when she was more in touch with the people and galvanised the masses with her ‘garibi hatao’ slogan. Rahul Gandhi has a natural humility that endears him to the poor, an open approach with words of encouragement and love. The barbs he reserves for the city folk, particularly the embedded media and of course the ruling party leadership.

So the new government has been sworn in under PM Modi with almost the same cabinet. The difference comes from the addition of Chandrababu Naidu and the elevation of Nitish Kumar who of course joined the NDA before. But the real difference comes from the presence of a strong Opposition in the country and Parliament, leaders who have bonded through a trial by fire, and the maturity and consistency of Rahul Gandhi who has been able to handle tight egos, frayed tempers, and the push and shove of opposition politics with a smile.