There is a new face, not just to Rahul Gandhi, but also the Congress party. This was apparent through the Bharat Jodo Yatra with the party infrastructure providing impressive support to Gandhi as he traversed the length of the country. This was not limited only to publicity, although that was a key element to the yatra. Dismissed by the monied media the Congress emerged out of the shadows with a good command over the social media, and through the clan of YouTubers who have been creating waves, and earning a massive following since the farmers movement two years ago. The social media publicity tried to make up for the monied media’s hostility, and reached out to the younger generation in a big way. The press conferences en route, the interactions with groups of people, and indeed the mass contact program hit home and by the end of the 4000 plus kilometres Rahul Gandhi had been able to shake off the ‘Pappu’ image and emerge as an accessible, determined, compassionate leader. No mean feat that.

But there is clearly more going on than the publicity. The party is coming out of a moribund state into some kind of awakening. For several years, and this includes the last term of the Congress party itself, there was factionalism, a sense of unease within, a complacency and ineffectiveness that moved into 2014 when the BJP took power and Narendra Modi became the Prime Minister. The BJP hit the road running, and the Congress appeared feeble and weak and scared. In fact more so than the regional parties that did try to give a fight in the state elections, with the Congress allowing even states that it had won to slip out of its hands. There was a certain demoralisation that grew with the Opposition finding it difficult to withstand the BJP onslaught, through the agencies, the courts, the media, et al.

Rahul Gandhi personally has been raising issues throughout, but the Congress party was perhaps his worst enemy as apart from hidden smirks there was little the organisation brought to the table. His speeches in Parliament were met with derision from the treasury benches, but his own party colleagues seemed to share the mockery as they did little to support him in the first eight years of BJP rule. He was on his own, painted as a struggling, unaware, childish, poorly informed person playing at being politician. The Congress party apart from the occasional perfunctory defense bought into this image, and every now and again raised the demand for Priyanka Gandhi Vadera to take over instead.

The BJY changed all that, the perception underwent an almost dramatic change and suddenly the Congress started looking at Rahul Gandhi with new glasses. But that there was more going on is now visible.Jairam Ramesh emerged as the master of ceremonies on the publicity front, and it was interesting to see how the Congress party continued with press interactions in the midst of the yatra in different states, along with press briefings on an almost daily basis addressed by different leaders in Delhi, and other states as well. It was a new energy, strong briefings on specific subjects to do with governance and government, complimenting the BJY message of harmony, price rise, and jobs. Rather an interesting shift, and for Congress watchers, a first after a long long while where issues again replaced desultory banter at the AICC headquarters and all leaders came armed with information and documents.

As immediately after the yatra, Rahul Gandhi addressed Parliament, and then went on to London for a host of meetings and interactions. He shared India’s current problems and to be fair said very clearly in response to a question, that these issues would have to be resolved by India and Indians themselves. He came back, as expected to a storm of protest in Parliament by the treasury benches with proceedings disrupted, virtually halted. The BJP wanted an apology for his remarks, he refused, and the Congress followed up with statements and remarks and social media interventions making it clear that he had not said anything meriting an apology. The din continued, then came the criminal defamation case in a Surat sessions court, the conviction and the almost immediate disqualification from Parliament.

The hints of a possible shift in party functioning solidified almost immediately. The Congress wasted no time in briefing the media about its position, and clearly had not been caught unawares as Rahul Gandhi’s visit to Wayanad, his home constituency, indicated. He went and thanked the people for their support, before the disqualification was announced. The Congress fielded senior leaders to take up the issue, the attack on the BJP was no- holds- barred, and the legal situation too was explained through the media. There was sufficient energy visible at the Congress headquarters, but it soared with Rahul Gandhi’s press conference that has been covered in these columns. He was a man driven, and in yet another personality change was far removed from the soft, gentle, sensitive leader on display during the Bharat Jodo Yatra. This was an angry, combative, fearless Rahul Gandhi that left even the leaders on the dais with him looking a little awe-struck.

Priyanka Gandhi Vadera emerged with a strong statement in support of her brother, but against the government and PM Modi. This was followed by a sankalp satyagraha at Raj Ghat where a host of leaders — many not heard from for a long while now — spoke passionately, mincing no words in their attack on the BJP and its leadership. Taking their cue from a strong speech by Priyanka Gandhi Vadera, they recalled the sacrifice and teachings of Gandhi, of Indira Gandhi and Rajeev Gandhi and tore into the allegations against Rahul Gandhi. There was no beating around the bush, it was a clarion call joined even by some Congressmen who had always watched their words and actions in the past.

The entire opposition, including the Trinamool Congress and the Aam Aadmi party, came together against the disqualification of Rahul Gandhi and expressed their support. This has led the Congress President to reach out to the opposition, and move towards discussions that could (or could not for that matter) lead to a broad unity. For this of course, the Congress will have to accept a smaller slice of the cake in states where the regional parties are in charge or have a strong presence. It is imperative that it does not allow arrogance to impede the process of unity, and adopts a magnanimous approach in keeping with the times. Difficult but then it has always been possible, even though the Congress has created a mess of lost opportunity more oft than not.

Regional leaders have always had fragile egos that the Left through Harkishen Singh Surjeet had learnt to deal with. In fact, so had the BJP when L.k.Advani set out to end his party’s isolation and bring in all the regional alliances that stitched together the rather impressive NDA at one point. As did Narendra Modi when he first came to power and reached out to the regions. That he has changed, is another story for another article. But the result is that the smaller parties are looking for coalitions and even those like AAP and TMC who have been asserting their independence, could drift to a Congress led alliance if the larger party is able to deal with them with some level of respect. In short, the search for Opposition unity that has been started by the Congress President lately can yield results with a stress on the ‘give’ rather than the ‘take.’

The Congress still seems to lack an organisation on the ground, which translates really into an inability to mop up the votes. The BJP is far ahead on this, with complete control on its booths and workers. It will have to focus on the states going to the polls in this one year, starting with Karnataka, and strengthen the ground organisation to reflect the determination currently visible at the top. Elections get a boost with perceptions, but can only be won with a solid party structure that is as fired from the inside as the outside.

It is a tough task ahead, and here one is not even writing about the BJP and the many tricks it has up its sleeve. It is facing the first ever real challenge since it came to power at the centre in 2014, but that is all the more reason to expect the party to escalate the counter. Fearlessness is a big weapon in the Congress armoury, and while it is turning the curve the process will only be complete with the strength of a sound machinery.