Well over a decade ago, in the wake of agitations led by Anna Hazare and Arvind Kejriwal, I wrote a piece on Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi. Here were two of India’s more privileged young, the descendants of a political family, who had lost a grandmother and then a father to political violence, unimagined and unimaginable to most of us.

Their grandmother, a former Prime Minister, was shot at point-blank range by the officer responsible for her security. Their father was blown to smithereens by a detonation, when he was campaigning as leader of the Opposition, in a period when he was not in power.

For Priyanka and Rahul, to lose their grandmother and father in a short span of less than eight years, must have been a devastating experience. Young and vulnerable, they remained in the public eye.

People viewed them with suspicion, saw them as entitled and privileged, and wondered with a certain xenophobic tendency, if they were really Indian! So, while the Congress members loved them and rallied around them, both Rahul and Priyanka seemed to be reluctant participants to the political mantle born.

Priyanka, in any case, was not being groomed for political succession. Rahul was the preferred choice in a patriarchal world. Benazir Bhutto, had opined that Priyanka would be a great political asset because she had an energy similar to that of her grandmother.

Priyanka embraced marriage and domesticity, declaring that her brother was very close to their grandmother and a really bright young man, with a great political future ahead of him.

Then the sneering began, because both Rahul and Priyanka were half-Italian in origin and viewed by their enemies as unsuitable to participate in Indian politics. Priyanka was branded as ‘bipolar’ by certain vested interests, and, therefore, not fit for political office. Her Vadra connections were aired out.

Rahul was also branded as a ‘junkie and unintelligent’. Social media was rife with fake accounts of his foreign visits and ‘girlfriend’, poor academic track-record, and reluctance to take on public responsibility within the party. He was also seen as brash and inarticulate.

Here were two good-looking, intelligent, rather humble, young people, introverted, and in positions of privilege, thrust into the limelight, while trying to put their lives together. It is to their credit that they did not take to social media, speaking about their trauma, but continued to live on in India, when every privileged person in their age group was readily migrating abroad to verdant pastures.

Hence, while noticing Rahul’s gaffes in public spaces, I was also struck by the fact that he just sort of trundled on, doing whatever he was doing, and refusing public responsibilities that were being tailor-made for him. Why doesn’t he just go off to Italy or Europe, I often wondered.

Then, Priyanka did a remarkable thing. She visited her father’s assassin in jail and extended forgiveness, an act impossible to perform at any time for pretty much everyone. This was grace under pressure, and these two young people, who, in all fairness, belonged to one of India’s most elite families, continued to intrigue.

When Narendra Modi gained prominence as a national figure, backed by the media and certain capitalists, he began aggressively pitting a determined persona against Rahul’s vacillations. Modi spoke of Rahul derisively from the very outset.

Rahul was never addressed by his own name, monikers such as “hybrid bachda, Pappu” and “shehzada” were created for him.

Modi never showed any graciousness towards a younger political rival, moving in for the kill, as he manipulated public perception about Rahul’s shortcomings.

Rahul was not fluent, he could not bluster. Since he was not the Prime Minister, it became possible to exaggerate every small error he made while speaking, and to edit out altogether the corrections that Rahul made in the course of the same speech.

Therefore, we had a compulsive glossing over of Modi’s national and international gaffes, big, small or shameful, while every slip in Rahul’s speech was highlighted and blown out of proportion.

Well-paid PR agents rushed to cover up Modi’s mammoth blunders, each of which was treated with a typical reaction: “So what… he is vishwaguru.” Meanwhile, every little fumble in Rahul’s diction was presented by the BJP IT cell as evidence of a ‘national disaster’.

Responding to a researcher who was offering solutions to help persons with dyslexia, in a programme aired on national television, the PM asked if such a cure was also available for a 40 or 50 year-old ‘child’, because that would please the mother of such a ‘child’.

Such vulgar insensitivity, both to dyslexic persons and the not-so-veiled barb directed at Rahul and Sonia Gandhi in particular, did not seem to create dismay and disgust. Instead, it drew amused titters from the Hindutva fanatics.

Everyone wanted more of this crass, no-holds-barred, ‘56-inch’ humour loaded with crudity. Yes, this was one of the countless cringe-worthy moments which surfaced abundantly, time and again, over the last ten years.

Proving that Rahul was a ‘national idiot’, by hook or crook, became the favourite media game of the sold-out, utterly shameless, stooge media. Sometimes I wondered if the need to repeatedly pull down Rahul, since he was available as a soft target, was schadenfreude after all.

Rahul became the predictable bulls-eye target for all and sundry, branded the ‘Pappu’ of 21st Century India. His mother was a foreigner, whom the PM, yet again with brazen crudity, referred to as “Congress ki Vidhva”, and a “jersey cow”. Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi were mocked because their ancestors were not working class and did not know how to dig ditches!

Public contempt was deliberately and skillfully manufactured against both, and especially Rahul. Later, Rahul has said casually, that millions have been spent by the Hindutva apparatus to brand him as a ‘Pappu’, to troll him routinely, to denigrate him willfully, and to assassinate his reputation and character.

All kinds of bizarre, fake and malicious stories were spread about his ancestry, about his grandmother’s character, and their great grandfather’s non-Hindu origins.

Two dead prime ministers were tirelessly flogged, to generate obscene political currency, and, unlike the flogging of a dead horse, the fact that they were Rahul Gandhi’s ancestors, provided sufficient grist to mindless Whatsapp scoops. Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first PM and a freedom fighter who spent years in jail, was ‘Chacha Nehru’ to generations. He was routinely reviled as public villain number one, since 2014.

A poorly educated premier who was an Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) pracharak, with an infamous track-record as Chief Minister of a state, denied a United States visa for many years after the Gujarat genocide of 2002, routinely rubbed and drubbed the faces of two young persons in the mud, tarring them and crowing over their unsuitability. Rahul became the most malleable putty in Modi’s hands.

Rahul was targeted without provocation, relentlessly, for almost a decade. The media, the enforcement directorate, sectarian urban citizens, pretty much everyone, trained their guns on him.

At the university where I teach, many of my students are now as old as Rahul Gandhi, if not older. They come from places of privilege and many have broken down and had meltdowns (earlier, these were not acceptable processes; now, letting it all hang out is the recommended process).

Many of them have also turned their lives round. Yet, they managed to do this in anonymity. None of them have lived their adult lives under constant public scrutiny and manufactured, continuous, hatred and vilification.

Many young people, as well as ordinary folks, dismissed Rahul Gandhi and wrote him off because of Modi’s campaign on his alleged incompetence. Until he went on a long, long march, and walked thousands of miles, from Kanyakumari to Kashmir, against all odds, and with the stooge media refusing to cover this historic feat.

He undertook a ‘padyatra’ and travelled the length and then the breadth of India on two consecutive journeys, while being derided on the Whatsapp university and by the ruling regime.

A section of the big media, mostly, ignored him, and this incredible, ‘Bharat Jodo Yatra’ spanning several states, through small towns and villages, and with thousands joining it, especially women and children.

The beautiful idea of India, full of love, and not hate, in a realm of vicious hate politics manufactured by the ruling apparatus, was ignored by the stooge media. The idea of a secular and harmonious India, that was dreamed up and then patted into shape, was seen as too little, too late.

The slogan was: ‘Nafrat ke bazaar mein, mohabbat ki dukaan’ (In a market replete with hate, here is a shop selling love). Said Rahul Gandhi, not once, but many times, in an atmosphere loaded with the fear of the agencies and police: “Daro Mat!” (Don’t be afraid!)

The newspapers and television channels worked in ritualistic tandem to make the hugely successful long march invisible. Indeed, the first and immediate outcome of the Bharat Jodo Yatra was the huge victory of the Congress in the Karnataka Assembly polls, which followed soon after, and the decisive defeat of the Bharatiya janata Party (BJP).

Consequently, after the explosive findings of the Hindenburg Report, Rahul Gandhi took the fight against crony capitalism to another level. He openly exposed the nexus between Adani and Modi, in Parliament.

He was therefore quickly debarred from Parliament, using a lame, forgotten case in Gujarat. He was shunted out of his official residence, his every word was monitored, and there were widespread reports that they might pack him off to prison to prevent him from fighting the elections.

The decision of the Gujarat High Court was stayed by the Supreme Court, probably, the only reprieve that Rahul received in his political life.

And, yet, Rahul plodded on, believing perhaps in himself and in the handful of trusted friends and allies that remained in the Congress. He was a key figure in the consolidation of the I.N.D.I.A bloc.

Rahul made the Congress flexible and open-ended. He and his party gave due respect and space to the political parties which were powerful in the regions. The Bharat Jodo Yatra, and the 2024 elections, thereby, breathed life into the dying carcass of the Congress, resurrected the united Opposition, and this has been a remarkable achievement.

So, how should we view Rahul’s victory in Raebareli? And the victory of his long-time associate, Kishore Lal Sharma, in Amethi?

Sharma’s immediate opponent had made Rahul the object of her hatred over the years. Rahul had chosen to totally ignore her. Sharma beat Smriti Irani hands down, sending a clear message to Modi.

She was one of the several Union ministers who lost in their constituency. Rahul won with a huge margin, sending a message across UP, while his coinage, ‘khatakhat’ and ‘phataphat’ was on every lips in Raebareli.

Rahul Gandhi is now back in Parliament as Leader of the Opposition (LoP). There is now a viral Youtube video of his first, stunningly brilliant speech in Parliament, which hugely elevated the level of discourse in the Lok Sabha after a very long time.

To hear him speak with lucidity and so comfortably, expound complex aspects of Hinduism, and explain religious symbols, was a treat. More telling were the shocked expressions of utter disbelief and total defeat on the faces of senior party members in the government, especially that of Modi and Amit Shah.

Here was a person they had vilified, for more than a decade, who was explaining with profound lucidity, aspects of the religion that they had distorted into an instrument of hate and violence. Frustration was written all over their faces.

Their objections lacked character or confidence, were exaggerated, and totally off-point. Nowhere in his speech did Rahul Gandhi accuse all Hindus of violence. When Modi retaliated, albeit weakly, that he is denigrating all Hindus, Rahul was quick to respond saying that Narendra Modi does not represent the entire ‘Hindu samaj’.

Rahul pointed out that the BJP’s use of violence and generation of fear psychosis was most ‘un-Hindu’ and this knowledge exists in the public domain.

All those who had sneered at Rahul Gandhi in the past, and smirked at perceived and projected incompetence, will yet discover a deeply sensitive, refined mind; a brave and fearless person; and a man who is humble, rooted, has a vision,and is in love with his country.

They will thus deem it fortuitous that the orchestrated hatred built to destroy him, has not damaged him one bit. Instead, it has made him stronger, stoic and resilient.

Rahul Gandhi is a worthy leader of the Opposition, and earnestly takes on a much needed role when our secular and democratic social fabric has been so terribly damaged.

Perhaps, we should take our democratic responsibilities seriously and closely examine the demonisation of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, and the ‘dumbification’ of Rahul Gandhi, for well over a decade.

Let us also look carefully at how much our institutions, legal, educational, financial and economic, have shrunk and dwindled over the last decade. Let us all relearn that for any democracy to thrive, dissent is a fundamental right, that we must work hard at to nourish.

More humans with big hearts and fine minds are the need of the hour. We require people who are kind, exercise tolerance, appreciate contrary opinions, and listen to the ‘mann ki baat’ of their fellow citizens, allowing for creative dialogue and an exchange of ideas in a free space.

This tribe needs to grow, multiply and increase, and thereby a truly ‘New India’ will yet again resurrect, from the ashes and ruins of a defeated Hindutva establishment.

Ratna Raman is Professor, Department of English, Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University. Views expressed are the writer’s own.