““My name is not Savarkar, my name is Gandhi. Gandhis don't apologise to anyone.” A quiet firm response to a question at his press conference placed Rahul Gandhi in the driver’s seat after he was convicted in a defamation case with the maximum two years imprisonment, and disqualified from Parliament as a direct consequence. Even as the Congress legal luminaries are preparing for a long battle in the courts, the political battle centering around peoples perceptions has begun.

It was a new, angry, combative Rahul Gandhi who emerged from the fires lit over the past days; shooting from the hip, not mincing words. The sweet, gentle persona of “I love everyone, even if you don’t love me” seen through the 4000 plus Km of the Bharat Jodo Yatra was replaced by a determined leader, belching fire, eyes flashing. His fearlessness has the Congress members awestruck in admiration. The line up of the Congress heavyweights at his press conference – Jairam Ramesh, Abhishek Singhvi, Ashok Gehlot who Rahul Gandhi would often turn to for guidance in past similar interactions had nothing to say as he took control of the press conference and gave back better than he got.

Rahul Gandhi brought the entire controversy to two questions as he put it. He said these were the fundamental reasons for the conviction and the disqualification but that he would keep asking the questions regardless of what the ruling party does. These he kept repeating through the short press conference were one, “ Rs 20000 Crores appeared suddenly in Adani's shell companies, whose money is this? And two, “what is the Prime Minister’s relationship with Adani.” He was able to bring the limelight on the two questions, silence those who were raising what he called ‘distractions’, and make it clear that he would continue asking these questions until he got the answers. He said he was here to speak up for the poor, for democracy, and for the people. And will bring truth to the people of India. He repeated that he was not scared, that he did not care what they did, that he had a single focus and would continue on his mission regardless. “I will not stop,” he said.

Rahul Gandhi said ‘that they do not understand me’ and it is clear from the past few days that ‘they’ have miscalculated. The machinery used to silence the Congress leader – courts, conviction, disqualification, and now perhaps through the Election Commission a fresh election for his Wayanad seat– works only if the target is scared and terrified. It does not if the leader facing the browbeating and harassment stands up and insists that he does not care, that he will not stop, that he is not scared. And that losing his parliamentary seat, or being imprisoned, will not deter him.

There have been two major consequences of the developments over the past few days. Instead of reducing Rahul Gandhi to a blip, the court verdict and the rushed disqualification has raised his status as a leader. He has given new direction to the Congress party, an elevation of spirits that is very visible on the social media and the responses of the party leaders alongside. Interestingly, the Bharat Jodo Yatra has been a platform for the restructuring of the Congress party that many seem to have missed. As Rahul Gandhi walked through the country, in heat and cold, without flagging or missing a step (no mean feat this) the party rejuvenated – on the social media it became lethal in its efficiency; on the streets it carried out a huge mass program around the yatra with press conferences, public meetings, and closed door conversations with different groups from all sections. Congress began daily and forceful briefings at the headquarters and the states - so much so that leading light Pawan Khera actually stirred a hornets nest – and its spokespersons changed from the dithering, old faces to dynamic younger leaders who are not intimidated by the BJP counterparts.

In short the presence of the Congress in the media – at least what remains available to it – but more so on the social media rose directly in proportion with the acceptance and admiration for Rahul Gandhi as he showed this gentle, compassionate, pro-people and yet determined persona to the masses across the states. The yatra increased in momentum and ended as planned in Kashmir with huge support.

The subsequent attack on him has thus come at a time when Rahul Gandhi has evolved; and the Congress has found new feet and new teeth as it were. It is no longer the Congress party of 2013-2014 when it was squashed by the BJP that has kept up a steady pressure to achieve its goal of a “Congress mukt bharat.” On the contrary it now seems to be helping bring back the Congress through action that is being absorbed by Rahul Gandhi and his team, and fired back with calibrated strategy. But more of this in a bit.

The conviction and the disqualification, as well as the in and out of Parliament attack would have crushed an ordinary individual into silence. And even the old Rahul Gandhi would have disappeared from view, as he oft did in the initial years after the BJP came to power. The BJP used the same tactics, without the understanding and realisation that it was facing a new Rahul Gandhi and a new Congress party. That both have evolved, the last under the former's direction, and have developed the strength to face such an onslaught.

That Rahul Gandhi has been catapulted to centrestage, not by himself but by the BJP and its leaders. And that he has become an effective receptacle of such reaction, thereby adding to his strength. He has said what he wanted to in his meetings abroad and at the same time made it clear that the solution for the problems would come from within India, not from foreign soil. The troll attack on him - including BJP leaders - did not faze him and as a result the Congress party was able to withstand and counter the offensive in Parliament. Back home he has kept the focus on Adani and the Prime Minister, making it clear at his press conference that the BJP attack is because of his refusal to stop asking the above two questions.

And hence Rahul Gandhi was more than correct when he said that the BJP had through these actions given a ‘weapon’ to the opposition. The response from the entire Opposition of support is in itself an indication of the new recognition. Even West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee who had been speaking against the Congress party till a day before came out in full support. There is now an unvoiced understanding in the Opposition that whether they like it or not, the Congress is central to any fight against the BJP. Interestingly, through the BJY and now Rahul Gandhi has been careful to speak for opposition unity, not attack any party or leader, and make it clear in his answers to all questions that the entire Opposition had the same mission, to get the BJP out of power.

He has kept away from semantics and details on this issue. Even yesterday at his press conference he thanked the opposition leaders for their support and reiterated his commitment to opposition unity. It is apparent now that he is in the driver's seat, and the Congress party has gained tremendously from the fresh BJP offensive. It is working more as a team with voices now heard on the same point and the same agenda from different parts of the country. The party has become more cohesive and stronger, the Family more acceptable even to the Congress, the dissension subdued,almost non-existent under Rahul Gandhi, the Man on Fire!