Congress president Rahul Gandhi has ‘improved’, but some things about him have not changed.
Everyone agrees that Rahul Gandhi has left his ‘Pappu’ image behind, but has his time really come? If he’s no longer Pappu, what stands between him and the prime minister’s chair?
The driver’s seat
For five long years, January 2013 to December 2017, Rahul Gandhi was the vice-president of the Congress party. This was the period when he was the face of the party without having full control of it. The old guard in the Sonia Gandhi coterie was often wary of Rahul’s radical ideas and his impulsiveness. The resulting confusion meant there were two drivers trying to steer the Congress car.
With Rahul Gandhi becoming party president, there’s clarity in the direction the party is taking on any issue. This alone has made Rahul Gandhi and his team more confident and assertive. The results are showing.
Had it not been for the Sachin Pilot-Ashok Gehlot factionalism, the Congress would have fared much better in the Rajasthan assembly election. Not being able to address the turf war between the two before the elections is Rahul’s failure. But unlike Rajasthan, Rahul Gandhi has been able to bring down factionalism substantially in other states. We have seen the impact of this in Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka and Gujarat.
This has happened partly because he’s more hands-on with decisions about states and electoral strategies than Sonia Gandhi was. By leaving it to her coterie to sort out the nitty-gritty of the issues, Sonia Gandhi would leave the door open for factionalism to the extent that it would hurt the party. The top leaders in Delhi would play favourites with the leaders in the states. Undeserving people would get top positions and election tickets.
Rahul Gandhi has brought in a degree of merit and transparency, whereby positions now go to people who can deliver results, and particularly have a proven track record of being able to win elections. The elevation of Ashok Gehlot and Kamal Nath, both old guard members, showed Rahul Gandhi was valuing those who have the ability to win elections over the superannuated Rajya Sabha types. The AICC is now involved in state elections and strategies more closely.
Modi is very lucky, it has often been said. There are so many unknown unknowns in politics that you have to be lucky for things to come together for you. Lady Luck has favoured Rahul Gandhi in the last two years.
As Modi’s popularity fell from his post-demonetisation high, Nitish Kumar and Arvind Kejriwal also gave up their national ambitions. The more Modi faltered, the more Rahul Gandhi looked like he was improving.
The BJP helped
After the failure of demonetisation and the GST mess, Modi was left with no narrative to sell. All he was left with was – ‘At least I’m better than Congress’. Modi felt he could highlight the contrast between him and Rahul Gandhi and manage to stay afloat.
As part of this strategy, the BJP went on an overdrive attacking the Congress, starting with Nehru and ending with Rahul Gandhi. The way the BJP would do a press conference if Rahul Gandhi so much as sneezed ended up raising his stature in politics. Negative attention is attention, and the BJP has made us all look at Rahul Gandhi more closely. If nothing else, the BJP has made sure that Rahul Gandhi outgrows his Pappu image. The BJP needed Rahul Gandhi more than the Congress!
As the BJP alienated voters, particularly rural voters, what choice did they have but to turn to the only option available, the Congress? Just as a weak Congress made Modi-Shah look like the smartest politicians around, a faltering BJP has infused a fresh life into the Congress. The timing was just right for Rahul Gandhi.
Confidence, coherence and consistency
These days Rahul Gandhi almost sounds cocky. That’s a sea change from the days when he was on the back foot, unable to defend his party’s poor showing in election after election. This was the case until two years ago when the Congress did poorly in Uttar Pradesh despite allying with the Samajwadi Party.
Without electoral successes, Rahul Gandhi has gained political confidence and it shows when he speaks. Confidence is everything when it comes to projecting strength. It shows in Rahul Gandhi’s hug-and-wink at Modi and in his pursuit of the Rafale campaign. The Rafale campaign also showed that Rahul Gandhi has learnt the value of consistency in messaging: keep making a point again and again and it might stick. He goes to temples again and again to make a point.
That’s also how he’s appeared more coherent. We now have a better sense of what exactly the Congress party under Rahul Gandhi is offering and proposing.
Doesn’t know when to end a campaign
While Rahul Gandhi has finally learnt how to mount a campaign, he hasn’t yet realised how to end a campaign. Campaigns must be taken to a peak and ended abruptly to prevent the impression that they fizzled out. And then, one must move on to the next campaign as soon as possible to prevent the opponent from exploiting the vacuum.
Rahul Gandhi achieved a lot with Rafale, but the five state election results told us about what the public mood was really like.
Corruption, inflation or Hindutva was not on top of people’s minds. The public mood reflected dissatisfaction on jobs and handling of the farm crisis. After 11 December results, Rahul Gandhi didn’t need to disown the Rafale campaign, but he could have made it secondary to a campaign against unemployment, which has been emerging as the number one issue this election in surveys and anecdotal evidences.
‘But Rahul is speaking about unemployment,’ his supporters say. Yes, in the way that everybody is. Rahul’s main thrust has remained Rafale. Had Rahul waged a campaign on unemployment and farm distress, he would have been able to look like the one who forced Modi to bring upper caste quota, farmers’ input support scheme and a middle-class tax rebate.
Rahul Gandhi misread the public mood. When it was the economy, Rahul focused on corruption. If Rahul had announced the promise of a minimum income guarantee scheme for the poor in December itself, and propagated it like a campaign, he would have carried forward the 11 December momentum. But now who’s talking about his proposal? Or even him?
Still disappears into nowhere
Another reason why Rahul Gandhi lost the December momentum is that he disappeared – again. It’s bad enough that he thinks he needs to address NRIs in Dubai to win Indian elections, and then he disappears for 10 days, holidaying as he does every January. Work-life balance is definitely more important for Rahul Gandhi than winning elections.
He’s still not a mass leader. For all the improvement in Rahul Gandhi as a leader, one thing that has not changed is that he’s still not seen as a charismatic mass leader. You will not meet, even among the Congress voters, ordinary citizens who will say, ‘Wish Rahul Gandhi could become PM.’
That is why the Congress’ prospects have not risen at the speed with which people have got disenchanted with Modi. Even if Rahul Gandhi becomes a coalition PM with a stroke of good luck, he would be a very weak PM. If Rahul Gandhi had become a charismatic mass leader, we would have been looking at the prospect of the Congress returning to at least its 2004 position (145 seats) if not its 2009 position (206 seats).
Perhaps, Rahul Gandhi’s time hasn’t really come after all.
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