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Bharat Jodo Yatra has transformed Rahul’s image. But no guarantee of electoral victory

Freed of the burden of having led the party, Rahul has finally let his own personality emerge. He’s putting in the hard work required to change his image.

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Journalists almost never get it right. We keep telling politicians what they are doing wrong. And politicians pay no attention to us because they know that we really don’t understand how the political game is played. (Have you ever wondered why few journalists who enter politics do particularly well?)

So I am pleased to report that I have finally found one instance where Indian journalists were mostly right.

It would be a huge stretch to say that Rahul Gandhi has listened to the journalistic criticism (Rahul is not very big on listening to anyone at all, actually). But certainly the path he is now following is pretty much the route that most columnists have been urging him to take.

And it seems to be working.

For years now, Indian journalists have been making the same points. Rahul Gandhi should not keep calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi a ‘crook’ (as in Chowkidar Chor Hai) because nobody believes him. He should stop going abroad to mystery destinations now and then. He should stop trying to run the Congress party because he is not very good at judging people or at political management. He should stop playing the reluctant heir. If he has stepped down as president (and he said he had after the last general election), then he should let the party elect a new president and get himself out of the Delhi circuit. We know what Rahul thinks the BJP stands for (because he tells us every week), but what does the Congress stand for? What is its message? He needs to tell us that.

And guess what? Rahul has done pretty much everything his critics have said he should do.

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The ‘transformed’ Rahul Gandhi

Whatever you think of Rahul Gandhi as a political leader (and I have been scathing about him over the past few years), it is hard to deny that he is finally doing something that’s working – the Bharat Jodo Yatra. The nationwide walkathon has transformed Rahul’s image and boosted the battered morale of Congress workers. And it has provided a national counterpoint to the politics of the BJP.

This is not the Rahul of caricaturesitting magisterially at home, playing with Pidi (his dog), while regional leaders supplicate before him. This is not the man who makes bizarre personnel decisions from which state units never recover. This is not someone who suddenly disappears to mysterious foreign locations. This is not a person who, when he finally deigned to give an interview, insisted on choosing an interviewer who successfully made him look like an idiot. This is not the Rahul Gandhi who speaks in riddles about the escape velocity of Jupiter or says that India is like a beehive.

Instead, there is a real man, walking among people, reaching out to everyone who wants to join him, demonstrating that he has no need for the trappings of power. (And, a little more curiously, that he has no need for a sweater or a razor either.)

The positioning he has chosen for the Congress is the right one. At a time when there is so much hate, Rahul says the Congress stands for love and unity. It is a positioning nobody can argue with. Who can oppose love?

Intuitively, most of us know that the Bharat Jodo Yatra is working – at least to the extent that it has killed off the “entitled brat” caricature of Rahul and raised his popularity. But we now have more than intuition to go on.

I was listening to Yashwant Deshmukh of C-Voter on Barkha Dutt’s Mojo Story, and he has figures for how the perception of Rahul Gandhi is changing because of the yatra. Congress supporters don’t always like Yashwant because he tells them the truth, and the truth is not always pleasant. But I have always trusted his judgement and taken his figures seriously.

In Karnataka, Rahul Gandhi’s popularity has been growing steadily. A year ago, only 38.8 per cent of voters were satisfied with him. After the yatra, that figure went up to 57.7 per cent. And though the number has dropped slightly once the yatra moved on, it is still at nearly 55.8 per cent. In Madhya Pradesh, 45.7 per cent of voters were satisfied with Rahul a year ago. After the yatra, that figure was 54 per cent. And Rahul’s popularity has kept going up. It is now at 56.3 per cent.

It is the same story in Telangana. A year ago, only 34.6 per cent of voters were satisfied with Rahul. Right after the yatra, that figure was at 55.6 per cent. And it has actually gone up slightly now. In Rajasthan, the figure was 32.8 per cent a year ago. After the yatra, it went up to 40.8 per cent. This is less dramatic than in other states, but the improvement in Rahul Gandhi’s image is undeniable.

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Letting himself loose

What all of this suggests is that Rahul has blossomed since the Congress got a new president in Mallikarjun Kharge. Freed of the burden of having led the party, he has finally let his own personality emerge and put in the hard work (the yatra is a real slog) required to change his image. He has let people see him for who he really is, not through the eyes of an unsympathetic media or the army of trolls who are paid to call him names every day.

All the unusual caveats apply. A successful yatra does not necessarily translate into an electoral victory. Chandra Shekhar embarked on a successful yatra in 1983, only to lose his own Lok Sabha seat the following year. Murli Manohar Joshi went on the Ekta Yatra as BJP president in 1991. The net result was the opposite of what he expected. He did not get a second term as BJP president and spent his political life as a comical also-ran.

So yes, nothing may come of the Bharat Jodo Yatra in electoral terms. We shall have to wait and see. But who can deny that this avatar of Rahul Gandhi inspires his workers and makes the Congress seem like a player again? That alone is more than anyone could have foreseen a year ago.

Vir Sanghvi is a print and television journalist, and talk show host. He tweets @virsanghvi. Views are personal. 

(Edited by Tarannum Khan)

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